The shock of the news

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At a time when racing fatalities were by no means uncommon, Jim Clark’s death caused the biggest shock of all. Derek Bell, Max Mosley and Jackie Stewart recall that fateful day at Hockenheim
By David Tremayne

Team personnel rubbed their hands together to ward off the frosty chill as they left their hotels for the short run to the Hockenheimring, the circuit close to Mannheim in Germany, on the morning of Sunday April 7, 1968.

The weather had been inclement all weekend, and their breath lingered in the crisp air. Later, as spectators packed into the track’s famous stadium seats in the amphitheatre section, at the end of a lap which had taken cars on a hazardous journey deep into pine forests on blindingly fast roads, the sky was grey and overcast. It began to drizzle, and the hardy fans started to don their hats or turn up their coat collars. In such conditions, few circuits could match Hockenheim’s gloom.

It was not a circuit for the faint of heart, but it did not make many demands on a driver’s talent. Its fast straights negated pure driving skill, and instead turned races into slipstreaming epics in the days before chicanes were finally introduced to slow things down a little. What you needed most there was a strong engine and an ability to ignore the trees that stood like dark spectres either side of the narrow tunnel of asphalt, ready to reach out for the unfortunate.

The terrible irony was that Jimmy Clark did not want to be there at all. The original intention was for him to drive Ford’s dramatic new F3L sports car in the BOAC 500 endurance race at Brands Hatch that weekend. But there was some misunderstanding with Alan Mann Racing, which was responsible for filing the entries, and by the time that was sorted out Clark, miffed by the muddle, had felt duty-bound to honour his usual commitments to Colin Chapman and Team Lotus. He would compete in the Deutschland Trophy, a round of the European Formula 2 Championship.

His relationship with the imaginative but mercurial designer was perhaps the deepest between any driver and team principal in the sport’s history, and was based on mutual respect. It had been Chapman who gave Jimmy his break into Formula 1 in 1960. At that time he was raw and naïve, still very much the self-contained Border farmer and far from the polished Europhile he would become. He and Chapman matured together, learned from one another. In some ways they even complemented each other. Jimmy’s innate speed and God-given ability to get the best from his machinery was legendary, but certainly by today’s elevated standards he was not a technical driver. But he had an intuitive feel for what a car was doing and a clear-thinking ability to express that feeling directly to Chapman, whose fertile mind would then figure out what they needed to do to effect a cure or simply to make the machine go faster.

Jimmy, and his fellow World Champion team-mate Graham Hill, had been struggling all weekend at Hockenheim. It was part of the price you sometimes had to pay when you raced the lesser lights in such events, where so-called ‘graded’ drivers competed with less established upcomers. Brabham and Matra chassis were frequently a match for the Lotuses, if not superior, but the previous year Jimmy had enjoyed success with the same 48 he was driving in Germany, and had shown Brabham-mounted F2 king Jochen Rindt the way home on a few occasions even if their equipment was not absolutely equal. The previous week he had been taken out of the Barcelona round of the championship after Jacky Ickx inadvertently rammed him, and observers remember Jimmy being uncharacteristically angry with the young Belgian. Now, he and Hill were in trouble again, thanks to the horrible weather. Their Cosworth FVA engines were misfiring intermittently, and their Firestone tyres could not generate sufficient heat in the cold, damp conditions.

Despite the problems, Jimmy had qualified seventh. Ahead of him were drivers such as Frenchmen Jean-Pierre Beltoise and Henri Pescarolo in their Matras, rising Englishmen Derek Bell and Piers Courage in their Brabhams, and German Kurt Ahrens in a similar car. New Zealander Chris Amon, in an otherwise healthy Ferrari that was similarly struggling with the same Firestones tyres, was sixth. Only Amon, with whom Jimmy had enjoyed some fabulous tussles early in the season on his way to winning the Tasman Series in Australia and New Zealand, was remotely in the 32-year-old Scot’s league. Like Juan Manuel Fangio and Stirling Moss before him, Jimmy was the unquestioned greatest driver of his era, the yardstick by which all the others were judged and, indeed, judged themselves. Those ahead of him on the grid that day knew they were only there because he had problems.

