Over 50 years since his death, Jim Clark is still hailed as one of the greatest Formula 1 drivers of all time. Indeed, he’s often hailed as the best ever by those who knew him as well as those who hope to replicate his success. Challenging the old-time stereotype of the F1 driver who comes from family money and prestige, Jim Clark moved his way through the world and through the ranks of racing by sheer ability, along with his close association with Colin Chapman and Lotus Racing. Prior to his untimely death at the age of just 32, Clark had won two World Championships and had even received an OBE from the Queen. These mere accolades barely begin to represent Jim Clark’s success as both a driver and a man.
‘I started as an amateur with no idea or no intention of becoming World Champion, but I was curious to find out what it was like to drive a car fast, to drive on a certain circuit, to drive a certain type of car.’ – Jim Clark.
As the youngest of five children born to a humble sheep farmer, reaching god status in the world of racing was theoretically far beyond the reach of the young James Clark Jr. However, he did not let the position he was born in dictate his future. Instead, Jim Clark followed his passion and soon he was racing Jaguar D-types and Porsches in local events. This caught the attention of fellow enthusiast and Lotus founder Colin Chapman. The duo formed a fast friendship, leading to equally swift success.
Jim Clark made his F1 debut in 1960 at Zandvoort. Although the prodigy was forced to retire late in the race, it was clear that Chapman’s faith in Clark had been well-placed. During a time in racing when fatalities were a more-than-common occurrence, Jim Clark was known for his care and driving accuracy. This was especially true when, in 1961, Clark was involved in a near-fatal accident with fellow racer Wolfgang von Trips. The result of the collision was the death of von Trips, along with fifteen spectators.
‘That’s what Jimmy had – the knack of keeping the momentum of the car going. I don’t think any of the modern drivers could have driven the car anywhere near as quickly as Jimmy did because he was just so precise.’ – Cedric Selzer, Team Lotus Engineer.
At the wheel of the Lotus 25, Jim Clark won his first World Championship in 1963 after claiming top position in seven out of ten races. This record wouldn’t be broken until 1988, with Ayrton Senna’s eight wins. However, Senna’s 1988 season consisted of 16 races, therefore Clark’s 70% win rate is considerably more impressive than Senna’s 50% win rate. Far from satisfied with dominating Formula 1 alone, Jim Clark won the American Indianapolis 500 in 1965. Jim Clark would be the first non-American to win the race in nearly 50 years, holding first place for 190 out of the 200 total laps. He also secured his second F1 World Championship in 1965. This double win had been done before and would be done again. However, no-one would be able to win both in the same year as Jim Clark did.
Once again unsatisfied with his accolades, Jim Clark headed down under for the Tasman series, claiming wins in 1965, 1967, and 1968. The dominating year Clark had in 1965 has been unmatched since and it’s doubtable it will be matched again. It’s laughable to consider that F1 racers today complain about their 21-race seasons and mere two-week separation between each leg when, in comparison, Jim Clark competed in 63 races around the world at a time when a London to Sydney trip could include up to eight stopovers. Out of these 63, Clark won 31.
With various changes to rules and regulations in the Formula 1 engine requirements, 1966 and 1967 were frustrating years for team Lotus and Jim Clark. After a cracking start to the 1968 season and a win at the South African Grom Prix, Jim Clark was killed at a relatively insignificant Formula 2 event in Hockenheimring when his vehicle veered off the wet track and directly into a large tree, breaking his neck and killing him on impact.
‘Jim Clark was the best of the best… he was my boyhood hero.’ – Ayrton Senna
The Legacy of Jim Clark extends far beyond impressive numbers and results. What the legend is truly remembered for are individual feats of skill and determination. Take, for example, a race at Spa in which Clark was leading the pack (as was usual at the time). As the race went on, the Lotus driver began to recognise some serious issues with the gearbox. The mechanics continued to give up, Jim Clark did not. Instead of pulling over, Clark instead chose to keep one hand on the gearstick and one hand on the wheel, making sure the vehicle would stay in its necessary speed. Jim Clark still won on that day – hitting up to 260km/hour in the wet, driving with one hand.
After his monumental year in 1965, Jim Clark returned to Britain for his metaphorical victory lap. But he didn’t take to the busy streets of London to flaunt his newfound success as the greatest driver of all time. Instead, the reserved young Scotsman held a small celebration in his hometown near Edinburgh in front of mere tens of his most adoring fans. Clark never desired the otherworldy trappings that Formula 1 stardom tends to entail. He was just a smalltown boy making his way in the world. That way just happened to be as the greatest driver of all time.
For an in-depth legacy of one of Scotland’s less-reserved men, see ‘History’s Finest: The Legacy Of William Wallace.’