Cosmic Wheels -- The brief, brilliant career of Jim Clark
It’s the sand that gets to you. It blows in from the North Sea and gets in the sandwich you’re eating, inside your collar, up your nose, and down injector stacks and into engines where it acts like sandpaper on cylinder walls.
The Dutch Grand Prix at the seaside resort of Zandvoort always comes as a shock after the opulence of the Monaco Grand Prix. Monaco sits in the heart of the Mediterranean and is about privilege, private yachts, high-rise hotels and high-stakes gambling. Zandvoort, on the other hand, located on Europe’s northern rim, is middle class and egalitarian. It’s where pensioners go for vacation, and where everyone is crazy about french fries drenched in mayonnaise.
A fog bank has rolled in from the North Sea to envelope Zandvoort. Transporters arrive at the circuit north of town. Crewmen emerge to unload the expensive hardware: Ferraris, Lotuses, Hondas, BRMs, Coopers, Brabhams, and Eagles.
A crowd gathers around one of the cars, as it usually does, because this car belongs to the best driver in the world: Jim Clark. Today, this car is attracting more than the usual attention. It’s been the source of rumors for several months and is brand new: the Lotus 49. The car is compact and smaller than the other racing machines, a flawless integration of chassis and engine. Everyone has a look at the new Lotus and returns to their own teams, having seen the future of Formula One.
Saddled with bulky cars that outweigh Lotus by 300 pounds, the BRM, Honda, and Cooper teams feel like dumping their cars into the North Sea, going home and starting over. The Ferrari, Brabham and Eagle teams, on the other hand, are not nearly as far off the mark. The Brabham BT24, while not as elegant as the new Lotus, is nearly as small and lightweight and like Lotus has a fuel-efficient though less-powerful V-8 engine. The Eagle Mark I and the Ferrari 312 are nearly as light as Lotus but are larger cars, with larger fuel capacities and thirstier V12 engines.
The fog lifts as practice begins. Wind picks up and scatters sand across the circuit. Sometimes the sand gives tires more grip; at other times it acts likes marbles beneath the wheels. One moment a driver laps in record time, the next moment he’s two seconds off the pace and wondering what the devil has gone wrong.
Until today, Clark has never set foot inside the Lotus 49. His machine was completed mere days before the race and is unsorted. As a result, Clark spends most of practice in the pits watching his mechanics make a variety of small repairs and adjustments. The best he can manage is eighth fastest.
Clark’s teammate, Englishman Graham Hill, is doing much better. He has been testing his Lotus 49 for several weeks. As a result, most of the bugs have been worked out, the suspension setup is to his liking, and he’s able to draw on the new car’s maximum potential. He’s fastest in practice and on race day will start from pole. Next to him on the front row are Australian Jack Brabham and American Dan Gurney. Both Brabham and Gurney are team owners and drive their own cars--the Brabham BT24 and the Eagle Mark I, respectively.
At Zandvoort, there is really only one hotel and that is the Bouwes. All other sleeping accommodations are mom-and-pop operations--converted houses mostly, with small rooms and bathrooms down the hall. Zandvoort, therefore, is that rare race weekend where all the drivers sleep under one roof and dine together. At breakfast race day morning there is little conversation as everyone has pre-race jitters and is lost in their own thoughts. After breakfast there is little to do but wait. Being team owners, Brabham and Gurney head off to the circuit, while most drivers settle down to games of backgammon or step outside for a round of miniature golf.
Among this super-competitive group, mere games are deadly serious. No one wants to lose and there is a lot of cheating. On the other hand, Clark and fellow Scotsman Jackie Stewart--the best driver in the world and the heir-apparent--act as if these games are what they’re meant to be--diversions. They joke and generally enjoy themselves, until the final holes, when the two emerge as the clear leaders. Only one of them can win. Stewart tries his best, but as so often happens on the circuit, Clark prevails.
Clark never had aspirations of being a racing driver. In the early days racing was a mere lark, something to do. The fact that he was faster than everyone else came as a complete surprise, and he would often ask, “Why is everyone so slow?” He wasn’t bragging or being cute. He honestly didn’t think he possessed a special talent. For him, racing was as natural as breathing in and breathing out. Outside a racing car, he was unsure of himself, and had trouble making decisions; inside a racing car, he was confident, decisive, in total control.
