Page 42, May 2008
"He was everyone's hero wasn't he?"
It was his character as much as his skill behind the wheel that made Jim Clark the drivers' driver
By Nigel Roebuck
I was at Brands Hatch when I heard about Jimmy. The first hour or so of the BOAC 500 had been rousing, with Bruce McLaren’s new Ford F3L unexpectedly holding off the legion of Porsches, but now the race had gone flat: McLaren was out, and the day had settled into an endurance sports car grind.
We had been talking about Jimmy. As that red and gold Ford had flown by time after time, we’d lamented the fact that, originally down to drive the car, he wasn’t here. Instead he was at Hockenheim, a circuit where only bravery and horsepower were required, where the best driver on earth was just another number on a cockpit side. What a waste of his time, we said.
I wandered off to the book shop. “Heard about Clark?” someone said. I said no, what about Clark? “He’s been killed this morning — in Germany...” That voice is sharp in my mind even now, 40 years on.
At about the same moment Brian Redman was about to take over from Jacky Ickx in one of John Wyer’s Ford GT40s. “Jacky did the first stint, as usual, and he was due in. I had my helmet on, ready to go — and just then a journalist came up to me, and said, ‘Have you heard? Jimmy’s been killed...’
“I could hardly take it in. Jimmy was my hero — he was everyone’s hero, wasn’t he? And it wasn’t just his fantastic driving ability, but also his general demeanour. He was a quiet man, with a lovely sense of humour — not a bit pushy.”
Once in the car, though, Redman necessarily put thoughts of Clark from his mind. “You just had to get on with it, and concentrate on what you were doing. And the thing was, it didn’t have the shock effect it would today, because it happened so often back then...”
So it did. “In ’68,” said Chris Amon, “we had that dreadful ‘seventh of the month’ thing that began in April with Jimmy.”
The following month Mike Spence was killed in practice at Indianapolis (where, ironically, he was replacing Clark in one of the Lotus turbine cars); in June Lodovico Scarfiotti died in a Porsche at the Rossfeld hillclimb, and on July 7 Jo Schlesser perished in the flames of his Honda during the French Grand Prix at Rouen.
“A month after that,” said Amon, “we were at the Nürburgring, and it was just like Hockenheim, wet as hell — and also foggy. It was August the fourth or something, and I recall being relieved that it wasn’t the seventh. We were starting to get jittery...”
On the day of Clark’s death an announcement was made over the Brands PA system, but this was much later in the day, and by then I had long since left, having no further enthusiasm for the BOAC 500, knowing what I knew. As I drove back into London, a scratchy French radio station finally made it real: ‘un grand champion est mort aujourd’hui...’
Twenty years on, I was at Silverstone, interviewing Alain Prost. It was midweek, and he was testing alone. At lunch we did the tape, and then there was a cloudburst. With time to kill, we stayed in the small McLaren motorhome, and fell to talking about heroes. Prost, who had idolised Clark, was 13 at the time of his death. “I thought Jim was fantastic,” he said. “So much better than everyone else, so smooth, so easy. That’s something I have always admired — a guy is really quick, but doesn’t look it. Stewart was the same.”
And you, I ventured. Alain made a face. “No, really, I think Jim Clark was someone special. For me, the best ever...”
His contemporaries thought so, too. For them, the fact of his death was almost beyond comprehension. “Quite often,” said Amon, “people used to get killed in those days. But when it happened to Jimmy, we were all shattered. Everyone loved him, and of course we grieved — but there was another dimension as well, a selfish thing, if you like. The realisation that even Clark was not immune was a shock.
“Jimmy’s death frightened us. I think we all felt that. It seemed we’d lost our leader.” It was a perilous thing to be a racing driver in those days, but no-one ever expected it to happen to Clark. Go to the Gates often enough, the saying goes, and eventually they will open, but Jimmy never seemed anywhere near them. When you saw him sideways, you assumed he was having fun, rather than correcting a mistake. He was that good.”
Some will argue that racing in Clark’s era was less competitive than it is now, and it is undeniable that usually Colin Chapman provided him with the best car. But equally beyond doubt is that he was consummately the greatest of his generation. He was never better than in 1965, when there were 10 races in the World Championship, a driver’s six best results to count. At the Nürburgring Clark won his sixth Grand Prix of the year, and thus clinched the title by early August. The German race was actually round seven, but a clash of commitments had kept Jimmy away from Monaco. He was in Indianapolis that weekend, winning the 500. Never in Formula 1 did Clark drive anything but a Lotus, and his working relationship with Chapman was as potent as Grand Prix racing has known. It wasn’t that Jimmy was a particularly ‘technical’ driver, but there existed a sort of telepathy between himself and Chapman: a few words from him about the car’s behaviour, and Colin knew what to do. On the occasions when the handling remained off — as was quite often the case with the Lotus 49 in 1967 — such was Clark’s genius that he simply adapted his style to compensate. It wouldn’t work in today’s F1 world, but in those less sophisticated times the driver had more to say. Jimmy won 25 of his 72 Grands Prix; only once did he finish second. Even a decade and more after the Hockenheim race, Chapman still found it difficult to accept the fact of Clark's death. “For me,” he said, almost in a whisper, “he will always be the best. I’m sure in time someone else will come along and everyone’ll hail him as the greatest ever. But not me. For me, there will never be another in Jimmy’s class.” These days, of course, Grand Prix drivers are just that, never racing in other than F1. But Clark excelled in everything. “I think only Dan Gurney was a serious rival in F1,” Chapman said, “but think of Indy, of the sports cars, F2, the saloon car races with the Lotus Cortina...
