In this day and age of relative safe racing it is easy to forget that in years gone by a crash, in most cases, meant death. History is littered by the greats of Formula 1 that have died doing something they loved. Today marks 45 years since the death of arguably one of the best drivers and one that was taken from us too early.
1968 – Jim Clark dies at Hockenheimring
Born in 1936 on a farm in Fife, Scotland, Jim Clark, or Jimmy as he was affectionately known, was probably just another boy (his parents’ only son as he was youngest of five and the only boy). However, after his parents moved to the Scottish Borders Clark soon proved he was a formidable competitor.
He entered road rally and hill climb events in his own Sunbeam-Talbot in 1956 and by 1958, racing Jaguar Type-D and Porches for the Borders Reivers racing team he had won 18 national races. This was just the begining and soon he was noticed by an impressed Colin Chapman who gave him a ride in one of his Formula Junior cars.
Clark made his Formula 1 debut in 1960 at Zandvoort but did not finish the race due to mechanical failure. In his second race at Spa-Francorchamps he was introduced to the reality of the sport as the race was marked by two fatal accidents. Despite admitting he was “scared stiff” throughout the race Jimmy managed to finish 5th and earned his first Formula 1 points.
On 7 April 1968, with a career boasting two Formula 1 World Championships and an Indianapolis 500 win, Clark took part in a “lesser” Formula2 race at Hockenheimring due to contractual obligations with Firestone. Even though it was a F2 race there were a number of impressive entries (Jean-Pierre Beltoise and Henri Pescarolo – Matra, Chris Amon – Ferrari, Derek Bell and Piers Courage – Team Brabham, Graeme Lawrence and Robin Widdows – McLaren).
Graham Hill and Clark were driving the Gold Leaf Team Lotuses (48). Clark was experiencing problems with his engine which would misfire and cut out when going through curves causing the car to go sideways and then as it cut back in the car would straighten out. The Lotus 48s cars were also having trouble due to the Firestones not working well in the cold and damp conditions and the Dunlop shod cars handled much better, evidenced by Clark qualifying 7th almosts 2.4 seconds of pole.
The race started in damp conditions and on the 5th lap, while running on his own down in 8th place, Clark lost control of his Lotus 48 as he went through a curve at 150mph. An eye witness said the car was running fine then briefly snaked before leaving the track and going into the trees. Clark suffered a broken neck and skull fractures and died on his way to the hospital.
Surtees and Brabham blamed a deflating rear tyre and stated that Clark was not able to make such driving mistakes. No one knows what caused the crash and investigations carried out by aircraft crash investigators who concurred.There are other theories as well though, such as the engine cut out due to the misfiring problem causing Clark to lose control.
Another theory is that car failure resulted in the accident. A week earlier at Barcelona, Clark was hit under braking for the hairpin on lap one and retired with rear suspension damage.
Lotus had a reputation for frailty and there was just a week to get the car from Barcelona to Hockenheim and effect repairs. Could something else have broken? We will never know as the car was destroyed in the accident.
What we do know is that motorsport had lost one of it’s greatest drivers.
In the video below legendary Murray Walker talks about Jim Clark.
As Ferrari Grand Prix driver Chris Amon put it so eloquently: “Beyond the grief there was also a fear which we all felt. If it could happen to him, what chance did the rest of us have. It seemed that we’d lost our leader.”