The horror of Hockenheim left a sport and a nation in mourning

On a wet day in Germany, in a faulty car, Jim Clark drove his last lap. The tragic impact was felt around the world

IT WAS a minor race on a nondescript April day. Jim Clark, twice Formula One world champion, the greatest driver of his generation, could have been anywhere else but Hockenheim.

These days, leading F1 drivers restrict themselves to their own competition, rationing their outings. In the late 1960s, however, the best were in the habit of putting themselves to the test more or less every week.

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Even so, Clark need not have gone to Germany. He could have taken part instead in a sportscar race at Brands Hatch, but by the time he was invited to do so, he had already told Colin Chapman – his friend, the head of Team Lotus, and a man who had been with him on his ascent through the ranks to those two world championships – that he would race his Lotus-Cosworth at the Hockenheimring. A man of his word, he therefore entered the Deutschland Trophy, a round in that season's European Formula 2 championship.

Given his own pedigree and the relatively modest nature of the competition, Clark should, at the very least, have been challenging for a podium place. Instead, he struggled from practice onwards.

After the crash in which the Scot died at the age of 32, various theories arose about the cause of the tragedy, some of them fanciful suggestions that problems in his private life had led to his being distracted during the race. To those who were there that weekend, however, there was little doubt that the crash was caused by one or more faults with the car.

The Lotus had been misfiring in practice, the Freestone tyres toiling in the wet conditions. Clark realised that he was going to find it hard to make an impact, and he had no objection to sharing that knowledge with some of his competitors.

One of them, Derek Bell, recalled that at breakfast on the day of the race, Clark had issued a warning to him. "Don't get too close behind me when you come up to lap me," the Scottish driver told the Englishman. "Because my car is cutting out intermittently."

The notion that Clark would be lapped by anyone was implausible to Bell, and he understood then that the difficulties with the Lotus were severe. Indeed, in the race itself those difficulties were if anything even worse.

Instead of making his supremacy count and powering his way to the front of the field, at the end of the fourth lap Clark had actually dropped down a place, to eighth.

It was the last complete lap he would ever drive. Shortly after passing the finishing line, he lost control coming out of a right-hand bend at an estimated 170 miles per hour.

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That section of the track was out of sight of the crowd of 80,000, but the crash was witnessed by a marshal. "I was horror-struck," the marshal told reporters.

"Everything happened so fast. The car skidded off to the left and seemed to dive through the fence only ten yards from me. It went skidding and somersaulting across the grass and hit a tree with a tremendous thump. The car seemed to be in a thousand pieces."

Later, accident investigators calculated that Clark had fought for around 500 yards to regain control. The Lotus- Cosworth was half on the track, half on the grass safety strip for that distance, but then became airborne, somersaulting three or four times and crashing side on into trees.

Clark is believed to have died almost immediately. His neck was broken and his skull was fractured, among other serious injuries. He did not stand a chance.

Standards of safety in motor-racing 40 years ago were woeful. Around the world, more than 100 racing drivers were killed in the decade to 1968, and it would take the deaths of many more before the drivers themselves, with Jackie Stewart to the fore, succeeded in imposing better conditions.

Yet, even in that ambience of apparent disregard for the safety of the competitors, fatalities were investigated thoroughly, and that of Clark was no exception. Some early contentions, such as the argument that he had swerved to avoid children who had run on to the track, were soon found not to hold up. Others, such as those about his private life, did not bear much scrutiny either.

Clark was popular with women, and, as Stewart, his friend and compatriot, recalled in The Scotsman yesterday, would at times have several girlfriends on the go simultaneously. He also had a serious relationship with Sally Stokes, who went on to marry another racing driver, Ed Swart.

It was mooted by some at the time that one or other of those friendships had gone wrong, causing him significant grief and impeding his normally ice-cool racing brain. Had that been the case it would have at least surrounded Clark's tragic death with an aura of doomed romance, but the reality is surely more ordinary.

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The fact was, the conditions were poor and the car could not cope. If he had been driving recklessly for whatever reason, Clark would not have been down in eighth.

For those who were there, and who knew about motor-racing, there was no doubt that a physical fault had caused the crash. The problem was that they could not agree on which fault it was, if indeed there had been one principal cause.

Given the warning he had received over breakfast, Bell thought it likely that the Lotus's engine had cut out. On the other hand, Dave Sims, Clark's mechanic, was convinced that a right-rear tyre deflation had caused the crash.

The official report into the accident sided with Sims, decreeing that a puncture to a tyre had thrown the Lotus out of control. Given the state of the car after the crash, though, there had to be an element of surmise in that verdict, and the only man who knew exactly what happened that Sunday afternoon took his knowledge to the grave with him.

Apart from the track marshal, the race authorities and the medical staff who were quickly on the scene, no-one heard of Clark's death for two hours afterwards. "We did not announce it earlier because we did not want the crowd to panic," an official said.

When it was announced, the Hockenheim crowd stood in silent tribute. In Monte Carlo, where a race was being held on the Monza circuit, several drivers wept on hearing of Clark's death.

The same stunned reaction continued as the news spread throughout the motor-racing community and beyond. "British motor-racing has never suffered a more severe blow," said Wilfred Andrew, the chairman of the RAC. "Jim Clark may well have been the greatest driver of all time in terms of Grand Prix racing."

The blow was felt just as severely throughout Scotland. Although a modest, private man who felt most at home and at ease with his own folk in the Borders, Clark had become a symbol of Scottish, and British, pride. It was evident then that, whoever or whatever followed him, in Formula One or in the broader arena of Scottish sport, he would remain one of our greatest competitors.

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He was equally admired by those of other nationalities, as Stewart stressed when he paid tribute to his friend. "Jimmy's death is probably the most tragic thing in my experience of motor-racing – probably in the history of motor-racing," said the man who would go on to win the world title three times. "Jimmy was not only a famous driver. He was an international personality, loved by all his fiercest rivals."