Sunday, April 6, 2008

Jim Clark: The Greatest F1 Driver Ever

Lotus 22, 1962

It's 40 years to the day since Jim Clark was killed at Hockenheim, in an inconsequential Formula 2 race he entered just to keep Firestone happy. Although I was only 10 years old at the time, I still remember hearing the news and feeling, perhaps for the first time, a real sense of loss that, even to this day, I have never forgotten. We'd recently got a small black and white television and my dad and I would always watch whatever racing was being shown.

Deadly crashes were, alas, a regular & accepted part of motor sport in those days, but somehow Jim Clark seemed above all that, his skills and abilities seeming to be enough just by themselves to keep him safe. Clark had never had an injury, and on several occasions, including one of the worst crashes in the history of F1 (Monza, 1961), he seemingly miraculously missed being caught in accidents that took the lives of other world-class drivers as well as spectators.

Clark was a particularly British hero, able to take race wins one after another seemingly with complete ease. There was no bravado or bragging, just a shy smile as they hung yet another garland round his neck. Throughout his career Jim Clark proved he could drive anything. He competed - and won - in saloon cars, making the reputation of the Lotus Cortina as a cult classic by taking the 1964 British Touring Car Championship and also campaigning it in the 1966 RAC Rally of Great Britain. Add to that his victories in the Indy series, including the Indy 500 (1965), as well as NASCAR, and it's clear his was a rare talent, even when set aside the other greats of his day like Surtees, Gurney, Hill and Stewart.

I had a small slot-car race track at home, and Clark's Lotus 43 was my favourite. Even today, it remains the iconic single-seat racer. Together with Colin Chapman & Graham Hill, the Lotus team became the cornerstone of British Grand Prix success, founding a racing marque that redefined the single seat racing car. The first key Lotus innovation - the monocoque chassis - meant that cars could now be lighter and stronger. It also paved the way for the second key development, namely the application of aerodynamics to racing cars, something that changed forever the shape of Formula 1 racing that point onwards.

Somewhere, and I don't now remember where, I read that the local Scottish police where he grew up would follow him along country roads in order to see the line he was taking in order to help improve their own high-speed pursuit skills. Hard to see that happening in this day and age.

The only other driver of the modern era that compares would be Ayrton Senna. Both were uniquely gifted; both could drive anything they were given and win, and in their time each of them also drove for Lotus. Alas, they also shared one other characteristic: both of them died racing.

Formula 1 today is, thankfully, safer than it has ever been. Despite some huge crashes over the past few seasons, serious injuries are rare. Even so, the decades took their toll and we lost many great and brave individuals. However, for whatever reason, Clark remains the one that for me epitomises the bravery and courage of a those who reach the peak of this singularly dangerous profession, and who paid the ultimate price to an industry that only recently put safety at the forefront of their thinking, design and practice.

Jim Clark, born 1936, died 1968.


raceman_usa said...

I agree 100%. I just read a survey in The Daily Mail where the readers listed Nigel Mansell( a great driver and sportsman) ahead of Clark and Moss. Give me a break. All those respondents must be under 35, and don't read! I am old enough to have seen films of Clark racing and read about his achievements in such periodicals as Road & Track. Nobody including Senna is worthy of carrying Jim Clark's ditty bag! I think ( from what I have read) the only driver to compare to Clark in driving skill would have to be Fangio. By the way, you are fortunate to come from a country that boasts some of the all time greats in road racing. All we have( w/ all due respect to Phil Hill and Andretti - great drivers in their own right) is Dan Gurney, whom I would promote(I admit he is my personal favorite)as one of the top 10 in driving skill.

J said...

Thanks. I really do hope the USA gets its act together once again around open-wheeled racing because, as you rightly point out, some of the original F1 legends came from the racing series here in the States. Personally, though, I'm not convinced that just re-connecting Indy and IRL will do much to fix things, and that's a great shame.