“Once or twice Jimmy talked about retiring, and it gave me mixed feelings. The idea of going racing without him was almost unthinkable, but at the same time I loved him as a human being, and didn’t want him to get hurt.”
You could never confuse Chapman with an overly compassionate man, but clearly the quiet fellow from the Scottish border country laid claim to a place alone in his thoughts. “Yes,” he agreed. “Jimmy had more effect on me than anyone else I’ve known. Apart from his genius as a driver, and his association with Lotus, he was genuinely a good man. Intelligent, honest — in many ways rather humble. I’ve never felt quite the same about racing since ’68.”
It was a side of Chapman I had never seen before, nor ever would again. We were in his office at Ketteringham Hall, and at one point he almost broke down. When his secretary came in with tea he turned away, pretending to look for something while composing himself. Although Clark scored all but a handful of his 25 Grand Prix victories in the 1.5-litre F1 of 1961-65, when I think of him, and the life which late he led, he is always in a Lotus 49, during the unforgettable season of 1967.
Whatever the rules of his time, though, Jimmy would still have dominated. I saw many of his races in the Lotus 25 and 33, and the race was always for second, behind this green metronome ticking off the laps. At Spa – the old Spa – he won four years on the trot, although he loathed the place. He had good reason to loathe it, too. In the Belgian Grand Prix of 1960, only the second F1 race of his life, he almost ran over the body of Chris Bristow, thrown from his somersaulting car at Burnenville. A few minutes later Clark’s team-mate Alan Stacey was killed at Malmedy. These were dark images of Spa-Francorchamps which remained with Jimmy, and it was a mark of the man that he never allowed them to dilute his performances there. Similarly, if truth be told, at first he didn’t care for Indianapolis. Initially, in 1963, it was an adventure, an opportunity to drive a single-seater of real power and substance. He finished second that year, beaten only by Parnelli Jones, a certain ignorance of the Brickyard rulebook and a chunk of Hoosier establishment prejudice. Still, he gained everyone’s respect not least because he didn’t make a fuss. Jones’s roadster had been dropping so much oil that Clark's lightweight Lotus, then the fastest car in the race, fell back on the slick surface. Parnelli should have had the black flag, and had their roles been reversed, assuredly Jimmy would have. But while Eddie Sachs, who crashed on the oil in the late laps, got into a fight with PJ afterwards (a short-sighted decision), Jimmy kept his peace. Two years later he won the 500 and Parnelli was second.
“At first,” said the lamented Jabby Crombac, a close friend of both Clark and Chapman, “Jimmy didn't like the ambience at Indy at all. Those were different days, and he was very ‘correct’: he would walk into the garage area, and people would come up and talk to him, without having been introduced to him first!
“It was the same with Colin in fact, he would go as far as saying, ‘In my country, you don’t talk to people until you’ve been introduced to them!’ It also infuriated him that they called Indianapolis the ‘World Capitol of Auto Racing’...
“Jimmy was upset by his rookie test, too. He had almost won the World Championship the year before, and it offended him to have to drive so many laps at 100mph, then 110, or whatever it was. It made him really furious!
“The Americans were very friendly, but at the same time they were trying everything to screw Team Lotus. In qualifying, for example, there are certain procedures when you line up in the pits and they made sure Lotus didn’t know these procedures properly. So there was a general air of crusade within Team Lotus, and Jimmy was very much a part of that.
“That first year, I shared a room at the Speedway Motel with Jimmy, Colin and Cyril Aubrey, the timekeeper! Jimmy and Colin had the two beds, Cyril had a cot, and I slept on a blanket on the carpet! There was nothing else – it was that or sleeping in the car. We were new to the place, you see, and could only get one room. The mechanics were in dormitories. The next four years we were at the Holiday Inn, across from the track.”
Another man close to Clark was the late Fleet Street journalist Patrick Mennem. “One day,” he told me, “I got a call from Jimmy: ‘I’m at the airport. Can you come out here and meet me?’ And when I got there, he was morose, and drinking brandy. ‘I’m flying to Indianapolis,’ he said, ‘and I really don’t want to go. All that fuss I can’t face it...” He had simply wanted to talk. Mennem told him he should follow his instincts, at which Clark, an amateur in spirit but a pro who kept his word, gave him a resigned smile, and went off to get his flight. “That was the second year, 1964,” said Crombac. “Jimmy nearly didn’t go, because his mother was scared of Indy. But from then on he started liking it more and more, because he got familiar with it. He got used to the way of thinking, the way of behaving, and became much more amenable to it and he’d also realised that financially it was a very good deal!
