Going downhill fast

Lap of the Gods

Jin Clark’s ability to administer a short, sharp shock stunned rivals. Shaun Campbell recalls his 1961 Belgian Grand Prix win, seized over the first two corners at a Soggy Spa

The qualities that stood Jim Clark apart from his rivals were many. There was his versatility, for example — he was a driver who could win in single-seaters, sports cars and saloons on street circuits, mad courses or ovals. There was also his mechanical sympathy — that uncanny capability to nurse cars with collapsing suspensions, burnt-out clutches and oil-leaking engines to the end. But it was surely the ability to wrap up a race in a single lap that most sublimely expressed his art.

It generally came either late in practice or early in the race, but whenever it happened the effect was the same. A roar from the crowds, stunned looks on the faces of the timekeepers, and the hopes any other driver might have entertained shot down in flames. In Clark’s hands the lap out of the blue was the original short, sharp shock, a declaration of intent that left an indelible impression.

There are many examples. One thinks back to the start of the 1962 Nurburgring 1000km. Driving the tiny Lotus 23, Clark completed that first lap 27 seconds ahead of the Ferraris. At the same venue five years later, he qualified the Lotus 49 on pole for the German GP in the closing minutes of final practice with a lap that was 9.4s quicker than the second-placed man, Denny Hulme.

Choosing one lap from the career of a man who started from pole in 33 grands prix, set 29 fastest laps and was notorious for his blinding starts, is not easy. No one lap can tell the whole story. But the start of the 1963 Belgian GP tells more than most.

It was Spa-Francorchamps, of course, a circuit at which Clark was never at his most comfortable. On his first trip there, for a sportscar race back in 1958, fellow Scotsman Archie Scott Brown had been killed. Two years later, entering only his second Grand Prix, his Lotus team-mate Alan Stacey and Yeoman Credit Cooper driver Chris Bristow also died there behind the wheel. Clark finished fifth, his Lotus 18 spattered with Bristow’s blood. But if he had good reason to fear Spa, and occasionally he admitted as much, it never showed in his driving.

Indeed, it was at Spa in 1962 that Clark notched up his first Grand Prix victory. He arrived for the 1963 race — the second round of the World Championship — still on a high from his second place in the Indianapolis 500 two weeks before, but throughout practice his Lotus 25 was plagued by gearbox problems. In the season’s opener at Monaco a gearbox failure had robbed him of victory when he had the race in his pocket, and it was clear Lotus still hadn’t sorted the problem.

The weather throughout practice had been glorious, but race day dawned dark and damp. Clark’s best lap had only been good enough for eighth on the grid, on the outside of the third row. On pole, with a time that was three seconds quicker than Clark’s, was reigning world champion Graham Hill. The BRM driver was heading the points table after his win at Monaco and was confident of extending his lead. On practice farm, the greatest threat to Hill was posed by the Brabhams of Dan Gurney and Jack Brabham, the Coopers of Bruce McLaren and Tony Maggs and the Ferrari of local hero ‘Wild’ Willy Mairesse. Clark didn’t look to be in the picture.

The prediction was blown within a few seconds of the start. As the field slithered and snaked on the wet track down the hill towards Eau Rouge, the little green Lotus seemed to be driving on a different surface. Into the lefthander Clark was already level with Hill and had ensured the advantage of the inside line for the daunting right-hander. By the time they came out of Eau Rouge there was already a sizeable chunk of daylight between the Lotus and the BRM, and it grew at a fantastic rate.

Clark completed that first 8.71-mile lap with a three second lead over Hill and the rest of the field were absolutely nowhere. Whatever had happened in practice was now history. Barring mechanical failure the race was his won in the first few seconds and two corners. It was now simply a question of who was going to finish second. In fact, it turned out to be slightly more difficult than that. For much of the race the Scotsman was still troubled by gearbox problems and resorted to driving with his right hand almost permanently on the lever to prevent it from jumping out of gear. And then, at around half distance, the damp track became a soaking one as the heavens opened. By then Clark had opened up a a lead over Hill of half a minute, but as the circuit became wetter the gap increased. When the BRM expired a few laps later Clark found himself something like two minutes in the clear.

The winning margin at the end of the 180-mile race was six seconds short of five minutes. It had been a one-man show, almost boring to watch except for that incredible start and a virtuoso display of wet weather driving.

Before that race Clark was already well established as one of the world’s top drivers. After it he was the undisputed number one and would remain so until his death five years later. There would be many more great drives, some more spectacular, but the image it left implanted in the brain of a spindly little green single-seater streaking away into the distance apparently in a race of its own would never fade.