Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Jim Clark: When motor racing died of a broken heart

Disc jockey on a Los Angeles radio station: "If you are mourning the death of the great driver Jim Clark, put on your headlights". The whole freeway lit up at midday. It was April 1968 and judging by the continuing response to our 1997 book, Jim Clark is remembered with admiration and affection, which is why Dove Publishing is going to release an ebook.

Instrumental in the career of the double world champion, Ford Director of Public Affairs, Walter Hayes was given news of Clark’s accident at Hockenheim, Germany as cars lined up for a race in Kent, England. "It was one of the very bad moments of my life, standing in the pits at Brands Hatch just as the BOAC 500 was going to start and hearing that Jimmy had died." Hayes had persuaded Ford Motor Company to create the Ford-Cosworth DFV engine and among its express purposes, besides giving Ford an exciting new image, was to win the world championship again for Jim Clark. Now he was dead of a broken neck.

Motor racing almost died of a broken heart.

The BOAC 500 was a cheerless affair. As the news filtered in, an entire generation slowly realised motor racing would never be the same again. It was more than the death of a driver; it was the end of an era. It was more than a squall following a storm. When Jim Clark died the whole climate of motor racing changed.

The Brands Hatch press box was incredulous. Incalculable grief descended like a pall. People who had never met Jim Clark felt a profound sense of loss. Those who knew him were stunned into disbelief. The car he died in was one of the first to bear the livery of a sponsor instead of traditional British racing green. Gold Leaf Team Lotus marked the arrival of a new force in motor racing, - big money. The fatal crash reaching the front pages of the world's newspapers showed the contrary side. Sponsors wanted to be associated with winning, not with the sudden death of a hero.
Jim Clark, press launch Lotus 49

As for Ford’s unfortunate F3L Alan Mann sports car, it did well in the BOAC 500, taking the lead for most of the first two hours, although it gave Bruce McLaren a rough ride on the uneven Brands Hatch track. When Mike Spence took over it broke a half-shaft and retired. It reappeared at the NĂ¼rburgring but crashed heavily, badly injuring Chris Irwin. "It was the only car I ever hated in my life, and the single big mistake I made in motor racing," said Hayes. "Alan Mann said he could do it and it would be cheap and we thought we needed to replace the GT40, which had been showing its years. We thought we needed to, although on reflection we didn't need to do anything in sports cars. They were in decline anyway. The GT40 years had been special, like a sort of military campaign. I killed that car out of sheer hatred."

Jacky Ickx and Brian Redman won narrowly in an out-dated Ford GT40.
Theories concerning Clark's accident ranged from freak gusts of wind to errant pedestrians a hypothesis of Derek Bell's, who was driving in the same race, on Clark’s misfiring engine. The explanation was explosive decompression of a tyre, throwing the car off course into the fatal tree. Investigation showed the tyre had lost pressure through a slow puncture, and although centrifugal force kept it in shape at speed in a straight line, side force in the long gentle curve caused the beading to loosen from the rim and drop into the well of the wheel. Clark was expecting difficulties on the slippery surface, but even he could not keep control. There was no safety barrier. Bob Martin, racing manager of Firestone, and Peter Jowitt of the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) accident investigation branch examined every shred of evidence and came to the same conclusion.

When Clark was killed, the sport cried real tears. At his funeral Jim's father told his friend and rival, the smiling tall American Dan Gurney that he had been the only driver Jimmy truly feared. Gurney never forgot, but typically kept it to himself.

"It destroyed me, really, in terms of my self control," Gurney told me. "I was drowned in tears. To hear that from someone, whose son had been killed and wasn't there any longer, was more than I could cope with. For a long time I didn't say anything about it because I felt it was a private thing and I didn't want to utilise it to sort of glorify my driving ability or reputation. It was certainly the biggest compliment I ever received."

Jim Clark's long-time girl-friend Sally, married to Dutchman Ed Swart heard it on the car radio at Zandvoort in Holland. It was lead item on the news. "I thought how come they're mentioning a little Formula 2 race and Jim Clark. My Dutch wasn't very good but I knew he'd been injured. It didn't yet say he was dead. I wasn't sure. I rushed over to my father-in-law and asked what it meant. He went kind of white and had to tell me. I think by then I knew anyway."

Extract from Jim Clark: Tribute to a Champion, available now from Amazon for Kindle and in Adobe ePub format from Waterstone's and Apple iTunes store.

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