Former F1 champion Jim Clark’s death – at a meaningless Formula 2 race – on this date in 1968 rocked the motorsport establishment. While the sport was still very much enjoying the last of its relatively amateur years, Clark was already ahead of the game, very much the consummate professional racing driver. His passing was all the more tragic.
Clark was born in Scotland, a few years before the breakout of World War II, and earned his stripes (and a good income) as a farmer.
To many F1 fans, Clark still remains the greatest Grand Prix driver in history. He won 25 times in his 72 championship appearances, and his win at the 1965 Indianapolis 500 proved his ability on the world stage.
In truth, it didn’t need further proving. He was sublimely gifted behind the wheel, and fans would often remark how supremely easy he made it all look. Even Clark himself would struggle with the accolades and attention, and he was never able to appreciate the sheer extent of his talent.
He started out racing at nondescript time trials and rallies, often doing so in secret to avoid his parents finding out. In the late 1950s, his profile rose dramatically, and he was a multiple race-winner in a Lotus Elite and a Lister Jaguar in 1959.
Offered the chance to join Aston Martin’s Formula 1 programme, he quit when the project was held up and instead joined Lotus’ Formula Junior and Formula 2 programmes.
Chapman wasted little time in promoting Clark to his Formula 1 outfit in 1960, and Clark stood on the podium before the end of his maiden season when he claimed third at the Portuguese Grand Prix at Oporto.
The 1961 season saw the introduction of the unpopular 1.5-litre engine regulations, and Clark concentrated almost exclusively on his Formula 1 programme of championship and non-championship rounds. With wins at the non-championship races at Pau as well as three in South Africa, he backed this up with a pair of podium finishes during the championship rounds that year.
Tragically, his F1 season would be marred by the first-lap collision with Wolfgang von Trips at the Italian Grand Prix, which killed the hapless German and several spectators.
In 1962, Clark benefited from Lotus’ first monocoque design, the Lotus 25, and he won at Spa, Aintree and Watkins Glen to be a championship contender, narrowly losing out to Graham Hill when he suffered an oil leak at the final race of the year.
In 1963, the Lotus 25 started to hit its stride, and Clark romped to the championship. He won seven of the championship’s ten races, and rocked the American racing establishment by finishing in second place at the Indianapolis 500.
Reliability issues cost him back-to-back crowns, although he remained a contender right to the end, losing out to John Surtees at the end of the year. But the 1965 season saw the team’s new Lotus 33 (introduced the year before) hit its stride, and wins in all of the opening six rounds he contested gave him his second World Championship crown.
A return to the 3.0-litre engine regulations saw Lotus on the back foot in 1966, but Clark’s genius was still on display, particularly at Zandvoort, when he was on course to win in his much-less-fancied entry until overheating problems crept in.
In 1967, the team introduced its new Lotus 49, and Clark’s brilliance was again in evidence, claiming fine wins at Zandvoort, Silverstone, Watkins Glen and Mexico – had the car been more reliable, he’d have won the title instead of Denny Hulme.
He opened the 1968 season with an effortless win at Kyalami – enough to break Juan Manuel Fangio’s record of 24 wins – yet no one would expect that it would be his last World Championship appearance.
Clark had jokingly quipped that the tree-lined high-speed German circuit was too dangerous – “If you fly off into the trees, you haven’t got a chance,” he said the night before the race – and sadly that proved to be true.
A rear tyre failure pitched him into the trees on the run through the forest, and the idol of many racing drivers and fans alike was killed instantly.