08 April, 2013

Forty-five years on, why Jim Clark's death still matters to Formula 1

Forty-five years ago yesterday, the world of Formula 1 changed forever.  Shockwaves rang all around the globe.  The racing community entered a state of shocked mourning.  Jim Clark was dead.

His fatal injuries delivered amidst the dense forests of the Hockenheimring, no one saw the crash that took his life.  Yet as his crumpled F2 Lotus lay smoldering in the trees, some of the greatest drivers of the day began to reassess their participation in the sport.

“If Jim Clark could die at the hands of a race car, what are our chances?” they began to ask.  Formula 1 was inherently dangerous, of course, but for it to have taken the life of the greatest driver of all time, especially in such a nondescript, mysterious way in a junior series, something was wrong.

In that day, it was not an easy task to upset F1 drivers.  They knew how deadly their sport was.  All of them grew up watching and participating in local competitions, the informality of which lent itself to terrifying and often fatal accidents.  They were not so far removed from the board track days of commentators yelling ‘The fearless racers are coming into town tonight, risking life at every turn for your entertainment!’  They knew that from the beginning of the season until the end, at least one of their fellow drivers would not make it, and that was that.

But Clark’s death shook the drivers in such a way that had not been felt in ages.  Graham Hill, Jackie Stewart, Jack Brabham, John Surtees and Chris Amon---all friends and competitors of Clark---were deeply troubled by his loss.  Ask any driver today who raced with Clark in that time period, and they’ll tell you that crash resonates as strongly today as it did 45 years ago.

So why does this matter?  Nearly half a century has passed.  The old Hockenheim is gone, swallowed by the trees that took many lives over the years, and somewhere in the middle of it is a small, humble memorial set up for the two time World Champion Jim Clark.  So we lost an incredible driver.  That’s happened again since then, so why does this anniversary matter to Formula 1 today?

After Clark’s death, drivers like Jackie Stewart began to see the errors of their sport.  What is now runoff and gravel traps at modern circuits used to be fences and trees to the world of 1960s Grand Prix racing.  This was still four years removed from F1 making seat belts mandatory.  Drivers died just as often of fire from the metal fuel tanks on which they sat as they did from the actual crashes.

“We thought hay bales were enough to protect the crowds,” legendary motor sport journalist Chris Economaki told me years ago.  It was a nonchalant feeling that if you wanted to go watch a race, you were willing to sit in the path of a 180mph metal rocket full of a flammable cocktail of fluids.  After Jim Clark, and reinforced by the horror at Monza in 1961 (a crash of which Clark had been a part), this began to change.

Stewart’s now-famous march toward greater F1 safety started after a harrowing and terrifying crash at Spa-Francorchamps, but his resolve was further strengthened 45 years ago yesterday when his friend and on-track rival Clark was killed.  The feelings and ensuing changes were not unlike what modern racing went through when Ayrton Senna lost his life at Imola 19 years ago:  A World Drivers Champion killed in his car after setting the racing world on fire and breaking F1’s longstanding records.  People were shocked.  People demanded change, and they got it.  From Senna’s death, Formula 1 is a safer place, forced to reassess its mentality and thoroughness in driver care.

But F1 would not have been in such a position and arguably may not have had as much success were it not already shocked several times in the past by such losses.  Not to overlook or downplay the role that losing Gilles Villeneuve, Jochen Rindt, Ronnie Peterson or countless others had in the previous 30 years before Imola, but losing the Flying Scotsman was different at that time.

He was not just a World Champion, he was everywhere.  In 1965 alone he competed in 59 different events, ranging from the Tasman Series, to the Indianapolis 500, to Formula 1, to F2 and sports cars.  He won the Indy 500 once (and came close several other times were it not for mechanical issues).  He dabbled in NASCAR (something few remember, but he had relative success were it not for mechanical problems there, too).  He won more Tasman championships in Australia and New Zealand than F1 championships, all the while winning more Grands Prix and capturing more pole positions than any Grand Prix driver in history.  And he only finished second in one race in his entire 71-race F1 career.

His attention to even the minutest details made him a perfectionist both in and out of the car---and in racing that’s not always a bad thing.  But people criticized him, saying he could only win from pole position and that he couldn’t fight his way through the field.  His choice to race the Indy 500 instead of the Monaco Grand Prix drew ire from some.  But Clark was not interested in this.

He would fire back at the critics through carefully written newspaper columns, but he would leave it at that.  His gentle schoolboy-like demeanor would disappear when he stepped into a racecar and tightened his dark blue Bell Magnum helmet onto his head.  And that’s how many remember him.  The rather demure personality and finger biting Jim Clark disappeared in the race car, where he instead entered a state of zen, never driving out of anger or aggression.  He was on another level, both with his competition and his car handling.

But when Clark’s funeral was attended by racing legends from all over the globe, the sport collectively took a step back and wondered what could be done.  The result was a slow and steady march toward the safety of Grand Prix racing as we know it today.  It also forced the fans to grapple with the mortality of even the best drivers out there---something that the crowd, even today, tend to forget or set aside. 

One thing they don’t forget is the brilliance of a youngster named Jim Clark.  Ask any racing driver out there, and they will hold Clark in high regard.  Ask IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti, who has an enormous collection of Clark memorabilia filling rooms of his house, and he’s incredibly quick to tell you that his countryman was the greatest racing driver who ever lived.  Will we see another Jim Clark in our era?  Perhaps not.  There has never been anyone quite like him, and although he was only in the international racing spotlight for under a decade, tales of his skill and accomplishments are known worldwide and are still discussed in Formula 1 circles today.  His loss changed Grand Prix racing, but so did his driving and charisma while he was alive.  That’s why the anniversary matters.  That’s why he matters.

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