Going Out on Top: The Story of Jim Clark's Final Formula 1 Race

Matthew Walthert@@MatthewWalthertFeatured ColumnistApril 7, 2015

Jim Clark at the 1968 South African Grand Prix.
Jim Clark at the 1968 South African Grand Prix.Anonymous/Associated Press

Just before three o'clock in the afternoon on New Year's Day, 1968, 23 men lined up on the starting grid for the South African Grand Prix, the first race of the new Formula One season.

The hot African sun beamed down on the slim, metal cars, and sweat soaked the drivers before the starting flag even waved. The cars formed a rainbow against the black tarmac, most of them not yet marred by the advertising that would engulf their traditional liveries later that year: blood-red Ferraris, Lotuses in British racing green, an orange McLaren and blue Matras.

Sitting on pole position was Jim Clark, winner of the 1963 and 1965 world championships and the heavy favourite again in '68. Behind him were four other world champions and two future champs, but Clark had qualified a second clear of anyone else. As he prepared for the start, Clark did not—could not—know that this race, at a dusty circuit north of Johannesburg called Kyalami, would be his last F1 grand prix.

The Scotsman had won the final two races of the 1967 season, missing out on a third title due to the unreliability of the new Lotus 49 and its Ford Cosworth DFV engine. Those wins, though, gave him 24 for his career, matching the great Juan Manuel Fangio, winner of five world championships in the 1950s.

Clark's next victory would give him the most wins in F1 history and, with the fastest car in the field, there appeared to be many more in his future.

Jim Clark
Jim ClarkAssociated Press/Associated Press

As three o'clock approached and the engines—mostly three-litre V8s and V12s—roared to life, 90,000 spectators spread out among the circuit's nine turns surged forward, straining for a better view.

In some places, they were held back by short wire fences that offered little in the way of crowd control and less in the way of protection. In others, there was not even that thin wire between the fans and the cars that would soon be averaging more than 160 km/h around the recently resurfaced, sweeping Kyalami circuit.

Clark gripped the leather-clad steering wheel of his Lotus-Ford, shutting out any external distractions and perhaps making a last-minute check of his mirrors. In those final days before rear wings were introduced to F1 cars, the mirrors still provided a clear view to the rear.

The grid was empty, now. No more journalists, mechanics or sponsors. No more people crowding the drivers in the final minutes before they would risk their lives at speed. There were just 23 men with their cars. And the noise.

The starter waved the orange, white and blue South African flag, and the cars burst off the line—well, most of them. Clark's team-mate, Graham Hill, starting beside him on the front row, was slow to get away, and Jochen Rindt's Brabham slipped between the two Lotuses and into the lead, with Matra's Jackie Stewart and Clark in his slipstream.

"There was a lot of respect between the drivers at the start," recalled Andrea de Adamich, driving for Ferrari in his first world championship race. "Nobody was doing stupid things like today, changing lines at the corner to close the braking point for the others. If someone was braking late, you let him go through, because there was respect between the drivers."

With Clark in third and Hill seventh, perhaps there would be a race after all, rather than a coronation for Clark and Lotus.

That weekend at Kyalami, Clark was two months shy of his 32nd birthday. He was born on a farm in Kilmany, Scotland, a few long drives from St. Andrews on the country's east coast. When he was a child, his family moved across the Firth of Forth to a town called Duns, near the English border, and he still owned a farm nearby, growing crops and raising cows and sheep.

"He was Scottish with a perfect Queen's English accent, unlike Stewart, who you could hardly understand," recalled Robert Daley, who covered grand prix racing for The New York Times from 1958 until 1967 and published two books about that period called The Cruel Sport and Cars at Speed.

On that Monday in January, Clark was also widely considered the best racing driver in the world (and even now, nearly 50 years later, he ranks near the top of any lists of the all-time best drivers).

Clark and Lotus founder Colin Chapman celebrate the 1963 world championship.
Clark and Lotus founder Colin Chapman celebrate the 1963 world championship.Anonymous/Associated Press

Dave Sims, a Lotus Formula Two mechanic at the start of the 1968 season, still speaks with a certain reverence for Clark's natural ability. "If the car handled badly, he could adapt," Sims remembered. "If the tyres went off during the race, he could adapt. He could adapt to the car and he kept the same speeds, the same times."

