Jim Clark, A Watershed Moment

by Mark Maholm

April 7, 1968, dawned wet and dreary as we piled into my split-window VW Bug and left the Army barracks behind for a day at Hockenheimring and the opening round of the Formula 2 European Championship season.

By midmorning we were in our usual seats on the front straight, glad to be under the cantilevered roof as a light mist persisted throughout the preliminary races that lead up to the main event. By the time the F2 cars formed up on the grid for the first of two heat races, the rain had eased and there was a semblance of dry racing line throughout the stadium portion of the four mile track.

The Formula Two grids of the late 60’s were laden with driving talent, and near capacity crowds of 90,000 plus would turn out regularly at Hockenheim. A number of F1 drivers utilized the F2 events as a means to maintain their competitive edge during the sometimes long lapses between Grand Prixs. Jochen Rindt, Pedro Rodriguez and Jackie Stewart often competed with the F2 regulars, many of whom were only a season or two away from securing seats with F1 teams themselves. Jean-Pierre Beltoise, Derek Bell, Jackie Oliver, Ronnie Peterson, John Watson and Jackie Ickx were just a few of the F2 pilots whose names were soon to become more widely known.

On many tracks and in the right hands, the F2 cars competed on nearly equal footing with their F1 brethren. Case in point: Jackie Ickx qualified his F2 Matra 5th fastest for the German GP at the Nurburgring the year prior and, after being relegated to start behind the slowest F1 qualifier, worked his way through the field to run as high as third overall! And, unlike the high rate of attrition that so often played a role in determining the final outcome of a Grand Prix, the F2 cars proved to be extremely reliable resulting in finishing orders that were determined on the race track.

All the ingredients for superb wheel-to-wheel motor racing were in place on that day in April, and our anticipation piqued when we learned that Colin Chapman’s new Lotus 48’s would debut in the hands of Jim Clark and Graham Hill! Hardly the “unimportant” and “insignificant” event that it had been made out to be in most accounts following its outcome.

Clark was in the first heat and, to everyone’s surprise, could qualify the new red and white Lotus no better than the 3rd row.

At the green flag the cars all accelerated smoothly toward the first turn that lead out of the stadium and onto the long back section of the track. When Clark re-entered the stadium running alone in 7th or 8th, it was apparent that the new car was not yet competitive.

With every eye trained on him as he began the 5th lap, the Lotus with its #1 in the number circle made one last pass down the front straight, disappeared onto the long tree-lined back section, and abruptly dropped from the lap charts.

As it was a short heat race, the chequered flag had fallen before we saw the ambulance leave the paddock re-tracing Clark’s last pass into the woods.

After a short time it reappeared and left the stadium on the opposite side, without any flashing lights and in no apparent hurry. As they rolled the cars out for the second heat race, Graham Hill in the other Lotus, was not among them, and it was at that moment that a feeling of unease began to sweep through all of us.

I have no recollection of that second heat race now, but I’m certain that an hour had passed before the public address announcer came on and asked that everyone please stand. He said simply that he regretted to inform us that Jim Clark had died.

The moan that arose from the thousands was memorable and I recall the sound as many collapsed into their seats in uncomprehending disbelief at what they had just heard.

The three of us had been to several races at Hockenheim, and it had become our practice to jump over the low retaining wall in front of the grand stands and dash into the pits at the conclusion of the last race. This day was no exception and we walked through the paddock and watched as the teams loaded up their cars and equipment. As I came upon the double decked Lotus transporter already closed up and appearing ready to roll, I imagined the sight of both cars inside the box van, one pristine and un-raced, with the remains of Clark’s car below it. As I passed by, I looked up to see Graham Hill sitting alone and motionless in the cab, just staring out the windshield. Had I been carrying my little Kodak Instamatic, I’m not sure I’d have had the courage to click the shutter at him at that moment. His expression spoke volumes.

We began our ritual of walking the length of the track and, as we headed onto the long curve that bent onto the back section, the Lotus truck passed us. When we caught up to it again, it had stopped among a group of dozens that were milling about the side of the track. As we approached, we were astonished to see the crumpled remains of the Lotus chassis resting against a stand of small trees where it had crashed hours earlier. It seemed as incredible then as it does now, that it had been permitted to remain there throughout the afternoon race events, no more than a hundred feet off the edge of the track.

Lacking its wheels, engine and nose cone, it appeared hopelessly small and frail. Graham Hill, still in his driver’s suit, supervised the crew as they gathered the loose pieces and tossed them into the cockpit. Then, with a man on each corner, they easily lifted the chassis and walked it over to the back of the truck.

A group gathered some distance down the track, some kneeling to inspect an area of the racing surface. From their vantage point, we could see the whitish scrape mark on the tarmac that clearly lead to the spot where the car came to rest. From the multitudes of plausible causes written about ever since, I’m certain that we reached the correct conclusion at the time. Either a rear tire suddenly decompressed, dropping the wheel rim or a suspension component onto the surface, or a suspension link failed, forcing the same result. In either case it seemed clear that something failed so abruptly that not even the seemingly superhuman skills of a Jimmy Clark could persuade the race car toward a path that would have allowed for any other conclusion.

With world titles in 1963 and ’65, and a win at Indy in ’65, Clark had just won his then-record 25th GP in South Africa weeks earlier, topping Juan Fangio’s 24. His record of 33 poles in 72 starts is still unmatched.

As a nineteen-year-old newcomer to the sport, I hadn’t yet acquired a true appreciation for Clark’s astonishing level of skill and knew little then of his masterful and gentlemanly approach to his craft.

We couldn’t have known back then that his legacy would become the yard stick against which all drivers, before and since, would be measured--Gentleman Jim Clark, the driver and consummate professional.

Similar in impact to the abrupt loss of JFK on a day in November just a few years earlier, race fans can recall where they were when word of Clark’s death reached them. This day in April, 40 years ago, became a watershed moment that has marked our lives in terms of everything before, and after, that experience.