Clark was raised in the Scottish Border region of Duns, Berwickshire, where he was bred to become a gentleman farmer, like his father. A number of well-to-do farmers in the area competed in amateur racing events on weekends, and Clark tagged along to watch. One fateful weekend he was asked to try his hand behind the wheel, and was three-seconds faster than everyone else. Once his friends realized how special his driving talents were, they pooled their money to buy a machine worthy of his skill, and sent him south to England and to the Continent to compete. After about two years Colin Chapman, the dapper David Nevin look-alike who owned Lotus Ltd., signed him to a contract, first to race Formula Juniors, and then Formula Ones. Clark mastered these machines very quickly and soon took his place among the upper rank.
Clark was never one to fuss about equipment. While most drivers would fret over spring rates, damper settings and the like, the Scotsman had a way of adjusting to a car’s peculiarities within two or three laps and then lapping quickly. Tire engineers were often amazed at how Clark was not only the fastest driver but had less tire wear and used less road cornering. It was as if the laws of physics didn’t apply to him, as if he were racing on cosmic wheels.
As the 3 p.m. starting time approaches, the clouds clear and the sun emerges in a bright blue sky. Sun bathers gather on the seashore while three-hundred yards away cars line up on the starting grid. Clark doesn’t expect to win or even finish today’s race. With nothing to lose, he’s relaxed and sociable, but as always bites his fingernails. His teammate Graham Hill, on the other hand, expects to win and is unapproachable in these waning moment before the start. Speak to him, and if he acknowledges you at all, it is with a blank stare.
The drivers make their way out to their cars. Clark slips on his blue helmet and steps into his car. His Lotus is British Racing Green accented with a yellow strip. Clark is starting from Row Three. Two rows ahead, on Row One, are teammate Graham Hill, Jack Brabham in the metallic green Brabham BT24, and Dan Gurney is the dark blue Eagle Mark I.
Zandvoort has been good to Clark. The circuit calls for a lot slaloming back and forth across the road, through a series of medium-fast curves that snake among the sand dunes. At this, Clark excels. He drove his very first F-1 race here in 1960 and would have finished a credible fourth had his transmission not seized. The following year he battled that year’s world champion for second place until slowed by mechanical trouble; he finished third. In 1962, he was on his way to his first ever F-1 victory until his clutch failed. After that, for three years running (1963-65), he won the Dutch Grand Prix easily. In 1966, he nearly made it four-for-four when the vibration dampener on his engine broke off sending him to the sidelines.
The flag drops. Through the smoke and dust Clark sees his teammate jump into the lead. The field slows and bunches up for the first turn, a looping right-hander called Tarzan Curve. Rounding the corner two-and-three abreast, the field spreads out as it exits then bunches up for the sharp left-hander behind the pits. Hill leads strongly, followed by Brabham, Gurney, the Cooper-Maseratis of Austrian Jochen Rindt and Mexican Pedro Rodrigues, and the Honda of Englishman John Surtees.
Clark is behind the Honda, in eighth place. Fumes, dust, and bits of rubber swirl from beneath the cars ahead of him and blur his vision. Such is life back in the pack, something Clark is unaccustomed to. A second Brabham BT24, driven by New Zealander Denis Hulme, moves up and edges into Clark’s lane. The Scotsman won’t yield and Hulme falls back.
The field spreads out on the backside of the circuit. Ahead, Surtees struggles with his ill-handling Honda through the onslaught of curves, while behind Clark is being challenged again, this time by the red Ferrari of another New Zealander, Chris Amon. On the front straight Amon’s Ferrari moves past in a fury of power.
The grandstand and pits loom up on the horizon and zoom past. At the end of lap one, Clark is ninth.
Amon passes Surtees on lap two, while further ahead, Rindt passes Gurney. Clark, meanwhile, is adjusting to his car’s handling quirks. His brakes pull when applied, and lock up completely when applied hard. His Ford Cosworth V8 is also giving him fits: at 6,500 RPM power slams on with such force his rear tires spin, making his car nearly uncontrollable. Anything below 6,500 and the engine has absolutely no power at all. At 6,500 RPM all hell breaks loose. It’s like driving with an on-off switch--full power or nothing. Clark must find a way to compensate: find the right braking pressure, and anticipate the engine’s sudden power burst. It doesn’t take him long. By lap three he hits his stride and begins moving up. He passes Surtees to take back seventh place. Then he passes Rodriguez. On lap four, he retakes Amon’s Ferrari. Then Gurney pits, while further ahead, Hill is having engine trouble and also pits.
