10 Jan 2013 – My Personal Top 10 F1 Drivers (# 4)
A new year, a new blog post!
We march on towards the top of this list with the driver who occupies the # 4 slot of my personal top 10 F1 drivers. But before we do that, let’s look at the list thus far:
We’re now in rarefied air, since any one of at least three of the remaining four drivers on my list would probably be tops on other peoples’ lists. Remember, though, that my top 10 does not include the sport’s first 5-time world champion (the great Juan Manuel Fangio) or Michael Schumacher (a 7-time world champ who will never be one of my favorites). So you can rule these two out.
The remaining four drivers on my personal list are all World Champions, of course, accounting for eleven titles between them. But it’s not a simple matter of going by sheer numbers of titles won as far as ranking them. I freely disclose that this entire list is more subjective than objective.
But that’s the fun of such a list, isn’t it?
So, then, the driver who sits at # 4 on my top ten list of F1 drivers is:
Before Senna, there was Clark.
Jimmy Clark, the youngest of five children born to Scottish farmers (and the only son), was universally lauded as the preeminent driver of his era, the benchmark, the one whose natural talent to drive racing cars was far in excess compared to everyone else.
I never saw Jimmy race – he’d been dead a full seven years before I was even born – but no other driver from before my time as a fan of the sport has captured my imagination as he has.
By the time fate ended his rule as the greatest Grand Prix driver of them all, he was the record holder for victories (25, from 72 starts, for an incredible strike rate of 34.72%!) and pole positions (33). Jackie Stewart broke his record for GP victories in 1973, and it took twenty-one years until Ayrton Senna took the lead of the all-time pole positions list at the United States Grand Prix in 1989.
But it isn’t the magnificent statistics of his achievements that inspired my admiration for Jimmy. Rather, it’s the sheer style of his driving and the beauty of his humanity which make Clark one of my all-time favorites.
Though I never saw him in his prime, there is thankfully enough film of him around to confirm just what everyone said about the way he drove: He was the smoothest driver out there. Jackie Stewart himself said of his fellow Scot, “Jimmy was absolutely a great driver, so smooth and understated when he drove yet went so fast.”
That is a huge part of my admiration for Clark. That smoothness of technique blended with his spectacular speed against the stopwatch creates the illusion that this incredibly difficult and dangerous activity is something mere mortals could do. To me it is the supreme magic trick, a mark of the work of the greatest masters.
And Jimmy was definitely one of the very best.
He drove anything and everything: NASCAR stock cars; touring cars; sports cars; open-wheeled formula cars. He even indulged in some rallying.
Just watching him at work, it’s easy to believe that Jimmy was born to drive racing cars.
In this onboard footage, observe just how slow and deliberate Clark is at the controls of his Lotus 25 at Oulton Park.
There is nary a hint of oversteer anywhere, or any other big steering corrections; he never locks the brakes up, never misses on any of his gear changes. There are no curbs at the corner apexes, but even if there were the Lotus would never have clambered all over them as is the style today.
Big deal, right?
Then you look at the car – very obviously primitive compared to what today’s pilotes have under them – with its lack of downforce-producing wings, the narrow treaded tires, the lack of seatbelts (!), the aluminum monocoque chassis construction (carbon fiber was almost two decades away), the super-soft suspension, and you just cannot help but marvel at just how prodigious Clark’s natural talent and sheer feel must have been. Granted, everybody else raced in similar cars, but Jimmy drove away from most of them, most of the time.
An interesting thing about Clark: More than once he’d been asked about the secret behind his speed. What made him quicker than everybody else? How did he do it? Sheepishly, Jimmy would often shrug and smile, confessing that he truly didn’t know how to answer that question. He basically just got in the car and did his thing.
If driving a racing car is an art form (and it is, in my opinion), then Jimmy Clark was definitely Leonardo da Vinci in the cockpit. The impression one gets when watching the great master at work is that his was a light touch. When Clark is in his car, working hard but making everything looks so calm and gentle, it’s as if he is trying to paint in da Vinci’s sfumato technique: What you see is beautifully delicate and fine, almost ethereal.
There is nothing harsh in Clark’s driving. Even when he three-wheels his Lotus Cortina around corners, it never looks brutal. Instead, it all looks natural, as if that’s how Lotus Cortinas should behave whilst attacking bends.
His ability to go so obviously quickly and yet look like he was out for an easy Sunday drive was a very rare gift indeed, and this made him a hero to many drivers, including Stewart, Senna, and Prost, themselves charter members of many a fan’s personal pantheon of F1 gods.
