The debate is the same, the drivers are almost always different, but a few, a few are mainstays.
The debate is simple: who is the greatest F1 driver of all-time? Drivers like Prost, Piquet and Lauda are sometimes mentioned, but Jim Clark, Jim Clark is always a contender. He was that good.
On paper, his stats aren’t that impressive–72 Grand Prix’s, 25 wins and 2 Championships–but considering he did all that in just six full-seasons during one of the most dangerous periods of F1, and you realise why he is revered as he is.
It’s not so much statistics, but performances that make the driver. Jim Clark’s relationship with Spa would lead to one of his, and the sports, greatest.
Clark hated Spa. In his first race there, in sports cars, his friend Archie Scott Brown was killed in changeable conditions. In 1960 his team-mate, Stirling Moss, broke both his legs in practice. Then in the race, Jim was the first to reach the fatal crash of Chris Bristow before his other team-mate, Alan Stacey was killed.
You’d think, with all that tragedy, that Jim would struggle at Spa. In actuality, he won four Grand Prix’s there, and it saw witness to one of his defining races. In 1963, in horrendous conditions, Clark started fifth, and very early on in the race, overtook everyone to lead. After 17 laps, with the rain streaming down even heavier, Clark had managed to lap the entire field except for Bruce McLaren, who he led by five minutes. It was a race of total domination in conditions the other drivers couldn’t come to grips with.
Clark spent his entire F1 career with Lotus and Colin Chapman. He raced his first Grand Prix in 1961 before driving full-time in 1962 where he won three Grand Prix’s and pushed his more experienced and great friend, Graham Hill, all the way in the Championship fight.
1963, the year of that famous Spa GP, was the year he came of age. Winning seven of the ten Grand Prix’s that year, he was unstoppable. His record of leading 71.47% of the laps that season, was the highest percentage of laps in the lead in a season. A record that has never been broken, or been close to being broken. Clark also finished second in the Indy 500 that year, stunning the American racing world.
1964 saw Clark push the Ferrari of Surtees and Graham Hill’s BRM right to the final race of the season. Very much the outsider heading into the final race, Clark led the race and the Championship, until his engine started to fail, eventually forcing him to finish fifth. It was a bitter blow to both he and Lotus, desperate for their second Championship. They didn’t have to wait long.
1965 saw Jim return to the top of the Championship with six wins. Incredibly, with the drivers best six results counted towards the Championship, Clark scored 100% of possible points available. He also managed this incredible feat in 1963. In ’65 Clark also managed to finally win the Indianapolis 500, becoming the first non-American to win the race in 46 years.
With a new 3-litre Formula introduced for 1966, Lotus didn’t have the engines to be competitive, eventually finishing the season sixth in the Championship, 26 points off Champion Jack Brabham.
With the introduction of the Ford-DFV in ’67, Clark and Lotus found themselves competitive again. On the debut of the new car, Clark drove it to the chequered flag at Zandvoort. Two more wins followed, but the consistency of the Brabhams, driven by Jack and Denny Hulme, gave the latter the Championship.
1968 looked like it was going to be another great one for Clark and Lotus. With the car available at the start of the season this time, Clark took the chequered flag at the first race in South Africa. Then tragedy struck.
In a Formula Two race at the Hockenheimring, Clark’s car flew off the road, and he was killed instantly.
Clark’s death greatly affected many of his peers, including Graham Hill, Jack Brabham and Jackie Stewart. Colin Chapman publicly stated he had lost his best friend in the wake of Clark’s death. It is a testament to the ability of the man that, when investigating the accident, many of the drivers failed to accept the possibility of driver error, simply because they did not believe Clark could make such a mistake.
Without any shadow of a doubt, Jim Clark is one of the greatest drivers ever to have raced in F1, absolutely on par with Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher. Had he raced for longer, he could possibly have beaten Fangio’s record of five Championships. But that was not to be.
Clark’s legacy lives on to this day, his ability, jovialness and modestness never to be forgotten. A true Champion.