Was Jim Clark the Best F1 Driver of All Time?
He was killed while driving in a Formula Two race in Germany 50 years ago. People still mourn.
For many Formula One fans, the date April 7, 1968, is the Day the Music Died.
Jim Clark, farmer and two-time F1 world motor racing champion, was killed while driving in a meaningless Formula Two race in Germany. Fifty years later, people still mourn.
When you think about Clark, several things cross your mind. First and foremost, he’s been dead for half a century and you haven’t. You’ve watched F1 throughout those 50 years and seen incredible changes in presentation (code for sponsorship), car design and safety, circuits and reach (it’s truly a world series now), not to mention the vast sums involved, and you wonder if Clark would even recognize his sport now.
Many people call him the greatest racing driver who ever lived. That’s a tough one. There’s no doubt he was the best of his generation, and certainly of that decade. But was he better than Rosemeyer, who was dominant in the 1930s? Better than Stewart, Senna, Michael Schumacher, Prost, Vettel, Hamilton? Fangio? Or Andretti, who was so very versatile?
It’s like saying Howie Morenz was the equal of Rocket Richard who was as good, or better, than Gretzky. Or Sawchuk, or Plante, were better than Brodeur, or Carey Price.
See? It’s impossible to say.
The first time I saw Clark in action was during the closed-circuit television coverage of the 1965 Indianapolis 500, the year he won. It was no contest; he led 190 of the 200 laps. But this is what had the guys in the long-gone Glendale Theatre on Avenue Rd. buzzing: while all the American Indy car drivers of the day would coast into their pits, sometimes seeming to take forever, Clark would wait till the last millisecond to brake to a halt, and he did it so smoothly that he didn’t once slide through his pit box.
Although his expertise lay in road racing — over the course of his career, he raced everything from saloon cars to formula cars — he did drive in other Indy car races in the U.S., in addition to his Indy 500 starts (four, in total).
After seeing the Little 500 sprint car race at Anderson, Ind., the night before the 500 in 1963, he mused about taking a crack at sprint car racing — although he never did. He did, however, have a go at NASCAR stock cars, finishing 30th in a race in Rockingham, N.C., in October 1967, about two months after the first F1 Grand Prix of Canada was held at Mosport, where Clark had put on an incredible show.
Because the F1 cars had never raced at Mosport, the FIA allowed an extra day of practice, so the cars and drivers entered went out on the circuit on the Thursday before the Sunday, Aug. 27, race. Clark made one of his infrequent miscues during the first session and went off the track at Corner One, escaping injury but damaging the car.
He took over a spare that had been assigned to Canadian champion Eppie Wietzes, won the pole and then very nearly won the race. It was teeming with rain at the start but then it dried up. Clark was far behind at that point but took the bit in his teeth and ran down the leader. He was preparing to sail off into the sunset when the rains came again and water got into the electrics of his Team Lotus car, knocking him out of the race.
That happened right at the pits. Who knows if he’d stalled before, out of the visual range of any of the officials? Wietzes, in the repaired Lotus, had the same problem and came to a stop at Moss Corner. A guy ran out from the crowd and handed him a rag to dry off the plugs. When Eppie wondered about the legality, the fellow said: “Go ahead, the other guy did.” Wietzes didn’t think to ask the identity of the “other guy.”
Jackie Stewart told TV interviewers earlier this year that he expected Clark would have returned to farming when his racing career ended. I’m not so sure.
In his book “Challenge — The Story of Canadian Road Racing,” the late Len Coates quoted Clark thusly:
“I think my father would like me to come back to the farm. I know my mother would like me to quit racing entirely. But I can’t. I’m completely committed to racing. Besides, I like it.”
Does that sound like someone who would be able to walk away? Graham Hill couldn’t and formed his own team after retiring from the cockpit. Stewart couldn’t, and ditto. So did Gurney, McLaren, Brabham. I could go on. They all, one way or another, stayed in the game, and I’m sure Clark would have been the same.
It’s horrible that he died, and it was a very sad day for those of us who heard the news. I was asleep at 11 a.m. that Sunday (I was a university student and a sometimes-newspaper reporter in Montreal at the time), and my friend, Basil Stevens, telephoned to tell me. He’d been listening to the CBC.
In a strange way, it wasn’t a surprise. Race drivers were killed with alarming regularity in those days, and you found yourself somewhat immune to the shock. And that it was Clark wasn’t all that surprising, either. People who win in anything, but particularly death-defying sports like auto racing, are usually the ones taking more chances than the rest. It’s why they win. Unfortunately, however, it also puts them in more danger.
That Clark was aware of the peril, let there be no doubt. I got to spend time with him during those four days the previous August, and while he was the epitome of professionalism and control when he was in the car, he was fidgety and nervous out of it. He’d bitten his fingernails down to the quick and frequently gnawed away at them while waiting to go out.
And he was always preoccupied — or seemed to be. Even in the hotel pool, and at the bar during the evening, I was told he was as tense and wound up as when he was at the circuit. I heard this and remember thinking that if he was so uncomfortable at the prospect of racing, why did he put himself through it?
There was the farm, after all.
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