The late Max Mosley’s first racing wish was the usual one: to become Formula 1 world champion.
He would get as far as Formula 2 – and there in short order bear witness to enough danger and death to forever colour the majority/more notable aspect of his motorsporting career.
On the occasion of only his second F2 race he shared Hockenheim’s grid for the 1968 Deutschland Trophy with the great Jim Clark, about to start his last race of any kind.
“As soon as I got to the first corner there was thick spray,” Mosley remembered 50 years later. “All I could see were the treetops and in that way I followed the gentle curve of the outward leg – with just a yard or two of grass either side between you and the forest.
“I’d never raced in the rain before – bar one slightly wet race at Lydden Hill – and so it was very intimidating. I felt really uncomfortable. Those cars at high speed generated lift. When I got into top gear – about 140mph – I thought, ‘This is completely mad.’ So I backed off.
“I felt that was rather cowardly, but it seemed sensible. A proper racing driver might have thought otherwise, but usually what you feel is pretty much right.
“To my surprise, nobody came past.
Ahrens, Pescarolo and Beltoise on the front of a wet Hockenheim grid before the ’68 race
“I’d had no preparation at all. Clubmans racing was all I’d ever done: two seasons, the second of which was successful. It was a little bit like being a good local tennis player and finding yourself at Wimbledon.”
Mosley was an odd mix of laser-like focus and wide-eyed naïveté. His first experience of F2 had come at the wheel of his Ford pushrod-engined Mallock U2 Mk6B, cycle wings removed for the (inauspicious) occasion.
Though in the midst of a fierce battle with Howard Heerey’s Chevron B2 for the 1967 BRSCC National Clubmans title – which Mosley would lose despite winning a dozen or so races – he was merely a mobile chicane in the first 10-lap heat of Crystal Palace’s London Trophy.
Out of his depth, he finished two laps down and was not classified.
Between Saturday practice and the Monday race, however, he had refitted those wings to win and set a Clubmans lap record at Brands Hatch.
His 1968 F2 campaign would be a more serious affair aboard a Brabham BT23C fitted with a Cosworth FVA and initially entered by the London Racing Team that he had formed jointly with karting star Chris Lambert. (The car would later be prepared by Frank Williams.)
Lambert was on the Hockenheim grid that fateful April day, too, and he impressed in the first 20-lap heat by finishing third behind the works Matras of Jean-Pierre Beltoise and Henri Pescarolo.
The less experienced Mosley struggled to 11th, one lap behind – but directly ahead of Clark’s team-mate in a Gold Leaf-sponsored Lotus 48 struggling on square-shouldered Firestones in the conditions: “Only when we got to the Stadium Section could I see him in front of me: Graham Hill. I thought, ‘If ever I am going to do something in my life I am going to overtake him.’
“After a certain number of laps the cars had spaced out and so you could see, more or less, where you were going. Of course, when I got directly behind him I couldn’t see what I was doing. But I knew that I was going slightly the quicker because of his slipstream. When he loomed out of the fog I moved slightly to the left and slowly, because of my momentum, went past him.
“I looked over and caught his eye. I knew exactly what he was thinking: ‘Who’s this lunatic?’ I wasn’t in the same league as him, but probably he wasn’t ready to take any silly risks, whereas I was. Plus my Brabham, an excellent car, was on Dunlops.”
The euphoria of overtaking a world champion would evaporate swiftly post-race: “I drove into the paddock and got out of the car. It was all very informal in those days and a spectator came up to me and asked, in German, if Jim Clark was dead.
“I knew that there had been an accident because I’d seen an ambulance to one side of the track. It had never crossed my mind that it was Jim Clark.
“A couple of minutes later the whole paddock was talking about it, and shortly thereafter the PA asked everybody in the crowd to stand and announced that he was dead.
“Team Lotus withdrew – understandably – but in those days it was regarded as something sad but nothing out of the ordinary when someone was killed. The only thing different this time was that it was the world’s number one driver. That sounds horrible to say.
“I had always explained to my wife that F2 was quite safe providing you were careful”
“We marked what had happened, then I got in the car and got on with the second heat.”
Rival Robin Widdows, driving a McLaren M4A, remembers distinctly that race: “They were the hairiest first few laps. Everybody was pushing like hell to prove that they had not been affected by Jimmy’s death.
“Max hit my rear tyres; I think he climbed up them. Nobody wanted to flinch. We all went for it as hard, if not harder, than before.”
Widdows finished fourth – one place ahead of Lambert – and Mosley ninth to secure aggregate seventh and ninth places respectively. Lambert was fourth on aggregate behind those Matras and Piers Courage’s Frank Williams-run Brabham.
Mosley: “My difficulty came afterwards. I had always explained to my wife that F2 was quite safe providing you were careful. When I got home she said that Jim Clark was clearly a better driver than me and that presumably he had been being careful.”