From Jim Clark to Formula E


Our latest issue, featuring a flashback to Jim Clark’s astonishing 1965 season, goes on sale this week – a suitably heavyweight subject for what is the high point of the British motor sport season.

It was on July 10 50 years ago that Clark won the British Grand Prix for the fourth (consecutive) time, with yet another trademark performance of dominance, this time laced with one of the greatest examples of mechanical sympathy in motor racing history. Jimmy was 30 seconds in front of Graham Hill with 20 laps to go when he noticed alarming dips in the oil pressure of his Lotus 33. Bob Dance picks up the story in Simon Taylor’s wonderful ‘Lunch with Team Lotus mechanics’ in our issue.

“Suddenly Jimmy was coming through Woodcote every lap with his engine apparently dead. Then on the straight the engine would cut in, sounding fine and healthy. We couldn’t understand what was going on. Because of this Hill was catching him, but Jimmy managed to stay ahead and won by 3.2sec.

“Afterwards he told us that on long fast right-handers, like Woodcote, the oil pressure needle was sagging down to zero. He didn’t want to run the bearings, so on those corners he was dipping the clutch and coasting round. And like that he got to the flag.”

By 1965, the world already knew Clark was special. But that season more than any other cemented the legend. Silverstone marked his fourth consecutive Grand Prix victory of the year, with only Hill getting a look in at Monaco. But Clark, of course, wasn’t around for that one. He was busy becoming the first overseas driver since 1916 to win the Indy 500 that weekend.

The tally by the autumn would read six consecutive Grand Prix wins (and his second F1 World Championship wrapped up by August 1); a Tasman Cup won Down Under; that era-defining ‘Brickyard’ victory; plus British and French F2 titles. Paul Fearnley has painstakingly sifted through wonderful detail to bring us a day-by-day, week-by-week account of Jimmy’s life in what will always be racing’s greatest campaign.

It sure puts Mercedes’ current stranglehold of F1 in perspective. The difference back then, of course, is that no one begrudged Clark and Lotus their domination. How could anyone begrudge Jimmy anything? Is any other sports personality still revered to such a degree so long after their death?

Fast-forward 50 years and F1 is in a less happy place, with disillusionment rife among fans over the state of Grand Prix racing.

On the surface, it’ll be hard to notice at Silverstone as near sell-out crowds swarm to the Northamptonshire/Buckinghamshire border. It should be a time to focus on the positives, which is entirely the point of the National Motorsport Week initiative currently in full swing. Trading on the high profile of the Grand Prix, the concept is designed to pull together disparate events in Britain to send a cohesive message about the state of a successful industry.

I spoke to Chris Aylett, the boss of trade organisation the Motorsport Industry Association, who was understandably keen to promote National Motorsport Week. He claimed – with only a touch of hyperbole – that half a million paying customers will pass through British motor sport gates this week, across last weekend’s Goodwood Festival of Speed, Formula E in Battersea Park and the British Touring Car Championship at Croft, and then on to this weekend’s British Superbikes round at Knockhill and of course the British Grand Prix. “What diversity!” he said.

But he was also at pains to tell me how worried he is. “Having quoted those numbers you might think I’m deluded to sound this warning, but the trouble is we’ll be back to 50,000 next week…

“We’re losing the fans. And I have to say as an industry we are not going anywhere in the next decade unless they come back. Those who are trying to earn a living in motor sport, in the commercial business, will have no future without fans, because without them you have no sponsors and no investment. We’re losing them hand over fist, not helped by you-know-who… We’ve got nothing without them.”

No prizes for guessing who he’s talking about.

“It’s Bernie, isn’t it?” he says. “He’s got a model where it seems you can do it all without fans at the track. And the FIA don’t seem to care…”

He cited a striking comparison in the US. The country where fans always come first lost its IndyCar audience long ago (just 3000 witnessed the incredible, plain terrifying ‘pack race’ at the Fontana oval in California last weekend), but even the religion that is NASCAR has not escaped the decline. The difference in the stock car word is the reaction from circuit owners and race promoters.

“At Daytona they are spending $400m on a new grandstand,” said Aylett. “All of that money is going on the outside of the circuit, for spectators. In Europe it would be spent on corporate seating, on new pit complexes and so on. But NASCAR knows it has got to get the fans back.

“I came from the US and went straight to the Blancpain GT meeting at Silverstone recently, where they had a 60-car field. Everyone on the grid said isn’t this fantastic, and it was. But I had to ask: who is watching? No-one!”

Some promoters still value their audience. The BTCC and Superbikes still draw large, loyal and enthusiastic followings, but those examples are sadly the exceptions. The contrast to 1965 and Clark’s heyday couldn’t be more stark.

Which is why I maintain my enthusiasm for Formula E and what I witnessed at Battersea Park last weekend. As I’ve said elsewhere, the all-electric series is far from perfect and the London circuit had obvious and serious flaws. But the series drew a crowd, just as Crystal Palace did when it hosted races up until 1972. In Battersea, many were children who might never have witnessed live motor racing before. That is so important.

I continue to be dumbfounded how so many long-time racing aficionados dismiss and denigrate Formula E because it apparently goes against everything they believe motor racing should be. They are missing the point, belligerently so. This series is clearly not designed for purists. It is bringing a new form of motor sport to people rather than calling on them to come to it, reaching into major conurbations in the only way that would be acceptable to the wider society in 2015. It’s also an entry point to motor racing as a whole, for a new audience; it’s not a threat to the conventional sport or a pointer towards its doom – quite the opposite.

The backlash has been predictable, and frankly it’s boring. Motor racing can be so repetitive and conservative, its hard-core community refusing to accept that maybe, in a world that is increasingly hard to relate to, there might need to be new ways of attracting people through the gates. It’s almost as if they want to keep the sport for themselves, a sport unsullied by the interest of a wider public ignorant of how it used to be…

That’s selfish, and as Aylett pointed out, unsustainable if the business of motor racing is to thrive.

So from Jim Clark to Formula E in a few paragraphs – sacrilege! But that’s the reality of 2015. Motor Sport deals in the past because that’s what our readers want and expect. But it doesn’t mean we’ll give up on the future.

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