Now Clark is third and circling the seaside circuit faster than he did in practice. He closes on Rindt’s Cooper-Maserati, in second. Rindt is probably the only driver in the race doing more to compensate for his machine’s failings than Clark. The Cooper is big and bulky, with protruding pipes and cobbled vents. While the Maserati V12 engine delivers power smoothly, it doesn’t have a lot of power to deliver. As usual, Rindt has the Cooper-Maserati pushed to its absolute limit. Clark sees Rindt’s face in the side mirror glancing back at him every few seconds. He sees flames leap from the Maserati’s exhaust pipes between gearshifts. Rindt uses every inch of road: he runs his inside tires up curbstones on the inside of curves, and at the exit his tires catch the verge and kick up puffs of sand.
Clark follows Rindt around the backside of the circuit and onto the long the front straightaway. At the point where the pits begin to flash past, he moves out from behind and out-brakes the Austrian going into Tarzan.
Clark is now second. Jack Brabham, the race leader and defending world champion, is 30 yards ahead.
Australian Jack Brabham personifies all that it means to be a professional race driver. He’s not only blessed with the talent to be competitive at the highest level, he is savvy about the career choices he has made. He knows that it’s not enough to be fast. To be successful, a driver must have the right car and the right suppliers, and must make wise career decisions. He must get with the right team at the right moment and move on when decline inevitably sets in. Brabham is not the fastest driver in F-1--not even among the top five--but he’s one of the very smartest. He’s a three-time world champion who for the past 18 months has owned the sport’s winningest team.
Brabham’s pit duly informs him that Clark is second and closing fast. The Aussie is not greatly concerned. For Brabham, it’s not the mano-a-mano stuff that wins races; it’s tactics, and being patient. He knows Hill’s Lotus is out of the race and that, odds are, Clark’s will be too. It’s only a question of when.
The Scot catches Brabham on the backside of the circuit and begins to press. The press becomes a draft on the front straight. As he did to Rindt two laps ago, Clark overtakes Brabham braking for Tarzan.
The race isn’t a quarter over and Clark is where he’s most comfortable--leading the race. The unsorted Lotus 49 is still a handful but he has it mastered. “He was so smooth, so clean, he drove with such finesse,” Jackie Stewart said of Clark years later. “He never bullied a racing car, he sort of caressed it into doing things he wanted it to do.”
Clark has mastered an unsorted car, but can he coax it home to victory? That is the question in the Lotus pit where owner/mastermind Colin Chapman and Cosworth engine designer Keith Duckworth wait and worry. There are so many things that can go wrong with a racing car--especially a new one--so many little hidden things that can break or leak or come loose: a bearing can seize, a circuit burn out, an oil line crack. The Ford Cosworth delivers 410 horsepower--more than Ferrari or Honda or Eagle--more even than Duckworth expected this early in development. It’s good to have such an advantage, but its murder on transmissions, halfshafts, and suspensions that are not designed to handle such power. Chapman and Duckworth have active imaginations and can think of a thousand things that can go wrong.
For the next 20 laps, Clark builds a sizable lead. He knows the fragile drivetrain is taking a beating. His biggest worry is the transmission, which was designed for Formula Two racing, and was chosen by weight-conscious Colin Chapman for its light weight. A bad decision that will be rectified in the future. For now, Clark must somehow make it last. Ever sensitive to the workings of his machine, the Scotsman changes gears gently, ever alert to the first signs of trouble--a balky shifter, a grinding sound, a smoke trail.
Behind Clark, Brabham is running alone in second. Having passed Rindt, Amon’s Ferrari 312 and Hume’s Brabham BT24 are in third and fourth. Stewart, in the BRM with the incredibly complex H16 engine, also passes Rindt to take over fifth place. Indeed, Rindt’s Cooper-Maserati is going slower and slower, like a bird wounded in flight. It isn’t long and the Austrian pulls into the pits and steps from his car, where he is joined by the second Cooper-Maserati of Rodriguez and Surtees‘ white Honda.
Surely, Clark is next to join the growing line-up of broken cars. Brabham thinks so. It was one year ago at just about this point in the race that Clark was forced to pit, thus handing victory to the Australian. With ten laps to go, it appears history will be repeating itself.
