In these days of 20-race Formula 1 seasons, it’s astonishing that any driving career from the 10-Grands-Prix-per-year era – in Jimmy Clark’s case, only for seven complete seasons – could amass statistics that still stand strong in the F1 history books.
After all, Lewis Hamilton with Mercedes-Benz, Sebastian Vettel with Red Bull and Michael Schumacher with Ferrari have enjoyed long periods of dominance in the 21st century and have had several more opportunities – both in terms of numbers of races per season, and in career length – to take advantage of their preeminence.
Schumacher competed in 306 Grands Prix, Hamilton and Vettel have made 250 and 240 starts respectively – and yet Jimmy Clark, with just 72 GPs to his name (just three-and-a-half-season’s worth by recent standards) remains in several ‘Top 10s’ in the F1 history books.
Jim Clark, Lotus 49 Ford DFV at Kyalami on New Year's Day 1968. Final Grand Prix for the great man, completed in time-honored style with pole, fastest lap and victory.
Clark’s final Grand Prix, in 1968 at Kyalami, produced his 25th victory, beating the all-time win record Juan-Manuel Fangio had held since 1957, and gave Jimmy a 34.7 percent win rate. Over five decades later, his tally keeps him joint ninth in the all-time wins list, while his win percentage is still third, behind Fangio (a surely unmatchable 46.15%) and Alberto Ascari (39.39%) but just ahead of Hamilton.
Clark then appears twice in the top 10 when ranking percentage of races won per season. The 70 percent hit rate from 1963 (seven from ten races) leaves him trailing only Ascari in 1952 (six from eight) and Schumacher in 2004 (13 from 18), while his six wins from ten in ’65 is the seventh best season of all time. But of course, he only entered nine GPs that year: he and Colin Chapman’s Team Lotus skipped Monaco to take part in – and win! – the Indianapolis 500.
It’s also worth noting that the ’65 season also saw Clark win five grands prix in a row, a run that has been bettered only five times – once before, by Ascari, and four times since.
However, a better guide to a driver/car combo’s competitiveness may be pole positions, for the simple reason that qualifying sessions are so much shorter than races so the stats are far less likely to be skewed by a car suffering mechanical gremlins – a much bigger consideration in the 1960s than in the past 30 years. And in terms of pole-winning form, Clark’s figures are even more convincing. He started from P1 in 33 of his 72 races, which even now puts him joint fifth in the outright list along with Alain Prost, yet the real tale is in percentage of poles won: a 45.83% strike rate leaves Jimmy second behind only Fangio and well ahead of the fastest drivers of their eras, Ascari, Ayrton Senna and Hamilton.
The Lotus of Clark (left) beat Graham Hill (BRM) and Cooper's Bruce McLaren to pole at Rouen in ’62, but what should have at least been a podium instead produced suspension failure. Mechanical fragility ultimately cost Jimmy the title that year.
In terms of fastest race laps, Clark is seventh all-time with 28, but (ignoring the anomaly of the Indy 500 being counted in the F1 World Championship from 1950 to ’60) he is again second only to Fangio in terms of percentage earned across his all-too-brief career.
Most memories of watching Clark in an F1 race involve him rapidly disappearing into the distance, and the record books bear out such sepia-tinted memories. On 13 occasions, he led every single lap of a grand prix – only Senna and Hamilton (19) and Vettel (15) have done that more often. But Clark still holds the record for greatest percentage of laps led in a single season – 71.5% in 1963. Both those stats may come as a shock to fans who remember this millennium’s early years as being filled with soporific Sundays watching Schumacher jump into the lead at the start of a race then jump for joy at the end of the race, and not much happening in between, but in fact the seven-time World Champion led every lap of ‘only’ 11 Grands Prix.
Given the highly variable reliability of front-running F1 cars over the past 70 years there is some credence to the notion that the number of times a driver led at least one lap of a Grand Prix, regardless of the end result, is a good gauge of his raceday form when expressed as a percentage. Then you realize that Markus Winkelhock has a 100 percent strike rate in F1, having qualified for a single race and led it! But if we take the Spyker driver’s six-lap rain-induced miracle out of the equation, and again do the same for the Indy 500-only drivers, Fangio hit the front in more than 74% of his GPs (38/51), Ascari in 63% (21/33) and Clark 59.7% (43/72). That puts Jimmy a fraction ahead of Hamilton and comfortably ahead of Senna.
Clark's Lotus 25 heads to victory at Spa in 1963. It was the second of four F1 wins for Clark at this venue, despite it being one he loathed.
Astoundingly, Clark’s total of laps led is still seventh best of all time, behind only those drivers who have started more than two or three times as many Grands Prix, and he is also in the Top 10 for converting poles into wins – 15 times, joint seventh with Fangio and Nico Rosberg. Examine those stats a little deeper to see the number of times a driver took pole, fastest lap and win, however, and Clark suddenly moves into third, having achieved that special hat-trick on 11 occasions behind Schumacher and Hamilton. In percentage terms, he’s again third, but beaten by Fangio and Ascari.
