James ‘Jim’ Clark, Formula One racing driver, died in an accident at the Hockenheimring circuit, in Germany, on the 7th of April, 1968.
Jim Clark may have been the most naturally talented driver to have graced Formula One. When the sport he loved took Clark's life, the racing world mourned the loss of one of its best loved champions. Nearly invincible in a racing car, he was always an unassuming and reluctant hero. Clark was a driving genius and few champions were as dominant. Fewer still are remembered so fondly.
His early introduction to driving was not unusual in Scotland, or any other farming community, come to that. It is legal (it certainly was at any rate), for those under the age of seventeen, to be allowed to drive farm tractors on private farm land and Jim was no exception. He got his driver's license on his 17th birthday, by which time he was working full time on his father’s farm.
His introduction to professional racing came about after Lotus founder Colin Chapman saw him race at Brands Hatch, with his first races for Team Lotus taking place in 1960. His first two seasons introduced him to the carnage of Formula One with the deaths of both team mates and adversaries, which nearly put him off the sport forever. However, he was persuaded to stay on by Chapman, whose brilliance as a designer was to be equalled by the genius of his star driver.
Clark won the World Championship for Chapman’s Lotus, in 1963, when he stormed to victory in seven of the championship races, and again, in 1965, when he won six of the 10 races. His dominance was only interrupted by mechanical problems, being twice deprived of the title, in 1962 and 1964, by oil leaks. He nearly left Lotus after a less than competitive 1966 season, however the Clark and Chapman partnership returned to form in 1967, albeit Clark didn’t win the title that year.
A victory in the first Grand Prix in the year of his tragic accident, 1968, brought Clark’s total of victories to 25, eclipsing the legendary Juan Manuel Fangio’s record. By then he had achieved thirty-three Grand Prix pole positions, from a total of seventy-two races, more than any other driver. He also competed in the Indianapolis 500 a total of five times, winning it once, and becoming the first Briton to do so, in 1965.
His total of career wins has since been surpassed by only five drivers (Jackie Stewart, Nigel Mansell, Alain Prost, Michael Schumacher and Aryton Senna), all of whom benefited from a much longer season (quite apart from the fact that Clark invariably didn’t race Formula One in May, preferring instead, to go to Indianapolis). Statistically, Clark remains one of the all time best, more than forty years after his death. Perhaps the single fact that illustrates Clark’s dominance is that only once did he finish second; in other words, if he made it to the flag, he invariably made it before anybody else.
Jim Clark was thirty-two when he was killed at the wheel of his Lotus-Cosworth, during a Formula Two race at Hockenheim. His car left the track at 170mph, somersaulted through the air and collided with a tree on a remote part of the German track. He sustained a broken neck and a fractured skull, and was dead before he reached hospital.
The cause of the accident has never been satisfactorily explained, although experts have suggested it could have been a fault in the steering mechanism or rear axle suspension. The only witness to the accident was a track marshal who said, “I was horror struck. Everything happened so fast. The car skidded off to the left and seemed to dive through the fence only 10 yards from me. It went skidding and somersaulting across the grass and hit a tree with a tremendous thump. The car seemed to be in a thousand pieces.”
Fellow Scot, Jackie Stewart, said at the time, “Jimmy's death is probably the most tragic thing in my experience of motor racing – probably in the history of motor-racing. Jimmy was not only a famous driver, he was an international personality, loved by all his fiercest rivals.”
James Clark was born in Kilmany, in Fife, in March, 1936, and brought up on the family farm in the Berwickshire hills, near the border with England. His roots were a world away from international motorsport, a subject he first read about in books and magazines when he went to a private school, in Edinburgh, at the age of thirteen. This heritage played an important role throughout his life as on his gravestone, according to his wish, he is commemorated first as a farmer, then as a racing driver.
James Clark was buried in the village of Chirnside, in Berwickshire, and a life size statue of him in racing overalls stands in memoriam in the village of his birth. He was made an OBE, for his services to motor racing, in 1964.