Trouble comes for Clark, not from the fragile drivetrain, but from the engine. The Cosworth V8 has begun to misfire. A misfire means the engine is starving for fuel and if allowed to continue will result in a piston meltdown. Everyone around the circuit can hear the misfire as Clark speeds past. Chapman and Duckworth hear it too, and turn deathly pale. Clark slows noticeably in the hope of nursing a sick engine over the finish line
Back in second, Brabham senses Clark’s misfortune and turns on the speed. The gap between the two cars begins to narrow. The closing laps tick off. Finally, the white flag is shown, indicating one lap remains. Clark is still in front, with engine temperature rising and fuel and oil pressure dropping. With the Australian breathing down his neck, can he make the faltering Lotus last one more lap?
In the pits, eyes strain to see which car emerges at the top of the front straight first. They can hear the pair coming by the rising pitch of their engines A car slips into view. Clark or Brabham? It’s Clark, with Brabham trailing by several car-lengths. The checkered flag is raised, and waived smartly, first for Clark, then for Brabham. Chapman and Duckworth embrace while the Lotus mechanics dance with joy.
It’s an incredible moment for Lotus and Cosworth: new car and new engine--right out of the box, so to speak--and victory first time out. It’s never been done before, until today, 5 June 1967. For Clark, it’s another day at the office. The best driver in the world has shown everyone yet again why he is the best driver in the world.
The future looks bright for all the principles, especially for the companies that have put up the money--Ford of England, Firestone Tire and Rubber Company of America, and Enco Petroleum. Ah, the advertising possibilities. Surely, the world championship can’t be too distant.
The championship comes but not as soon as everyone expects, and not for Jim Clark. The engine misfire becomes a recurring problem and is not resolved until late in the season. The brake problems persist as well, necessitating a complete redesign. The F2 transmission is replaced with a ZF unit that proves nearly as fragile. Halfshafts snap with regularity. Suspensions fail. For the duration of the year, the only thing that keeps the Clark-Lotus combination from steamrolling the competition is persistent mechanical failure. Nevertheless, Clark wins three more times, but at season’s end it is New Zealander Denis Hulme, driving Jack Brabham’s sister car, who is crowned world champion.
Nineteen-sixty-eight begins strongly for the Clark/Lotus-Cosworth combination. Clark wins the season opener in South Africa and dominates the Tasman Series on Brabham’s home turf--Australia and New Zealand. In April, at a meaningless F2 race, a tire fails on Clark’s car causing it to slam into the roadside trees and kill the Scotsman instantly. It’s a sad end to one of the most brilliant careers in motor racing history. Clark was so smooth and so effortless that no one thought it possible he might die behind the wheel. The racing world is stunned.
At Lotus, the mantle passes to Graham Hill, who delivers for the team: he wins the 1968 world championship. The mantle of world’s best driver, however, passes to Jackie Stewart, who the following year wins the first of three world championships.
Every decade produces at least one truly exceptional driving talent. In the 1970s, after Stewart, it’s Austrian Niki Lauda. In the ‘80s, it’s Alain Prost of France. In the ‘90s it’s Ayrton Senna of Brazil. In the first decade of new century, it’s German Michael Schumacher. In our time it’s another German, Sebastian Vettel. Before Clark, there was Tazio Nuvalari of Italy, who dominated the 1930s, Juan Fangio of Argentina who reigned in the 1950s, and from 1958 to 1961 Englishman Stirling Moss.
The question of who was the best ever is often asked. Clark generally gets the nod, and the statistics back it up. No one has yet to top his 35-percent Grand Prix winning percentage, or his 8 grand slams (qualifying fastest, setting the fastest lap in the race, and leading from start to finish). He also achieved most wins while leading every lap (5 in 1963 and 1965), highest percentage of laps leading a GP (71.5 percent in 1963), and highest percentage of possible championship points in a season (100 percent in 1963 and 1965).
Beyond being a racing driver of enormous talent and determination, Clark exuded charm and manners that reflected his upbringing. Many thought him shy, but reserved was a better adjective. It was only when he felt relaxed with people that he felt comfortable and would open up. Fundamentally his enormous talent bemused him, and although he unquestionably liked to show off in a car, he never stooped to posturing or boastfulness. Though he won races around the globe, came to meet the glittering and the famous, his feet remained firmly on the ground, his heart in the farmland of the Border region.
As a final note, and for what it’s worth, Indy great A.J. Foyt who raced nearly 40 years and rarely had a nice thing to say about anyone, became good friends with Clark. When I interviewed Foyt earlier this year, he told me Clark was the greatest driver he ever competed against.