And yet, for all his prodigious natural ability, Jim Clark was a gentle, shy man. He had a predilection for biting and chewing his fingernails (a nervous habit shared by one other driver on this list, in fact). He was never bombastic, never one to cultivate attention to himself, never arrogant.
Nigel Roebuck, easily my favorite F1 writer of all time, once shared an anecdote featuring Jackie Stewart, Jim Clark, and a host of other Grand Prix drivers. The story goes that, one day at the paddock at Monza, Jackie was very animatedly talking about how on one of his laps around the frighteningly fast Curva Grande, his Matra’s throttle stuck open. These days, the Curva Grande is a straightforward corner, easily flat in a Formula 1 car. But back in the mid-1960s, it was a frightening corner that tested a driver’s courage and will. Anyway, obviously Jackie survived his moment without crashing his car; all he suffered was a huge helping of sheer fright. His coterie of mates, of course, reacted with applause. With impeccable timing, Clark then reportedly said, “Are you saying, Jackie, that you normally lift off there?”
It says much that someone with an ego as huge as Jackie Stewart always looked up to Jimmy. Jackie once said, “We became known as Batman and Robin. And there was no doubt who was Batman and who was Robin.”
It wasn’t just his fellow drivers and competitors who looked up to Jimmy. Colin Chapman, boss of Lotus, the only team for whom Clark ever raced in Formula 1, admired Clark like no other driver. Their first encounter, in fact, was in a GT race at Brands Hatch on Boxing Day in 1958. Chapman won that race, with Clark (at that time still very much an amateur) finishing in second. Chapman was so thoroughly impressed with the young Scot that he offered Clark a ride in one of Lotus’ Formula Junior cars. So began what is probably still the most famous driver-team owner relationships the sport has ever seen.
The Chapman-Clark collaboration was obviously fruitful; how else would you classify the entirety of Jimmy Clark’s professional career? Two World Championships (1963 and 1965), his record-setting tallies in pole positions and victories, a famous win in the 1965 Indianapolis 500, all in seven and a half years as a professional.
His death at Hockenheim in an otherwise inconsequential Formula Two race on April 7, 1968 shook all of auto racing like very few accidents have. More than a few drivers have been killed or maimed whilst driving a Lotus, but as Nigel Roebuck tells it, the mere mention of Clark’s crash was enough to move Colin Chapman to tears.
No one knows for sure what happened to Clark – most say that Clark could not have made a mistake even in the wet just past the old Ostkurve where he went off, that the fatal crash must have been caused by a mechanical failure or a deflating rear tire. What is beyond dispute, though, is that everyone – EVERYONE – who had any emotional or psychological investment into auto racing was devastated.
Racing drivers are abnormally brave people, but Clark’s death forced them to confront their own mortality in a manner they perhaps never had to before. Chris Amon‘s words spoken in reflection say it all: “If this can happen to Jimmy, what chance do the rest of us have? I think we all felt that. It seemed like we’d lost our leader.”
When I think of Jimmy Clark, I often think of all the words that were spoken or written about him. But I also think of him in pictures. My all-time favorite photograph of a racing driver, in fact, is of Clark, taken by Jesse Alexander. It is a candid shot of Jimmy right after his first Grand Prix victory in Belgium, won at the mighty Spa-Francorchamps in all its 8.76-mile uncut glory.
Jesse Alexander’s photo is not of a man pleased with winning his first-ever Grand Prix, but of a haunted soul. It might surprise you to hear that Jimmy hated Spa-Francorchamps like he did no other track. Much of his hatred for Spa could be traced to 1960. In just his second-ever Grand Prix, Clark finished fifth (and in the points) at the mighty Belgian track. Unfortunately, two of his colleagues – Chris Bristow and teammate Alan Stacey – were killed in separate accidents at the same race. Clark had actually almost run over Bristow’s decapitated body at the fearsome Masta Kink, a flat-out left-right in between houses that is still considered one of Grand Prix racing’s most daunting corners. No wonder Jimmy is absolutely joyless during a moment where countless other drivers would have been celebrating wildly.
For all his seemingly otherworldly talent behind the wheel of a racing car, Jimmy Clark was a simple, straightforward person. It’s no surprise at all to read and hear that his contemporaries not only respected him like they did no other rival, but considered him a friend.
There will probably never ever be another Jim Clark in Formula 1. And that is probably how it should be.