He had made his Grand Prix debut on June 5, 1960 at Zandvoort, and thereafter his performances on the track soon became part of racing lore. By Hockenheim Jimmy stood unmatched in terms of Grand Prix victories. His success in the South African Grand Prix at Kyalami, on January 1 that year, had taken his tally to 25 from his 72 starts, one more than the legendary Fangio. And, perhaps more remarkably, he had achieved them all in the same make of car, whereas the great Argentinian had been happy to switch from Alfa Romeo to Maserati, Mercedes-Benz, Lancia-Ferrari and then back to Maserati as he amassed his 24 wins. Perhaps both figures seem small beer to today’s fans, reared on Michael Schumacher’s 91, but there were far fewer races back then, and cars did not enjoy bulletproof reliability. Jimmy could attest to that: he won the World Championship in 1963 and ’65, but was robbed of the 1962 and ’64 titles by mechanical ill fortune in the final races. Crowning such achievements was his triumph in the 1965 Indianapolis 500, and even there he should have won the ’63 event too but for some horse-trading among the establishment, and there are still many who believe the organisers missed a lap that would have made him the victor in 1966, too.

At the wheel, he simply shed all of his insecurities as a man and instead became a master in total control, yet the moment he stepped from the cockpit he would revert to his innate self-containment, which many mistook for shyness. He was uncomfortable in the spotlight, and frequently wondered privately to friends what all the fuss was about. He genuinely did not appear to understand his towering talent, but that is not to suggest that he was a naïve wallflower. He was a tiger at the wheel.

Derek Bell was still carving his reputation back then, and has never forgotten meeting Jimmy for the first time that fateful weekend, as both were staying in the Hotel Luxhof in nearby Speyer. He remembered feeling awed in his company over tea on the Saturday afternoon. Then Jimmy stunned him in a conversation over breakfast on Sunday. “He said to me: ‘Don’t get too close behind me when you come up to lap me, because my car is cutting out intermittently…’

“If Stirling Moss was my hero, Jim Clark was my idol,” Bell recalls. “I thought, ‘This is my idol saying ‘When you come up to lap me…’ It wasn’t easy to take in.”

Even as they spoke, Lotus mechanic Dave ‘Beaky’ Sims was running the Lotus up and down the road outside the hotel, trying to cure the misfire. “The problem was, it was freezing,” Sims remembers. “There was a heavy frost. It was so cold it was affecting the fuel metering units. The drive belts were breaking. In the end I used boiling water. That cured it.”

There were indications early in 1968 that Jimmy was considering his future. He told Graham Gauld, his long-time friend and biographer, that he was thinking of cutting back on his racing, getting married, and settling back down on the farm in Duns, just north of the border with England.

His girlfriend, Sally Stokes, also recalled a similar conversation she had with Jimmy. “We had a telephone conversation shortly before he died, and he was probably talking about retiring and I can’t remember what I was saying, but then he said: ‘Well, what if I died? What if I got killed on the track?’ And I was so surprised and so jolted, because he’d never mentioned it in all the years I’d known him. And I was wondering if he actually thought about it and was considering retiring.”

Jackie Stewart, his great friend and the man who would inherit his mantle as the benchmark driver in motor sport, believes he would have carried on because, incredible though it might seem, Clark was still getting better as a driver. “For Jimmy, the easiest thing he did in life was sitting in a racing car. He was becoming more rounded. He was happy with what he’d achieved, but he was still insecure with his life because he didn’t know whether he wanted to be a farmer or a racing driver.”

But though it was inconceivable that he would have done anything but stay with Lotus, since he was an intensely loyal man, Stewart believes that the dynamics of Clark’s relationship with Chapman were changing and would have continued to do so. “Colin had protected Jimmy from almost everything. He could depend on Colin. But his life in Paris changed him. A friend, Michel Fanquel, opened the world to Jimmy. And Jimmy was suddenly not the border farmer depending on Colin Chapman.

“And I saw it, the change. He was a different man. He was more independent, more vocal about what he wanted. And I think Colin was going to have more and more trouble with him, if you know what I mean.”

But for now, there was that bond that took him to Hockenheim.

Sims would be the last man ever to talk to Jimmy, kneeling beside the cockpit as they awaited the start. “He told me again that he wasn’t happy with the grip in the wet, and not to expect too much from him.”

Sims remembered Jimmy’s habitual calmness under such circumstances. “He had this ability to interpret what the car was doing. That made it so much easier for Colin Chapman to engineer the car. Jimmy might come in and say that the front end was washing out, needed more grip, and then Colin would say how best to do it. Jimmy’s technical ability and feel for what the car was doing was phenomenal. It was uncanny. Unique. And he knew when something was wrong. He’d feel a slight vibration in the rear and we’d pull the car about and find nothing. He’d insist something was still amiss and later we’d discover a wheel bearing was going, or something like that.”