Brian Redman, making his grand prix debut at Kyalami, had raced against Clark in F2 the previous season. "I was just the new guy on the scene," Redman said, "and he would come up to lap me and—with tremendous effort—I could hold onto him for about four laps. And then I'd either crash or slow down...so I'd slow down."

In an effort to learn some of the Scot's secrets for success, Redman once asked, "Jimmy, do you do any exercise?"

Clark smiled and replied, "I lift my leg to get into bed at night."

With that God-given talent and Colin Chapman's brilliant Lotus cars, the dark-haired, handsome Scot was nearly unbeatable as long as his car held together. And Clark was also as versatile as any driver in history—he was twice a runner-up in his class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans (and third overall in 1960), and he won the 1965 Indianapolis 500. In short, if a vehicle had four wheels and an engine, Clark could make it fly.

Any hope for a competitive race, at least at the front, disappeared at the beginning of the second lap. Stewart and Clark were already back ahead of Rindt and then Clark passed his fellow Scot and began to pull away. He set and re-set lap records on the fourth and fifth laps, taking control of the race.

Jim Clark leading the race.
Jim Clark leading the race.Anonymous/Associated Press

The only thing that could stop Clark, it seemed, was a problem with his car—a broken suspension arm, a blown engine or any one of the myriad issues that had cost him a shot at the championship in 1967.

With the heat—Autosport's Roger Houghton reported the track temperature was nearly 50 degrees Celsius when the race started—reliability had been a problem during the three days of practice and qualifying, and the teams had rigged up various ad hoc solutions to try to cool the cars. However, Lotus chief mechanic Bob Dance does not remember any special modifications for the 49s of Clark and Hill.

Meanwhile, the crowds sought shelter from the afternoon sun under large beach umbrellas and makeshift canopies.

"We were unprepared for the heat in Kyalami," said Ferrari's Chris Amon. "I certainly didn't realize it was going to be as hot as it was. That Johannesburg race was as hot as any I can remember."

The high temperatures would continue to play havoc with the cars throughout the race, with the first retirement coming on the second lap. A pipe burst in Ludovico Scarfiotti's Cooper, spraying his legs with boiling water. The Torinese driver managed to stop his car and jump out, but not before suffering first-degree burns that required hospital treatment.

Chris Amon at Kyalami in 1968.
Chris Amon at Kyalami in 1968.Eddie Worth/Associated Press

After the race, some of the drivers were leaving immediately to catch a flight to New Zealand for the start of the Tasman Series. "It was a hell of a long flight from there to New Zealand, with a couple stops on the way," Amon said, "but I still remember it was difficult to sit down because I'd burnt my back and burnt my backside during the course of the race. I can actually remember more, I think, about being uncomfortable on the flight than I can the actual race."

In the end, thanks in no small part to the heat, just 10 cars would take the chequered flag at Kyalami.

Grand prix racing in those days was not the same modern, safety-conscious sport shown on television now. For one thing, full races were rarely broadcast live. Fans would content themselves with highlights on the evening news and race reports in specialist magazines like Autosport and Motor Sport.

And in those days, F1 was still a bloodsport. In the 1960s, deaths were a common, unfortunate part of the grand prix scene—of the 23 men who started the 1968 race in South Africa, seven were killed on a racetrack by 1972. This carnage was something Clark experienced first-hand.

In the second race of his career, the 1960 Belgian Grand Prix at the fast and fearsome Spa-Francorchamps circuit, two British drivers were killed within minutes of each other.

First, Chris Bristow, himself only in his fourth F1 race, was decapitated when he was launched from his car in a high-speed crash. His body was thrown back onto the circuit, where Clark was forced to swerve around it. Five laps later, Alan Stacey was killed when he was hit in the face by a flying bird and crashed at nearly the same spot, his car plunging into the forest that surrounded much of the track.

The following year, Clark was a protagonist in one of the most horrifying crashes in F1 history (though he was not at fault). At the Italian Grand Prix, the penultimate race of the season, Ferrari's Phil Hill and Wolfgang von Trips were battling for the drivers' championship. A third place finish for Von Trips would have clinched the title for the German count, but it was not to be.