Refine the stats still further to those who have achieved the four-pronged slam of pole, fastest lap, led every lap and victory, and here everyone cedes best to Clark in absolute terms, for on eight occasions he was simply in a league of his own from qualifying all the way through to the dropping of the checkered flag on race day. The only current drivers in the same ballpark are Hamilton (six) and Vettel (four), while in percentage terms, only Ascari is ahead, having had his career cut tragically short after just 33 World Championship Grands Prix yet still finding time to grand-slam five of them.
What should have been
Another French GP win, this one at the beautiful Clermont-Ferrand track in 1965, at the wheel of a Lotus 33.
For both Ascari and Clark, one is left pondering how their careers might have played out had fortune allowed. Ascari was 36 at the time of his fatal crash in 1955 and his great rival Fangio (admittedly, 39 when the World Championship started in 1950) would go on to prove it was possible to still win GPs aged 46, if you were one of the true greats. That mantle can unhesitatingly be bestowed on Ascari who, Fate allowing, may have beaten Fangio to the five-title mark. Further proof of the Italian’s genius can be seen in the glories he amassed in 1948 and ’49 – that is to say, pre-World Championship – which, annoyingly, are not considered by most who compile stat books.
Clark fans don’t quite have that aggravation, but do have something similar – Jimmy’s record of triumphs in non-championship Formula 1 races. Of the 53 in which he participated between 1960 and ’67, he won 19, leaving him with a 35.8% success ratio (remarkably similar to what he achieved in ‘proper’ championship events), and bagged 28 poles (52.8%). Long before he reached his 32nd birthday on March 4, 1968, Clark had proven time and again that he was the Grand Prix master of the era, even before one considers his fantastic versatility in Indy cars, touring cars, sports cars, Tasman cars (a three-time champion with 15 wins from 32 races).
A two-time F1 World Champion, only mechanical failures had robbed Clark three more titles (’62, ’64, ’67) and although blessed with the fastest car for much of his career, he used it in exemplary fashion, as highlighted by comparative performances with his teammates. The most accomplished of these by far was Graham Hill who already had the ’62 championship and 10 GP wins to his name by the time he teamed up with the sublime Scot at Lotus in ’67. Yet in the 10 F1 championship races they ran as teammates with the same equipment, he was rarely a threat.
With Keith Duckworth of Cosworth, Colin Chapman and Graham Hill, as they pose beside the new Ford Cosworth DFV V8 in 1967.
Rainer W. Schlegelmilch
A far bigger concern than potential intra-team rivalry was the team’s lack of potential in the opening two rounds of the season. When Formula 1 switched from 1.5-liter to 3-liter engine regulations in ’66, Jack Brabham and his eponymous team had been ready with Oldsmobile-based Repco V8s and had spanked the field. Lotus, by contrast was forced to make do with 2-liter Climax units for most of the year (somehow Clark managed to take two pole positions) and then BRM’s 3-liter but overcomplicated, overweight and overwrought H16 unit for the final three rounds (somehow Clark managed to coax one of them to not only finish but win in Watkins Glen). But it was a year of treading water for the sheep farmer from Chirnside, and both he and Hill were understandably antsy when ’67 started off in similar vein. Then in Round 3 came the Lotus 49.
Like the previous year’s BRM P83, the Lotus 49 design had its engine serving as a stressed chassis member, but it was the engine itself that proved a source of wonder. The Ford-funded Cosworth-built DFV – Double Four-Valve – V8 pushed out 408hp from the word go, at a time when the V12s of Ferrari, Weslake, Honda and Maserati and the V8s of Repco had between 370 and 390. (BRM’s H16 theoretically also hit the magic 400hp mark, but rarely did it for long enough to render this anything other than a moot point).
For tax reasons, Clark had been unable to enter the UK to test the Chapman/Maurice Philippe-designed stroke of genius; those duties had fallen to Hill, and so it was the Englishman who took pole on the car’s debut at Zandvoort. Meanwhile, Clark spent practice growing accustomed to the engine’s abrupt power delivery, a learning process not helped by a couple of mechanical gremlins, and so he lined up only eighth for that race. Yet from the drop of the green flag, he was on the move and by lap 16 he had the lead and held it to the checkered flag.
On his way to an improbable victory at Zandvoort in ’67, with the brand new Lotus 49 powered by the DFV on its debut.