If Jimmy had a weakness, and that was a moot point, it was his ability to maintain his lap times while driving around a problem. Possibly, that fatal day, the poor behaviour of his Firestone tyres disguised a gradual deflation until it was too late.

Back then Max Mosley was far from his current elevated position as the president of the sport’s governing body, and was a mere Formula 2 rookie who had qualified his private Brabham 18th out of the 20 starters as he acclimatised to life beyond the Clubmans U2 he had hitherto raced. His memories paint a frightening image of what the drivers faced.

“The first corner was thick spray. I was thinking, ‘This isn’t a good idea.’ All you could do was steer by looking at the tree tops, because you couldn’t see where the track went. I’d made a good start but backed off, expecting everyone else to come past again. But to my astonishment they didn’t. To me, at least, going through the corner leading to the pre-chicane Ost Kurve wasn’t something that made you happy, flat out at 170mph. Those first two or three laps, when I couldn’t see, I didn’t take it flat. Then after a bit I could see it was Graham Hill ahead. I just had to overtake him, and in the end I did. I think I finished 11th, ahead of Hill.”

That in itself was graphic indication of how much the Firestone-shod runners were struggling that day.

Jimmy soon lost touch with the leaders and was running eighth when he came into the stadium at the end of the fourth lap. Then he failed to reappear.

The red, white and gold Lotus had spun at 160mph on an easy, gradual curve shortly after the first corner and then crashed into the unyielding trees. It struck one, a sapling, broadside at the cockpit, and in the beat of a heart the world’s greatest active racing driver was dead.

There were inevitably theories about the cause of the accident, some more far-fetched than others. A rear tyre had deflated, causing loss of control. The misfiring engine had cut out, with similar effect. Children had run across the road, causing him to swerve. Sims had no doubt what happened. “It was a right rear tyre deflation,” he vowed. Later an official report suggested that it had sustained a puncture and then suffered an explosive decompression that pulled its beads off the wheel’s rims, causing catastrophic loss of control that not even the genius of Jimmy Clark could recover. Today, he would have hit a steel barrier and probably walked away. Back then…

Mosley recalled the aftermath as he reached the scene of the crash. “There were white flags and an ambulance at the scene. I had a distinct impression of a hole on the left-hand side, in the trees. It was clear that somebody had gone off in a big way. I drove into the paddock and everything was filthy and wet. I was taking my helmet off and some German fan ran up. I speak German fluently, but it nonplussed me momentarily when he asked was Jim Clark dead. That was when I knew who had gone off. I was completely shocked. It was like Senna, except in those days such things were more usual. But Jim Clark was the one nobody expected it would happen to.”

That was what made the tragedy all the more devastating. Jimmy was the one man nobody had ever imagined could die that way. A gentle giant possessed of subliminal skill, he stood head and shoulders above his rivals.

His death, Stewart says, was motor racing’s equivalent of the atomic bomb.

Hill was stunned, and withdrew from the second heat. Later, much later, Sally Stokes would remember a comment he made about his fallen team-mate. “I’ll miss his smile,” he had told her.

Before the start of the second heat the commentator broke the news to the 50,000-strong crowd. Like Italy’s tifosi the German fans, especially at Hockenheim, can be vocal in their enthusiasm. That day they took in the terrible news in stunned silence. Flags were lowered to half mast, and there was a two-minute silence.

Back in the UK the news broke inadvertently on BBC television during another announcement. It was a voice in the background that was picked up saying six chilling words: “Jim Clark’s been killed at Hockenheim.” The immediate reaction was pure disbelief.

At Brands Hatch, where he should have been running, racers and fans alike were decimated by the news. They had lost a god.

When Jimmy died that April afternoon so many years ago, Chris Amon summed up the feelings every race driver in the world experienced. “We all thought the same thing,” Chris admitted. “If it could happen to Jimmy, what chance did the rest of us have?”

Dan Gurney remembers attending the funeral, and what James Clark Sr said to him. “He told me that I was the only rival his son truly feared,” he said. “Well, it destroyed me, really, in terms of my self control. I was drowned in tears. To hear that from someone whose son had been killed, and wasn’t there any more, it was more than I could cope with.”

Stewart’s valedictory words on his friend were as heart-rending. “Jim Clark,” he said, “was everything that I aspired to be, as a racing driver and as a man.”

Today a modest granite gravestone in Chirnside’s churchyard bears the simple, unpretentious legend: ‘In Loving Memory of Jim Clark O.B.E. Farmer. World Champion Motor Racing Driver.’

To his kinsfolk he was always a local boy first, a hero second.