Had Ford had their way Jim Clark would have been driving in the World Sports Car Championship at Brands Hatch on this day in 1968 and the world of motorsport would have passed through the sliding door of an alternative future. Instead it was plunged into mourning for a driver who bestrode the era as brilliantly as any in grand prix racing. More than half a century on Clark’s place among racing’s immortals remains assured.
Lotus and sponsors Firestone prevailed in their desire to send Clark to the line at Hockenheim to contest a Formula 2 race with his great team-mate and rival Graham Hill. Though death was a ready companion in those radical, pre-safety conscious days when drivers would slip into their automotive prototypes with fingers crossed, none imagined fate could rub out a driver thought indestructible by his peers.
In his 73 F1 starts Clark won 25 times, a win percentage of 34.25, the third highest in history behind only Fifties pioneers Juan Manuel Fangio and Alberto Ascari. This was still a period in which drivers were expected to fill in between F1 obligations. Clark’s victory at the opening race of the 1968 season in South Africa would be his last. Five weeks before he was due to line up at Jarama in Spain he lost control of the car as he went through the high-speed but by no means threatening East Curve.
Clark was running eighth when the car snapped out of shape at around 150mph. After travelling 500 yards along the straight as he tried desperately to correct the car, he left the track sideways and smashed into the trees. Chris Irwin in the car behind said it looked like a mechanical failure of some kind. A steward noted how the car was jagging sharply from side to side. There was no forensic treatment of the scene in those days. The Lotus engineers could find no obvious explanation when the car, which had raced only once before, was returned to the factory.
Clark was taken to hospital but was dead on arrival, his neck broken and skull fractured. Hill was quickly on the scene helping sift through the debris and, incredibly, taking one end of the car to lift it out of the dense copse. A sense of shock gripped this unfamiliar circuit south of Mannheim. It was the first time Clark had turned a wheel at Hockenheim, opened just three years earlier. His first appearance was considered a coup and conferred great status upon the track.
Motorsport was not then a part of the daily newspaper diet. Race reports were a feature of the emerging specialist press with the focus that day on the sports cars at Brands. Beyond Monaco, the British Grand Prix and the Italian Grand Prix, you would struggle for any detailed accounts, so the news was slow to filter out. When it did the truth ran into a wall of disbelief since none could quite grasp how Clark, this supreme natural talent, might ever be the victim of such an end.
Before his driving achievements, his two F1 world titles, his 25 race wins, his victory at the Indianapolis 500, the epitaph on his grave in the Scottish Borders begins with the word ‘Farmer’, for in those parts his heritage as part of the Chirnside farming community was the most salient signifier.
There was no karting pathway to single seaters in the 1950s. Clark discovered his propensity for driving whilst thrashing about in a Sunbeam Talbot in local hill climbs and road rallies. Throughout his eight years in F1 Clark reached an accommodation with the glamour and exposure without ever being quite of it. That sense of otherness was part of his mystique. The exact spot where his car came to rest is lost in the undergrowth, though a commemorative plaque stands as a minimalist reminder of one of British racing’s darkest days.