The legendary Scottish racing driver Jimmy Clark is often overlooked when people list their greatest Formula One drivers of all time. Names like Michael Schumacher, Ayrton Senna, and Juan Manuel Fangio are thrown around with consummate ease but it is rare for Clark to be mentioned among even the top three drivers of all time.
Nobody is arguing he was the most successful but some do believe he was the most naturally gifted.
2008 marked 40 years since his tragic death, and this writer wants to make a case for James Clark Junior, the most naturally gifted F1 driver of all time.
He grew up close to the small Fife town of Kilmany as the only son of a farmer and as such, would have had many a chore growing up. Therefore, his father, at first, had little time for his fast paced hobby.
Ironically his father eventually said, "make it pay or give it up"—and make it pay he certainly did, and all during the life time of a very proud dad.
Two Time Drivers World Champion Clark made his F1 debut at 24 years of age driving a Lotus, like he would throughout his career, in the 1960 Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort.
It wasn’t to be a blistering start to life in F1 but he did finish fifth in his first race at the famous 8.7 mile Spa-Francorchamps circuit in Belgium in only his second outing. A race in which fellow drivers Chris Bristow and Alan Stacey sadly lost their lives.
He didn’t win an F1 championship at his first attempt or even his second in 1961, during which he is remembered more for his coming together with Ferrari’s Wolfgang von Trips, which left the driver and 15 spectators dead at the Italian GP, than his success on the track.
Success was to come, however, and the flying Scot won his first GP at Spa in 1962.
It was the first of 25 career wins which famously passed the previous record of 24 GP victories held by Fangio. Even more impressive was the fact Clark would go on to win four successive GP’s in Belgium, arguably the toughest grand prix in the championship at the time.
1962 would see the first championship assault by the man from Fife, but he lost the title in the final race of the season after mechanical issues had forced him to retire. It wouldn’t be the only time Clark would suffer this travesty. In 1964, he would lose the title due to his engine seizing on the final lap of the final race of the season.
In the 60’s, prestige was measured at tracks like Spa, which would kill a man with half a lapse of concentration—and Clark won four successive races there. Today and in recent times, such prestige has been saved for Monaco, with tracks like the old Spa and Nurburgring banished to the driving enthusiast.
Clark never won at Monaco, for what reason we’ll never know. Maybe it didn’t suit is free-flowing driving style, but more than likely mechanical issues once again came into play, and the event often fell in May. But as we'll discuss later, Clark had one eye on another prize.
Not winning in Monte Carlo, though, cannot diminish the fact Jim Clark of Scotland became World Champion in 1963, winning seven out of ten GP’s with seven pole positions. He won his second title in 1965, the same year he won America’s famous Indianapolis 500, which we’ll get to a little later.
His second title still contains a record which has gone unmatched in the 43 subsequent F1 seasons, and is likely to stay unmatched for decades to come:
Jimmy Clark not only won the title but he did so by leading every single lap of every race he finished in the 1965 season. Therefore, he won every race he finished with what we now call lights to flag victories.
It was an incredible feat which is unmatched by Fangio, Senna, or Schumacher.
The following two years saw a downturn in Lotus' fortunes but Clark was able to steer three unreliable cars to third in the 1967 championship.
And fans at Monza for the 1967 Italian GP possibly saw his finest performance, and possibly the greatest performance in a Grand Prix car. Clark was forced to pit from the lead with a puncture and rejoined a lap down only to be leading again by the start of the last lap. It was a staggering drive which ended, unluckily, with a third place finish after his car faltered due to a lack of fuel.
In those days, top racing drivers could turn their hand to any type of racing car or motorcycle for that matter (John Surtees won world titles on a motorbike and in an F1 car) and Clark was no different.
Tragically, Clark wasn’t to win another world title. Despite a strong start to the 1968 season, during which he won his last ever GP in South Africa, he was killed not in an F1 car but in a Formula Two race at Hockenheim in Germany on 7 April, 1968, aged just 32. Although the accident, where Clark veered off course and crashed into the trees which line the Hockenheim circuit, has never been explained, it is widely expected a mechanical failure played its part.
This is not because enthusiasts felt he was immortal (which he clearly wasn’t), but because they believed he was too good to crash.
And it was not just fans of F1 who mourned his passing. Clark was as admired across the Atlantic as he was in F1 circles.
The Scot won the Indy 500 in 1965, leading the race for 190 of the 200 scheduled laps and left a lasting impression on those who saw him drive. This was the only time a man has won both the Indy 500 and F1 Drivers’ Championship in the same year.
A driver revered in the world of Formula One and the top echelons of American motor sport. Clark won two titles, was cruelly denied two more by no fault of his own, and may well have gone on to win the 1968 championship had he not sadly lost his life.
It has been claimed since then by people close to him that Clark was ready to move on from his career in F1 after the 1968 season, so to speculate about further success may be even more futile than such an effort already is.
His success in America did not come without a cost. Clark took May out of the F1 championship to travel and compete there including during his World Championship victories in '63 and '65. Can you imagine in modern times, not competing in every race and winning a title? Or even putting one's carefully built reputation on the line in what is effectively a different sport?
He won the 1964 British Touring Car championship (Saloon cars) while at the same time competing in F1.
The racer also tried his hand at Rallying, IndyCar, NASCAR, the 24 Hours of LeMans, and various sports car events. Clark was in every way a racer and often wondered why fellow drivers were not as quick as him.
In the 60’s there were far fewer races in a season and for this reason Clark only raced a total of 72 GP’s, spanning over nine seasons as a Lotus driver. Of those races he won 25 (more than a third), had 33 pole positions, 28 fastest laps, and garnered a whopping 274 Championship points.
Amazingly, he would often just get into a car without setting it up in any way and post competitive times before asking for the car to be left alone for the race.
But the stat which jumps out most to this writer is the fact he only ever finished second once.
When you count the large number of races in which his car never got him to the finish and add the fact he won over a third of the GP’s he competed in, it isn’t too hard to come to the conclusion:
When Jim Clark finished, he won.
And as fellow driver, New Zealander Chris Amon, said about his fatal accident: “If this can happen to Jimmy, what chance do the rest of us have?”
Jimmy Clark, the most naturally gifted racing driver of all time.