Listed as “One of the greatest ever Formula 1 drivers” by The Times, Jim Clark’s story is a short but impressive one.
The youngest of five children and the only boy, Clark grew up in a farming family in Fife, Scotland before he went to a prep school near Edinburgh. By the time he was twenty two, Clark – against his parents’ wishes – was competing in local rally and hill climb events driving his own Sunbeam-Talbot as well as racing Jaguar D-Types and Porsches nationally for the local Border Reivers team. This is where his winning streak began.
On Boxing Day 1958, he drove a Lotus Elite against Colin Chapman in a ten lap GT race at Brands Hatch. Chapman won the race with Clark just behind him in second. Driving the same car, the following year, Clark finished in tenth place at Le Mans and then went on to win the Bo’ness Hill Climb. Impressed with Clark, Chapman gave him a drive in one of his Formula Junior cars and, in March 1960, Clark took part in the first race for the Formula Junior series at Goodwood driving a Lotus Ford. He won the race, beating John Surtees in a Cooper B.M.C.
Jim then went on to make his Lotus F1 debut halfway through the 1960 season at Zandvoort on 6th June. He replaced Surtees in the team who had gone to race motorbikes on the Isle of Man. He retired on lap 49 of the race with a mechanical failure but his time in F1 was far from over.
His second F1 race at Spa in Belgium, however, gave Clark a serious reality check. Stirling Moss and Mike Taylor were seriously injured during practise and then there were two fatal accidents during the race itself. Clark scored his first points in the race as he finished fifth but admitted to being ‘scared stiff’ for the duration of the race.
The following year, Clark was involved in one of the worst accidents in F1 history. This occurred at Monza where Wolfgang von Trips (great name) collided with Clark’s Lotus. Von Trip’s Ferrari became airborne before crashing into a side barrier, killing Von Trips and fifteen spectators.
Clark won the 1963 Belgian Grand Prix in extremely foggy and rainy conditions. Starting from eighth, he overtook all the cars in front of him, including race leader Graham Hill. By lap 17 of the race, Clark had not only lapped the entire field bar Bruce McLaren, but was almost five minutes ahead of McLaren. This would be the first of seven victories for Clark and Lotus that year. It is particularly impressive when this record of seven wins would not be beaten for another twenty one years, until Alain Prost beat it racing for McLaren. Senna would go on to beat that record – again racing for McLaren – but that was not until 1988. Furthermore, Clark’s record is even more stunning when compared to Prost and Senna because the 1963 Championship only consisted of ten races, giving Clark a 70% success rate – compared to Prost (43.75%) and Senna (50%) who competed in sixteen F1 races in their respective years.
So, driving the Lotus 25, Jim Clark secured his first Formula 1 Driver’s Title and won Lotus their first Constructor’s Championship. Clark also won Rookie of the Year when he finished second in his first Indy 500 race, coming second to the American Parnelli Jones.
In 1964, he missed out on winning the Driver’s Title because of an engine oil leak. He managed to rectify this for 1965 however where he won it for a second time. He also won the Indy 500, leading 190 of the 200 laps at a ridiculous average speed of over 150mph, becoming the first non-American to win the race in almost half a century. He drove the first mid-engined car at this race and also became the first F1 Champion to win both the Indy 500 and the F1 title in the same year.
At the same time, Clark was also competing in the Australasia based Tasman series that was run for older F1 cars, he became Champion in this category in 1965, 1967 and 1968 driving for Louts and winning a total of fourteen races – a record for the series. His most notable win came at the 1968 Australian Grand Prix at the Sandown International Raceway in Melbourne where he beat Chris Amon in the Ferrari 246T by just 0.1 seconds. It’s the closest finish in the history of the Australian Grand Prix.
In 1966, the FIA decreed that new 3 litre engine regulations would come into force and as a result of this, Clark didn’t score points until the British Grand Prix. From the Italian Grand Prix onwards, Lotus switched their 2-litre Coventry Climax engine for BRM H16 engine in the Lotus 43 car. With this new engine, Clark won the U.S Grand Prix.
During 1967, Lotus and Clark used three completely different cars and engines. Beginning with the Lotus 43 in South Africa but after a poor performance, they switched to an older Lotus 33 for the Monaco Grand Prix – retiring with suspension failure. Then they began their relationship with Cosworth-Ford. Their third car, the Lotus 49 featured one of the most successful engines in F1 history, the DFV and with it Clark won the Dutch, British, U.S and Mexican Grand Prix. He also won the 1968 opening Grand Prix in South Africa with that engine.
Clark proved his capabilities at the 1967 Grand Prix in Monza. Starting from pole, he suffered a puncture and was a lap down after having his wheel changed in the pits. He re-joined in sixteenth place before tearing through the field to equal his pole position time of 1m 28.5 seconds, unlapping himself and retaking the lead. Unfortunately, his car hadn’t been fuelled enough for such a performance, so Clark ended up coasting over the finishing line in third place. This drive showcased his skills and quietened any doubters about what Clark could do when he was behind the wheel.
On 7th April 1968, during a Formula 2 Deutschland Trophy Race at the Hockenheim Ring racing for Lotus, Jim Clark was killed in a racing accident. The event was run over two heats and five laps into the first, Clark’s Lotus 48 veered off the track and crashed into the trees,. He suffered from a broken neck and a skull fracture. He died before he reached the hospital. The cause of the crash was never definitively identified with some debate afterwards contributing it to driver error – but many drivers including John Surtees and Jack Brabham were not convinced of this. Investigators concluded that the crash was most likely caused by a deflating rear tyre.
Colin Chapman was devastated by the death and publicly stated that he had lost his best friend. Graham Hill – Clark’s teammate – went on to win the 1968 Drivers’ Title and dedicated it to Clark. There is a large memorial to Clark at Hockenheim today as well as a life size statue of him in racing overalls in Fife where he is buried.
Jim Clark equalled Alberto Ascari’s record for highest percentage of possible championship points (100%) and in 1963, led 71.47% of the laps, including winning the Dutch Grand Prix by more than a lap. He also currently holds the record for most Grand Slams – taking pole, fastest lap, race win and leading every lap of the race in eight races. He achieved thirty three pole positions and won twenty five races from his seventy two race starts in Championship races.
In his memory, the Jim Clark Memorial Award is given annually by the Association of Scottish Motoring Writers to Scots who have contributed significantly to transport and motor sport. He was also an inaugural inductee into the Scottish Sports Hall of Fame in 2002.
Do you think that Jim Clark was one of the greatest F1 drivers? What is your favorite moment from his career in motor sport? Let me know in the comments below.