Jim Clark at Spa


Jim Clark detested Spa. Win or lose. Shine and/or rain. Thunder with lightning.

For a fretful man who chewed to the quick, this track, where time stood still no matter how fast you drove, loomed from his emotional mist like a valkyrie. He fought hard and well, witness his four consecutive Belgian GP triumphs here, yet it stalked him always, spooked him even: the trees, the speed; the anomalies, the omens.

Let us consider the latter.

In 1958, Spa provided him with his first international outing. He had lapped Full Sutton at 100mph in Border Reivers’ Jaguar D-type – the first such lap in Britain by a sportscar. Although this was sufficient to impress a young Jackie Young Stewart, the reassuringly wide vistas of a North Yorkshire airfield were poor preparation for a 130mph Spa lined with skimming visual references. Old and steady hand Jack Fairman showed him its lines – and pointed out its memorials as he did so: a bike racer here, Dick Seaman there.

Already unnerved, Clark got the fright of his nascent racing life when Masten Gregory, a fearless driver who would surprise himself by surviving a careering career at the wheel, lapped him, the ‘Kansas City Flash’ rocketing by in Ecurie Ecosse’s Lister-Jag.

That Clark also got his first whiff of motorsport death in the same race almost tipped him into an early retirement. That pall of smoke approaching La Source marked the fiery demise of Archie Scott Brown, a compatriot and (shyly acknowledged) benchmark of Clark’s. The original ‘Paralympian’, Scott Brown, striving tooth and claw to retain his position as Lister’s top cat, had been caught out by the sort of changing weather conditions that would often cause Clark’s mood to darken here.

In 1960, Spa provided him with his second World Championship GP start, in perhaps Lotus’s most disastrous race. His was the only 18 of five entered to finish: fifth, two laps in arrears. And his was the only works 18 of three not to show impending signs, when checked after practice, of the rear suspension failure that had sent Rob Walker’s car into a wretched spin and Stirling Moss to hospital: “Nose. Back. Legs. Bruises. Bugger!”

The fifth 18 couldn’t be checked. Steering failure had already sent it into the trees and its driver, privateer Mike Taylor, to hospital and subsequently the law courts for compensation.

Incredibly, worse was to follow in the race.

Innes Ireland, when recovering from a disorientating mother-and-father of a spin, bemusedly dumped his 18 in a ditch, while Alan Stacey, the second ‘Paralympian’ – he wore a false leg below the right knee – was killed when he struck a bird.

Clark didn’t see his friend Stacey’s crash, but he was first on the scene at Chris Bristow’s. The English newcomer, indubitably talented but perhaps hepped up on hype, had been dicing with the Ferrari of local hero Willy Mairesse, a racer with a gunslinger’s twitchy demeanour. The last time Motor Sport’s Denis Jenkinson saw their “pretty lethal duel” they were scratching through Eau Rouge inches apart.

The last time Clark saw Bristow, he was lying like “a rag doll” in the road having got off-line at Burnenville and been jettisoned from his Yeoman Credit Racing Cooper. Clark, who after the race spotted blood on his car, again considered retirement.

In 1962 – 50 years ago! – Spa provided him with the first of his 25 GP wins. But not before his monocoque 25’s engine gave up the ghost in practice, forcing him to borrow team-mate Trevor Taylor’s spaceframe 24, which then jammed in two gears – as it was being driven slowly from the circuit to Team Lotus’s nearby base.

Clark had qualified 12th. Only once in his career did he start a GP from lower: 16th – at Spa in 1961. And only once more would he qualify in double figures: 10th – at Spa in 1966.

Despite ripping his goggles off while attempting to remove his visor, which was causing him buffeting, he won with some comfort. Not so Taylor. Yorkshire Trev should have finished second, but a spin dropped him into the clutches of Mairesse. The Lotus and Ferrari touched at Blanchimont: telegraph poles, more ditches, cuts, bruises.

In 1963, Clark’s practice at Spa was hampered by gearbox gremlins and he started eighth, while Trev started battered and bruised after punching a cartoonish hole in a marshals’ post when something “went” in his 25’s suspension.

Clark, for whom racing and races were about control, was in the lead by the time the field reached Eau Rouge. He gave a master class thereafter, holding the car in top gear as the heavens opened and lap speeds sank to 80mph.

In 1964, he was flat, plain lucky. Chopping and changing between the 25 and the new 33 – he liked neither – he was no match, in the older car, for Dan Gurney’s Brabham. Or Graham Hill’s BRM. Bruce McLaren’s Cooper nipped past him too, when he pitted for his overheating Climax V8 to be watered.

Incredibly, all four men would run out of fuel. Clark did so on the slowing-down lap and parked at Stavelot to chat with Gurney. Neither man was sure of the result. A sequence of photos show Clark, perched on his tailpipes, joking fighter pilot-style with a friend who does not look like a man who has just had a consummate victory drained from him. Gurney’s smile widens further when the PA relays news of Jimmy’s victory. The Scot smiles too. Sheepishly. The pervading sense is of relief at another Spa over and done.

In 1965, in yet another Ardennes downpour, Clark was untouchable while withholding sufficient reserve to consider others’ safety as well as his own. When he thought he glimpsed the dayglo nose of Stewart’s BRM fluorescing in the spray, he speeded up to dissuade his inexperienced rival from giving unwise chase.

There Clark’s sequence of Spa wins ended. The omens continued.

In 1966, he shuttled unsettlingly back and forth in Colin Chapman’s plane on a spare parts dash as Team Lotus blundered between out-of-breath 2-litre 33 and overweight 43, with its BRM H16 engine. The latter was rendered beyond immediate repair, and Clark’s overnight bitsa belly-flopped when its suspension collapsed on the morning of the race. Its fix overran and he wasn’t on the grid when everyone else dumped their clutches. Clark, who had suffered the same indignity at Spa in 1960, departed moments later, at sky-high rpm and bpm.

Eight cars were eliminated on that opening lap. Seven spun out when a veil of rain drew across Malmédy and the Masta Kink. Stewart, soaked in petrol, rescued from his banana-ed BRM by American Bob Bondurant and Hill, and tended to by nuns, no longer considered Spa “a wee bit fast”. Now, it was simply too fast, too chaotic, for anybody’s good – and he planned to do something about it.

That was the difference between this Scottish ‘Batman’ and his ‘Robin’: Clark trusted more to skill and fate. His was the eighth retirement: an engine failure before he could reach the flood.

Finally, in 1967, prickled by the spike in speed but still in control, Clark ran away with his last Belgian GP until his 49 spat out a couple of Autolites. He plugged on, with just first, third and fifth gears, to the only sixth place of his GP career.

Perhaps the greatest wonder of the above is not that Clark carried on despite all this – he was too blessed with talent, too curious to discover its extent, not to – but that he was killed in a forest in Germany when something “went”.

Stewart was right: old Spa was too dangerous. But as we saw on Sunday, courtesy of Romain Grosjean, new Spa, even its 40mph hairpin, is not free from peril.

Both he and the punchy Pastor Maldonado – “Sorry, guv, me trigger finger slipped” – are fast, talented, undoubtedly too eager and perhaps lacking a little imagination. Their positions in F1 are assured yet they drive as though perched in its drop zone.

Grosjean must now watch Monza from F1’s naughty step. For a longer-term cure, however, I would proscribe a little less ‘Mairesse’ and a smidge more ‘Jim’.  And perhaps a walk in a forest to clear the mind.

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