Rainer W. Schlegelmilch
A couple of reliability issues – new car/new engine teething problems – are all that separated Clark from the World Championship that year, as he scored three more wins. But then fate decreed that was the last chance he had at the title. Jimmy’s final grand prix, that winning performance in South Africa on New Year’s Day 1968, would see the Lotus 49s race in the traditional green-and-yellow for the last time. By the time F1 reconvened for Round 2 at Jarama, Spain, in May, the Lotuses were adorned in the red-and-gold of Gold Leaf Tobacco, F1’s greatest driver was dead and Chapman’s heart was broken. On Saturday, April 7, 1968, in a Formula 2 race at a wet Hockenheim, a suspected tire failure had sent Clark’s Lotus 48 squirming beyond even his control, and a 140mph impact with the trees left no chance of survival. As a choked-up Gurney said in a documentary on his friend several decades later, “The world was never the same again.”
What might have been
It was some form of consolation that Hill won that Spanish GP and was eventually able to deliver Team Lotus the ’68 World Championship, but given Clark’s obvious edge over the mustachioed Englishman during the previous 12 months, we can assume that had Clark not died so horribly prematurely, he would have won that title. However, heading down the avenue of conjecture still further presents us with several options.
Some people have suggested that Clark was pondering retirement already, and that a third title in ’68 might have persuaded him to return to his sheep-farming roots in Scotland. Others, such as Jackie Stewart – Clark’s friend, rival and another true great – disagreed, felt that his compatriot not only retained a passion for the sport, but was also learning to appreciate the more sophisticated lifestyle of a sports champion living in Paris.
After taking pole by over nine seconds at the Nurburgring in ’67, Clark (3) suffered suspension failure while leading and, following the retirement of Dan Gurney (9), had to watch as Denny Hulme (2) drove to victory and stretched away from him in the championship.
Rainer W. Schlegelmilch
Jimmy still shied away from the hype and glory that inevitably and increasingly followed his triumphs, and he was too wise not to have acknowledged the perils of the sport, and the reputation of Lotus to build fast but fragile cars. But he was not yet plagued by thoughts of his own mortality as Jochen Rindt would come to be, and by all accounts Clark still derived a lot of satisfaction from racing in general. He was, for instance, enthusiastic about the Lotus 56 turbine car he was due to race in the ’68 Indy 500. (It was the car in which his replacement, Mike Spence would crash with fatal consequences, and in which Joe Leonard so nearly won the race.)
So could Jimmy really have walked away from F1 while knowing he was still the best – better even than rapidly rising star Stewart, the sensationally quick Rindt and Ferrari’s aces Chris Amon and Jacky Ickx? Surely the allure of slapping down these impudent ‘youngsters’ would have spurred him into digging deep and carrying on.
But had he done so, would he have remained a Lotus driver? All 72 of his grands prix – as well as countless non-championship F1, F2, Indy car, sportscar and touring car races – were at the wheel of Lotus machinery, yet we shouldn’t dismiss the notion of Jimmy potentially giving up his near-telepathic relationship with Chapman in order to switch teams, especially if he felt his potential was being wasted by unreliability. Clark’s immediate sub, Jackie Oliver, was blighted with car issues through the remainder of ’68, and the Lotus 49 proved mechanically frail in ’69, too. Oliver’s replacement Rindt accumulated five poles but only one win and a disastrous seven DNFs. That depressing tally could persuade any ace to shop around.
Neither Brabham nor Bruce McLaren’s fledgling team could offer absolutely cutting-edge cars, but from ’69 both had the highly desirable Cosworth V8, both team owners held Clark in high regard, and their cars were regarded as more dependable than a Lotus. That combination of qualities would be tempting to any driver who was confident he could make up for his car’s slight deficiencies in outright speed.
Chapman, Jack Brabham and Clark on New Year's Eve ’67, the day before Clark's domination of his final GP. Might Jimmy have switched to Jack's team after the ’68 season was over?
There might have been other options, too. Could Elf and Ken Tyrrell have come up with the money to form one of the greatest driver pairings of all time – Clark and Stewart? Might Gurney have persuaded his friend and rival to race his Eagles on the USAC circuit in the early ’70s? Probably not full-time, but Clark might have tried to add more Indy 500 triumphs, and could have been interested in other potentially lucrative one-off outings.
Splitting from Chapman, however, would have meant Clark missing out on another groundbreaking and long-lasting Lotus, the remarkable 72. What a combination that would have made, had Jimmy elected to stay in F1 and remain loyal to the brand…
The reality is that Clark beat Fangio’s record race win tally in his final Grand Prix, but a hypothesis – based on his level of achievement and the subsequent success rate of the Lotus 49 and 72 models in the hands of Jochen Rindt, Emerson Fittipaldi and Ronnie Peterson – can reasonably conclude that Fangio’s five-title World Championship haul would also have fallen to Clark. And that’s even despite missing out on the ’62, ’64 and ’67 crowns through no fault of his own.
The natural conclusion to the theorem is that at the end of 1974, the Lotus 72’s final year of competitiveness, Clark could have quit F1, aged 38, and been plenty young and fit enough to restart that promising farming career.
If only it were so.