“Jimmy enjoyed driving at Indianapolis, although it never thrilled him the way, say, the Nürburgring did. But he knew it was a challenge, and he always revelled in a challenge.”
This always seemed to me proof of Clark’s real stamp. Plenty of front-running F1 drivers have failed at Indianapolis over the years. For Jimmy it was simply another race. In the same way, he adapted without problem to the Lotus 49 and its new Cosworth DFV engine, which he drove for the first time in practice for the 1967 Dutch Grand Prix. The DFV may have had more power than other engines of the time, but in its early days the power delivery was like an on-off switch. Add to that the wilful nature of the original 49 chassis — and then recall that Jimmy ran away with the race. Recall, too, that at the Nürburgring he took pole position by nine seconds. He lived in Parisian tax exile that last summer of his life, sharing a flat with Crombac, and commuting to all the European Grands Prix in his yellow Elan. That was the whole thing about Jimmy — he adored driving for the sake of it, and could never resist any car which sparked his interest. “Oh,” said Jackie Stewart, “Jimmy would drive things I wouldn’t even look at! There was a historic race at Rouen one year, and there he was, driving Pat Lindsay’s ERA — faster than Pat himself! We’d go and do the Tasman Series over the winter, and you’d find all kinds of weird and wonderful ‘specials’ down there, which he delighted in sampling. He just could not help himself. After Mexico, the last race in ’67, we all came back to Europe, but Jimmy went off and did a NASCAR race at Rockingham! It amazed me that Colin let him do these things...
“The truth is that, in a car, Jimmy liked to show off a bit, which was in total contrast to his normal character. He dreaded making speeches, for example, and you had to push him into a VIP lounge at an airport. ‘Don’t you understand,’ I’d say, ‘that these things make travelling a bit easier to take?’, and he’d agree. But he’d never do it on his own.”
When Clark went into F1 his original intention was to race for three or four years, then return for good to Scotland, to the family farm at Chirnside. Many of his friends expected that he would quit at the end of 1965, the season of his second World Championship and the Indy win, that he would marry Sally Stokes, his long-time girlfriend, and depart the scene. In the event it was the relationship which came to an end, and afterwards Jimmy seemed more than ever committed to racing.
“A lot of people have said he was thinking seriously about stopping,” said Stewart, “but I knew that wasn’t the case. I also know he was never going back to farming again — not full time, anyway. That period of living in Paris changed him quite a bit. Out of a car he was still nervous in some ways — did you ever see his fingernails? — but he’d got used to quite a sophisticated way of life, and he liked it.”
Perhaps he never would have settled permanently in Berwickshire again, but there is no doubt that, like most men in exile, he fed on dreams of home. Through that last summer he was able to visit Britain only once, for Silverstone and another memorable win.
“By the following April,” Amon remembered, “Jimmy’s year of tax exile was up, and right after the Hockenheim F2 race he was due to go back to Scotland. He hadn’t been home for a long time, and he couldn’t wait — in fact, he was very uptight that whole weekend. I was close to him, but it was difficult to communicate with him at Hockenheim.
“I’m not suggesting he had any sort of premonition of disaster — such as Bandini, I’m sure, did — just that he was preoccupied. We’d both done the Tasman Series, and I think, like me, he was very tired, and really didn’t want to do that race.
“It was misty, wet and miserable on race morning. I was next to Jimmy on the grid, and we talked briefly before the start — we both knew we were wasting our time, because the Firestone ‘wets’ were useless. Once we got started, Jimmy was about the same distance in front of me every lap, but he was only about eighth, and not making any ground — that’s how I knew how bad the Firestones were! “Then one lap I noticed some dirt at the side of the road, and next time round saw a stretcher coming over the fence. It was flat out at that point, with no barriers, just trees, and it was fairly obvious if you went off there was no way of getting out of it. But it never entered my head it might be Jimmy, because that Lotus was still in the same place, ahead of me. Turned out that on the lap Jimmy crashed, Graham Hill made a pitstop, and rejoined in the same place, relative to me.
“At the end of the race I complained to Forghieri about the tyres, pointing out that even Clark hadn’t been able to get anywhere. And Mauro said, ‘Oh, Jimmy didn’t finish...’ I saw the look on his face, and then I remembered the dirt at the trackside...
“The following morning was sunny and beautiful, and I went off to Pontresina for a holiday — just to get away from motor racing for a while. There were stories at the time that I was thinking of quitting. Not true, but it was never the same for me after that.”
Amon, like Stewart, like most drivers who knew Clark, loves to talk about him: “I’ve often wondered what Jimmy would have made of modern F1, with sponsorship and PR appearances and no driving anything else. Somehow I don’t think it would have been his thing — at all.”
At Jarama, the first Grand Prix following Clark’s death, the sole Lotus entry was in the red, white and gold colours of the team’s new sponsor. Jimmy’s last Grand Prix win, at Kyalami on New Year’s Day, came at the wheel of a 49 in green with yellow stripe. In more ways than one, an era had come to a close.