On the second lap of the race, approaching Monza's famous Parabolica corner, Von Trips collided with Clark's Lotus. The German's Ferrari was launched up an embankment where fans were crowding close to the track to see the cars pass by. The car spun, scything through the spectators—15 were killed, along with Von Trips, who was thrown from the car and came to rest at the side of the track.

From 1960 to 1967, six drivers were killed at F1 grand prix weekends. That total does not include those who died testing or at F1 races that were not part of the world championship. That is the world Jim Clark lived and drove in—one where a driver's first concern when he stopped in the pit lane after a race might not be whether he won or lost, but whether his friends and rivals were alive or dead.

In 1966, Robert Daley was on assignment for Sports Illustrated to write an article about Stewart, who was in his second F1 season and who considered Clark a friend and mentor.

At the Belgian Grand Prix, Stewart suffered a high-speed crash and was trapped in his car for nearly half-an-hour, soaked in gasoline, before two other drivers freed him. There were no track marshals or doctors around. Luckily, his injuries were not serious, and he missed just one race while he recovered, but the experience launched Stewart on a lifelong crusade to make grand prix racing safer.

Daley was speaking with Stewart and his wife, Helen, after the race, and he was surprised at how unperturbed she seemed after a crash that could easily have killed her husband.

"This girl doesn't realize how dangerous this is," Daley thought. "She hasn't yet learned to count the cars every time around to find out who's missing. She hasn't gone to any funerals.

"Well," he recalled matter-of-factly, "she went to plenty after that."

As Clark continued to build his lead on the Highveld, Hill was recovering from his horrible start. After falling as low as seventh place, the 1962 champion had fought his way back to third—trailing only Clark and Stewart—by Lap 13.

On Lap 29, Hill passed Stewart, as well. As Michael Tee explained in Motor Sport's race report, "The Matra held Hill on all the slow corners, but on the fast curves, understeer was slowing Stewart and it was here that the Lotus with its longer development had the edge, and went by into second place," restoring the rightful order.

Graham Hill, Jackie Stewart and Jim Clark.
Graham Hill, Jackie Stewart and Jim Clark.Associated Press

In addition to the stars fighting it out at the front, there were also three drivers making their F1 debuts. One of them was Basil van Rooyen, a 28-year-old local who was driving the privately-entered Cooper-Climax that Rhodesian John Love had nearly won the 1967 South African Grand Prix with. Most of Van Rooyen's experience was in saloon cars (sedans), and he had never raced a single-seater, let alone an F1 car. Now, he was being thrown to the lions.

In the drivers' briefing, before practice started on Thursday, the established racers wanted to know who this driver they had never seen or heard of was and what experience he had. When they found out, they were not happy. After some grumbling, though, "and after the clerk of the course appealed, they relented in so far as saying my practice and race would be subject to unanimous approval on each of the three practice days," Van Rooyen remembered.

After qualifying ahead of the veteran Jo Bonnier, Van Rooyen was allowed to start the race, but he retired from 13th place on Lap 22, with a broken valve in his engine.

During those practice sessions, while Van Rooyen was trying to ensure his continued participation, De Adamich, another rookie, spent time observing the more experienced drivers, watching their braking points and their lines through the corners.

"I could learn from Graham Hill, I could learn from Denny Hulme, I could learn from the others, because I could see the personality of the driver, how to make the corners and the circuit," the Italian remembered. "But when Clark was arriving with his Lotus, it was impossible to copy in your mind what he was doing."

John Surtees, Clark's first F1 team-mate, had a slightly more pragmatic view of Clark's success. "What made Jimmy as quick as he was, was the fact that he came together very well with what was the best car at the time and with the engineers, and they all excelled," Surtees said. "Jimmy was good—very good—but a lot of the time also had the best car."

Most of the drivers and teams were staying at the Kyalami Ranch hotel, about two kilometres from the entrance to the circuit.

