Jim Clark won his first Drivers’ World Championship at the wheel of a Lotus 25 back in 1963 but today, 50 years on, he is still regarded as one of the greatest drivers ever.
The Berwickshire farmer made his F1 Grand Prix debut at the Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort on June 6, 1960, and his first Drivers’ World Championship came driving the Lotus 25 in 1963, winning seven out of the ten races and Lotus its first Constructors’ World Championship.
That year he also competed in the Indianapolis 500 for the first time, and he finished in second position behind Parnelli Jones and won Rookie of the Year honours. In 1964 Clark came within just a few laps of retaining his World Championship crown, but just as in 1962, an oil leak from the engine robbed him of the title, this time conceding to John Surtees. Tyre failure damaging the Lotus’ suspension put paid to that year’s attempt at the Indianapolis 500.
He made amends and won the Championship again in 1965 and also the Indianapolis 500 in the Lotus 38.
He had to miss the prestigious Monaco Grand Prix in order to compete at Indianapolis, but made history by driving the first mid-engined car to win at the fabled “Brickyard,” as well as becoming the first driver to win both that race and the F1 title in the same year.
At the same time, Clark was competing in the Australasia based Tasman series, run for older F1 cars, and was series champion in 1965, 1967 and 1968 driving for Lotus. He won fourteen races in all, a record for the series.
The FIA decreed from 1966, new 3-litre engine regulations would come into force. Lotus were less competitive. Starting with a 2-litre Coventry-Climax engine in the Lotus 33, Clark did not score points until the British Grand Prix and a third place at the following Dutch Grand Prix. From the Italian Grand Prix onwards Lotus used the highly complex BRM H16 engine in the Lotus 43 car, with which Clark won the United States Grand Prix. He also picked up another second place at the Indianapolis 500, this time behind Graham Hill.
During 1967 Lotus and Clark used three completely different cars and engines. The Lotus 43 performed poorly at the opening South African Grand Prix, so Clark used an old Lotus 33 at the following Monaco Grand Prix, retiring with suspension failure. Lotus then began its fruitful association with Ford-Cosworth. Their first car, the Lotus 49 featuring the most successful F1 engine in history, the Ford-Cosworth DFV, won its first race at the Dutch Grand Prix, driven by Clark. He won with it again at the British, United States and Mexican Grands Prix; and, in January 1968, at the South African Grand Prix.
On April 7, 1968, Clark treagically died in a racing accident at the Hockenheimring, in Germany. He was originally slated to drive in the BOAC 1000 km sportscar race at Brands Hatch, but instead chose to drive in the Deutschland Trophäe, a Formula Two race, for Lotus at the Hockenheimring, primarily due to contractual obligations with Firestone.
Clark’s Lotus 48 veered off the track and crashed into the trees. He suffered a broken neck and skull fracture, and died before reaching the hospital. The cause of the crash was never definitively identified, but investigators concluded it was most likely due to a deflating rear tyre.
Clark’s death affected the racing community terribly, with fellow Formula One drivers and close friends Graham Hill, Jackie Stewart, Dan Gurney, John Surtees, Chris Amon and Jack Brabham all being personally affected by the tragedy.
People came from all over the world to Clark’s funeral at Chirnside. Colin Chapman was devastated and publicly stated that he had lost his best friend. The 1968 F1 Drivers’ Championship was subsequently won by his Lotus teammate Graham Hill, who pulled the heartbroken team together and held off Jackie Stewart for the crown, which he later dedicated to Clark.
His tally of 25 victories was a record at the time. It has since been surpassed by several other drivers, but rarely in so few races. Clark’s came in just 72 starts, a win ratio surpassed only by Alberto Ascari and Juan Manuel Fangio.
Likewise, his tally of 33 pole positions was recently passed by Red Bull’s Sebsatian Vettel, with only Michael Schumacher and Ayrton Senna ahead. But in percentage terms, Clark is ahead of them all. He was on pole for 45.2% of his races - only Fangio, on 55.8%, did better.
Those numbers give a sense of how Clark towered over his era, a period when he made many grands prix mind-numbingly boring, so completely did he and his Lotus dominate them. Yes, the Lotus was often the best car, but Clark’s supremacy was not in doubt.
His two titles in 1963 and 1965 were exercises in crushing superiority, and he would have won in 1964 and 1967 as well had it not been for the notoriously poor reliability of Lotus’s cars.
And if it had not been for Clark, Lotus may well not have won as many races as they did. Alongside his speed, Clark also had a rare ability to drive around problems. His smooth style took so little out of the car, a crucial skill with machinery as fragile as his.