It is peculiar how talent can hide in the most unassuming of places. James Clark Jr. was to become a farmer like his father, but a passion for motorsport, found while on boarding school, shifted his sights from cattle to cars. He soon found out that everything was extremely easy for him – winning again and again with no apparent fuss or effort. This carried on into his F1 days when Jim was still bewildered by the fact that the rest of the bunch cannot quite do what he’s regularly doing. Because what he was doing was, at times, purely impossible for anybody else as Jim hid inside him the biggest natural talent that the F1 world has ever seen – a talent that has not been matched since.
He appeared on F1’s radar in 1960 after Colin Chapman, Lotus team founder and designer, saw the talent in him after being beaten by Jim on track. The two soon formed a very close relationship, so close that Jim was never vocal about Chapman’s frail cars that were often very hard to drive at the limit. No, Jim just got in any car he was given and got the best of it – quick, without much setup work, regardless of weather, temperature or the track surface. He could drive anything as fast as it went – from the Lotus Cortina which he took to the BSCC crown, to the Lotus 19 sports car which he drove at the Nurburgring 1000km in 1961.
His record of just 25 victories may not seem impressive but the fact that he scored the most hat tricks in history, that is posting the quickest time in qualifying, the race, and leading all the laps on the way to finishing first is. Also, he’s won both his titles scoring the maximum amount of points possible, a feat that was achieved in the past by Ascari.
Jim also was immensely gentle with the car. For example, while Graham Hill needed a new set of brake discs for each session of an F1 weekend, Clark could carry on with a set for the whole weekend, being able to use that same set the following weekend as well. Also, he was able to nurse an ailing car home like no other and to hide the problems of any car in such a way that his mechanics could never tell if it was their improvements on the setup or Clark’s style that made the car go quicker. Talking about Clark’s qualities could go on and on, so I’ll just jump to mentioning some of Clark’s feats behind the wheel of his F1 Lotus cars.
At Monaco in 1963 he took pole by 0.7 seconds from Graham Hill, despite driving a car with a full fuel tank. After that, he proceeded to match Hill’s time with the older carbureted Lotus just for a goof. In 1966, he was on pole again at Monaco, this time driving the Lotus-BRM 43, which was nearly 100 horsepower down to Surtees’ Cooper that qualified 2nd. At Spa in ’63 in torrential rain he was on average half a minute quicker than anybody else in the second half of the race. At Milwaukee that same year, he lapped everyone but A.J. Foyt whom he respected greatly, in spite of the fact that he’d never been on that oval before. At Indy in 1965 he became the first man to win with a rear-engined car after leading 190 of the scheduled 200 laps, his margin of victory being roughly 120 seconds.
At the Nordschleife, he shattered the previous lap record by 17 seconds in qualifying, recording a 8:22:7. The following year, with the Lotus Lotus-BRM, he bettered his own record, managing a mind-boggling 8:16:5, which was almost two seconds quicker than Surtees’ best time. In 1967, at his last appearance on the Nordschleife, he posted an 8:04:1, which was 10 seconds quicker than the best Denny Hulme could do.
While I think these examples are about enough for anyone to start painting an image on Clark’s greatness, there are many more worth telling. He got back a lap at Monza in 1967 despite the fact that the race was run under dry conditions, and managed another superb drive at Spa in 1965 — again through rain and fog, to claim his fourth win of the Belgian GP.
In his last year of racing, 1968, he stormed the Tasman Series, winning in the Lotus 49. He also won the first GP of that year, but he would take part in no other race as he perished in a strange accident at Hockenheim in an unimportant F2 event. The crash, which was caused by a broken rear suspension arm, cleared the way for Jackie Stewart to gain a place in the lime light. The Scot, who was a good friend of Clark’s, always maintained that Clark was “the driver’s driver”, the man that could deliver the goods no matter what. So quick, versatile and gentle that even Senna appointed him as the best ever.