"It's one of the few times I used to ride a motorcycle, during that time," remembered Surtees, winner of four motorcycle world titles, as well as the 1964 F1 drivers' championship. "I used to get Honda to lend me a motorcycle so that I could just go from the hotel and get into the track more easily; it wasn't always that easy to get in the track because of the crowds."

The Kyalami Ranch featured low-slung, motel-style buildings and was about 25 kilometres from the Johannesburg airport. Therefore, it was also regularly used by the airlines to quarter their flight and cabin crews during layovers. The centre of activity at the hotel—for F1 drivers and airline stewardesses alike—was the swimming pool and the lush, green lawns surrounding it.

RetroGP.com @RetroGP_Store

Very relaxed Driver's Association meeting at Kyalami Ranch. Let's have some names. #F1 http://t.co/fg32VLzHVQ

As a Ferrari driver, De Adamich received plenty of attention from the Alitalia hostesses, but Franco Gozzi, the team's sporting director, took it upon himself to ensure his rookie driver remained focused on the race.

Redman, a fellow rookie, recalled the same "no sex or alcohol" policy applied to him on the days leading up to the race, and even Surtees said, although it was good to see everyone after the winter break, "It was also very serious, so it wasn't a playboy time."

Still, the young men couldn't help but notice. "Very nice hostesses...especially the Lufthansa ones," De Adamich chuckled. "Because of the length of the flight from Europe to Johannesburg, the hostesses would stay maybe two or three days in the Kyalami Ranch, waiting for their plane to go back to Europe. That means, if the hostesses were there for maybe two days, the Formula One drivers were becoming very good friends with the hostesses—when possible."

In those days, the drivers also had more free time during a race weekend than they do now, without endless briefings and sponsor commitments. Everything was less formal. "The big difference in that period between an organised team and a less-organised team was that we [Ferrari] were eating sandwiches on the wall of the paddock, and an organised team was eating the same sandwiches, but around a table," De Adamich recalled.

The paddock itself was Spartan, and many teams took their cars to local garages so the mechanics could continue working on them in the evenings. Each night, Dance said, the Lotus cars were towed to a Ford garage in Johannesburg and then towed back to the circuit in the morning.

With the race scheduled for Monday, the Sunday—New Year's Eve—was a rest day, giving the drivers even more time to relax. Although Clark was not known for an outgoing personality, neither was he a recluse. "He was not a gregarious fellow," Daley said. "I don't know that I ever saw him laugh. And I don't mean he was dour—he wasn't that—he was an upper-class British boarding school graduate observing the world and hiding his feelings."

Matt Yocum @MattYocum

"@RACERmag: Colin Chapman, Jack Brabham + Jimmy Clark see in the New Year in 1968. #GREATEST Pic @latphotographic http://t.co/amADcvrAXv"

Clark rang in the New Year at a party at the Kyalami Ranch with Chapman and some of the other drivers. Amon, meanwhile, remembered he "dutifully went to bed at half-past 10 or something, and probably got to sleep around four in the morning," with all the noise from the celebrations.

Clark put an exclamation point on the race by setting another lap record on Lap 73 of 80. When he crossed the start-finish line for the final time, the chequered flag waving, Clark's gloved right hand shot into the air in celebration, while fans in the packed main grandstand stood and cheered. The Lotus team spilled onto the track, excited by a perfect start to the new season.

Hill finished second, 25 seconds down the road, with Rindt, the only other driver still on the lead lap, a further five seconds behind.

After the race, Clark told The Times' Gerald Armstrong that "his car gave no trouble at all but his feet were so hot that he could not have gone on much longer."

He was not alone in his discomfort. "It was a bit of an occupational hazard in those days," said Amon. "The seat was aluminum, which was the fuel tank, basically, with a bit of vinyl on it, and they very thoughtfully ran the oil and water past your arms up to the radiator and the oil cooler up at the front, which, all the heat from that came back and cooked your feet."

On the podium, a laurel wreath was placed over Clark's shoulders, and he received a large, silver, bowl-style trophy, but there was not long to revel. Tony Rudlin, who was at the race as a gofer for Chapman, but later became the Lotus team manager, recalled a scramble after the race to get to the airport for the flight to New Zealand. Those who were leaving—including Clark—had brought their luggage to the circuit.

