David Coulthard: We owe it all to Jim Clark

Had Jim Clark not mastered the art of driving around twisty Borders roads and airfields, Scottish sport would never have known the names David Coulthard, Dario Franchitti and Allan McNish.

Friday, 3rd January 2014, 2:39 pm
Jim Clark leads the 1963 Belgian Grand Prix at Spa in his Lotus 25-Climax

That’s the view of Coulthard, who marks the 50th anniversary of Clark’s first F1 World Championship title by adding his name to Franchitti’s in becoming a patron of the Jim Clark Trust, and supporter of plans to create a new, multi-media museum dedicated to the late driver’s memory in Duns.

Coulthard is arguably the most well-known of Scottish motor racing drivers from the past 20 years by dint of the rarefied atmosphere and grand levels of publicity that surrounds the world of Formula One in Europe. The fact that he stood on 62 podiums and won 13 Grand Prix during a 15-year career in which he consistently challenged, and often defeated, the best in the world at the top may also have played a part.

The Scot, who quit the cockpit in 2008 and is now an insightful TV presenter, also celebrated a special Christmas this year, having tied the knot with his Belgian fiance Karen Minier on November 27. They were married in a private, quiet ceremony in Monaco after seven years of engagement and will toast the new union this week with Coulthard’s close racing friends Paul Stewart, the son of Sir Jackie, and Gil de Ferran, and their families at their snowy Swiss chalet retreat.

Jim Clark celebrates his first world title with an open top bus tour in Berwickshire in September 1963.

Taking time out from his festive plans to speak exclusively to The Scotsman the proud Scot was eager to stress just how much a part the legendary Scots trio of Clark, Sir Jackie Stewart and Innes Ireland played in him becoming a world sporting star.

“Obviously, I was never lucky enough to meet Jim Clark,” began Coulthard, “but I grew up hearing stories about him and, looking back, I have absolutely no doubt that had he, Jackie, Innes and others not started racing cars around old oil drums at Charterfield airfield and elsewhere, Scottish motor racing wouldn’t have been born and people wouldn’t have gone off and conquered Le Mans, F1, Indycars and the rest.

“I know, because I speak to them about it, that Allan McNish and Dario feel the same – that we have managed to go out and achieve relative success in high-level formulas across the world because of foundations laid by Jim Clark, Jackie and Innes. No doubt.”

That explains why they have been quick to back the move by the Jim Clark Trust to widen awareness of the great Scot who was termed, by the five-times Formula 1 world champion Juan Manuel Fangio, “the world’s greatest racing driver ever”.

Former Formula One driver David Coulthard during a photocall at the official opening of The Scottish Caravan and Outdoor Leisure Show at the SECC in Glasgow. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Thursday February 3, 2011. This year's Scottish Caravan and Outdoor Leisure Show has the largest indoor selection of static caravans and holiday home's in the UK. See PA story SCOTLAND Coulthard. Photo credit should read: Danny Lawson/PA Wire

Coulthard said: “Like all guys of my age or generation, we grew up hearing about this man Jim Clark. Jackie was the bigger influence on our careers because he was alive to have an influence, but he was always singing the praises of Jim.

“My father told a story of him doing a rally, I think over our way in Dumfriesshire, and apparently he either put the car in a ditch or rolled into a ditch where my dad was standing, and he got his signature on a cigarette packet. He also told me stories about fighting in the war and being an SAS commander, so you have to work out for yourself which ones come from his imagination.

“Growing up, there were two types of books in our house, motor racing books and world war books, and looking at pictures of Scots driving cars flat-out were pretty exciting for a young kid.

“I remember going to a motor racing dinner and Innes Ireland’s wife presented me with a young driver award. Innes, I think, was the first Scotsman to a win a grand prix, and famously came out of the Monaco tunnel without his car, but on his backside! That night I sat listening to stories of what it was like racing in their days, and tales of racing in great cities around the world.

Jim Clark at his Berwickshire Farm

“And then you get into the sport and start to travel and come across journalists and team people who have been involved for decades and were lucky to come across Jim, and they’re talking about this Scotsman with such a passion and obvious respect that it makes you realise Clark was pretty special.

“Being a Scot, that made me proud, but the big thing is back then it also makes you believe. It made me believe that if a young Scotsman who drove cars around the Borders and on airfields could go out there and conquer the world, then it was possible. It was real. It wasn’t just pictures in a book or on Hollywood films.”

The world of motorsport that Coulthard revved into was a world removed from that of Clark’s day, when the Kilmany-born and Berwickshire-bred racer won 25 grand prix and two world titles in just nine years. The first world crown came 50 years ago in 1963.

He was on track to retain it in 1964 when a persistent oil leak took it away from him, which was similar to the 1962 season. But he was back on top of the world again in 1965. Underlining how different it was then, Clark also won the Indianapolis 500 that year and the Australasian Tasman Series for older F1 cars, where he won all 14 races. One cannot quite imagine Sebastien Vettel and Red Bull competing in 25 races in one year, never mind dominating them.

As Coulthard discovered when driving Clark’s Lotus 25 around Silverstone earlier this year, watched by Clark’s mechanics, it was very different inside the car then too.

“Driving his car was fantastic and I don’t think I’ve ever been so terrified and excited in a car. I was whooping driving around the track!” he recalled.

“As you get to grips with it and get going you begin to imagine the period they were racing in, the way they drove and the fun they had. People asked me to describe how great the car was, but the thing is while you have great respect for the workmanship and what guys were doing then it was a bit like me handing you now one of the first mobile phones. You probably wouldn’t be that impressed.

“It was fascinating for me to see how cutting edge technology was at that time; with the 200 horsepower, dampers, but no down-force, and with the changes in technology it reminded me of a very powerful Formula Ford car which relies more on driver grit and using yourself to balance the car, very different to the aggressive, hostile environment of modern, twitchy, high rpm F1 cars with very powerful brakes, and overall downforce.

“It was a different animal, but I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I firmly believe that the best drivers of any era, given the same preparation and system of development, would be at the top of the game in any car – Fangio, Clark, Stewart, Schumacher, Vettel, whoever.

“The car is the ultimate tool, but you don’t get to the top unless you have been able to prove yourself as a driver. There’s no doubt I have known guys with exceptional talent who didn’t make it because they didn’t have the brakes, and could have won GPs if they had a different car, and others who got up there with the financial backing, but you can still spot a real driver.

“So, when we look back on the races and hear the stories of the 1960s and 1970s, how many races he won, in all weathers and by big and small margins, it doesn’t take much to realise what a driver Jimmy Clark was.

“That is why what the Jim Clark Trust is doing deserves huge support across Scotland. There is so much that can be told from a relatively short career, in which so much was achieved, and it is great to think that people from all over the world will be able to come to Scotland and learn about how a guy from rural farming area went out and conquered the world.

“Jim’s story laid the foundations for my generation and hopefully by keeping it alive it will inspire generations to come.”

With that, a few kind words and best wishes to mutual friends, he was off back to his wife Karen, her daughter Shanna and their five-year-old son Dayton, not named after the Daytona racetrack incidentally, but David’s uncle Hayton who formed the garage business which was to underpin Coulthard’s motor racing career, with the first initial twist in keeping with the ‘DC’ initials family tradition.

Now joined in retirement by Franchitti and McNish, Coulthard is part of another chapter of Scottish sport that has now ended, but from twisty Borders roads to rain-drenched Spa, Indy 500s to Monaco and Swiss chalets, the Scottish motorracing story remains an enduring one.