G.Pierluigi @pierlui89247685

GP de Sudafrica – Kyalami 1968 - 1º Jim Clark (Lotus) / 2º Graham Hill (Lotus) http://t.co/d8eQNV3orY

There was not even time to celebrate the breaking of Fangio's record for career wins. "There was an announcement after the race and people cheered a bit," recalled Rudlin, but they left the circuit as soon as they could, rushing to the airport.

By the time they boarded the flight, everyone was exhausted. "Jimmy winning wasn't anything special because it happened all the time, literally," said Amon, who was on the plane, too. "I guess most of us expected him to win, so I guess we would've registered that he'd broken Fangio's record, but I can't remember any special celebrations on the plane."

The Tasman Series featured eight races across Australia and New Zealand for grand prix cars, though with smaller engines than were used in F1. In 1968, along with Clark and Amon, world-class drivers like Hill, Piers Courage, Bruce McLaren, Denny Hulme and Pedro Rodriguez took part as they waited for the European leg of the F1 season to begin.

Amon won the first two races, with Clark taking four of the next five, and the series came down to the final race at Longford, Tasmania. In the end, Clark edged Amon by eight points, but the pivotal moment of the season had actually come at the previous race, at Sandown Raceway in Melbourne, where Clark beat Amon by one-tenth of a second.

Although disappointed to lose such a close race, Amon said that, given what happened afterward, "I was always somehow pleased that he won."

Clark leads Amon at the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne, part of the 1968 Tasman Series.
Clark leads Amon at the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne, part of the 1968 Tasman Series.Associated Press

In January, while they were still in New Zealand, Clark visited Amon at his parents' vacation home at Paraparaumu Beach, north of Wellington, and the two rivals went fishing off the coast. "Both Jim and I grew up in farming environments and so naturally, on occasions when we spent time together away from the racing world, the conversation would tend towards farming," Amon recalled. "I sensed that he felt an inner peace when he talked about his farming and his life on the farm and, had he survived, I feel he would have probably gone back to farming."

After the final race of the Tasman Series on March 4, the drivers returned to Europe for testing and a variety of other races before the F1 season resumed on May 12 at Jarama with the Spanish Grand Prix.

On April 7, Palm Sunday, there were two races scheduled: the opening round of the F2 season at Hockenheim and the BOAC 500 at Brands Hatch, the third round of the World Sportscar Championship. There are various stories of how Clark ended up at Hockenheim that day, but Sims, Clark's mechanic at the F2 race, said, "It was Colin's decision. Jimmy wanted to do the Sportscar race.

"It was very strange.”

Clark at Hockenheim on April 7. His car is sporting Lotus' new Gold Leaf livery.
Clark at Hockenheim on April 7. His car is sporting Lotus' new Gold Leaf livery.Associated Press

The Hockenheim circuit, cut through the Black Forest, was cold and wet throughout the weekend, and Sims said Clark had trouble getting heat into his Firestone tyres. "He wasn't his usual, joyful self," Sims recalled. "Whether it was because he wasn't at the BOAC race or because of the conditions, the tyres—but knowing Jimmy, he was a professional. He just got on with it. And we got the setup as best we could.

"But on the grid, he said, 'Don't expect anything fantastic—I'm not going to take any chances until the tyres come in.'"

Those were some of the last words Clark ever spoke.

At Brands Hatch, it was raining, too. Brian Redman, who had raced for Cooper at Kyalami, was partnered with Jacky Ickx, driving a Ford GT40.

"I was just about to get in the car and a journalist rushed up to me and said, 'Brian, have you heard about Jimmy?' And I just looked at him and said, 'What?'

"He said, 'Killed at Hockenheim.'"

Correction: This article originally indicated that none of the cars in the 1968 South African Grand Prix had any commercial advertising, but Rhodesian drivers John Love and Sam Tingle were the exceptions. They funded their private entries by painting their cars in the colours of the Gunston cigarette company, as detailed by Dieter Rencken in an article for AtlasF1. As the restrictions on commercial sponsorship had just been lifted for the 1968 season, Love and Tingle became the first drivers to start a world championship race with commercial liveries on their cars.

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.

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