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Jim Clark: The mystery remains

Maurice Hamilton April 7, 2014
When he died Jim Clark's 25 grand prix wins and 33 pole positions were F1 records © Sutton Images
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A few weeks from now, 1 May will assume a significance in motor sport that means as much as today's date does to an older generation of F1 fans.

On 7 April 1968, Jim Clark was killed at Hockenheim. The difference between this shocking event and the death of Ayrton Senna is that some of us didn't know where Hockenheim was, never mind that Clark was racing there.

Clark, by rights, should have been taking part in the BOAC 500 at Brands Hatch, a round of the World Sportscar Championship that was vastly more important than a F2 race on a comparatively unknown German track (Hockenheim did not stage a Grand Prix until 1970). A contractual obligation with Lotus and Firestone meant the two-time World Champion had to forgo his drive in the Ford F3L sports car and take part in a series that was not recognized by British national newspapers, never mind television for which motor sport coverage of any kind was extremely rare.

Details of Clark's accident were almost non-existent. All we could glean from the front page stories in Monday's papers was that the race had been run in damp conditions and Clark had smashed into the trees (there was no safety barrier of any description) after leaving the track on a gentle curve.

The thought of Clark making a mistake in such a place was an anathema to anyone with even the slightest knowledge of the Scotsman's brilliance. More likely, a mechanical error or a deflating tyre had to be responsible, the vast majority of opinion over time favouring the latter, despite Lotus's reputation for fragility. But, in truth, no one could be sure.

Recently, Paul-Henri Cahier posted a story on Facebook. Cahier, as a leading F1 photographer, has followed in the footsteps of his late father, Bernard, an influential and well-connected figure in international motor sport from 1952 until the 1990s.

The wreckage of Jim Clark's car after his fatal accident at Hockenheim © Getty Images
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Among his many roles, Cahier was adviser to Goodyear at the time of tyre company's pre-eminence in world motor sport. Cahier would have brought his son's attention to the following letter that many of us missed when published by an American magazine 21 years ago. This is Paul-Henri's post:

Fred Gamble, Goodyear International Racing Director in the 60's, wrote to ON TRACK magazine and, in the 23 May '93 issue, his letter - headed "Time For The Truth" - was published. This what Fred had to say.

"Concerning the circumstances of Jimmy Clark's death...maybe it is time the truth is told. I was privileged to be a part of that era and a friend of Jimmy's, so was just as devastated as everyone else when he was killed. His car had a rear suspension failure; sadly one of the frequent and well-known results of the brilliant but fragile Lotus cars of that era.

I was Goodyear's first director of international racing at the time and, as Firestone was contracted to Lotus, after the accident and rumors of a tire failure, Firestone engineers showed me the tire off the Clark car, not deflated or failed, but obviously dragged sideways after a suspension failure. Jimmy would have had a chance of dealing with a puncture and deflation but suspension failure, no way could he have controlled the car.

I can understand Firestone not wanting to 'blame' Lotus car failure because of their corporate relationship with Lotus and Colin Chapman...I think those of us in the sport at the time who knew the details of Jimmy's death have probably kept quiet out of respect for Colin Chapman's brilliance as a designer, but more because the great Jim Clark was like a son to Chapman. I'm sure Chapman knew the cause of the accident but to have been publicly condemned for a fragile design failure might have been emotionally too much for Colin to bear."

The letter raises several fascinating points, many of which demonstrate how values and attitudes have changed massively within the sport.

Can you imagine a tyre company today being prepared to take the wrap for such an accident "because of their corporate relationship" with the team concerned? Even allowing for more gentile times in 1968, I find that difficult to believe, if only because Lotus Cars must have been a miniscule part of a clientele that would have included the likes of General Motors and Ford.

"Chapman and Clark were indeed like father and son, Chapman worshipping the ground his driver walked on. No relationship in motor sport today begins to come close."

The more telling statement is the final one. Chapman and Clark were indeed like father and son, Chapman worshipping the ground his driver walked on. No relationship in motor sport today begins to come close. Clark made his F1 debut with Lotus and grew up with Chapman, each feeding off the other's genius to the point of unparralled understanding and respect. It is easy to imagine the devastating effect Clark's death must have had on Chapman, particularly if a mechanical failure had been the cause.

We can only continue to speculate. You could argue that a suspension failure was unlikely because of the gentle nature of the corner, the damp conditions and the fact that Clark, strangely off form, was not battling through from eighth place. On the other hand, that same car had been rear-ended during the previous race in Barcelona one week before. Perhaps there was an unseen weakness. Who knows?

Despite Gamble's intriguing letter, mystery remains over the precise reason behind the death of a motor racing icon 46 years later. Much the same, you suspect, when Ayrton Senna's terrible loss is recalled on 1 May 2040.

Maurice Hamilton writes for ESPN F1.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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A veteran journalist in the paddock, Maurice Hamilton has been part of the Formula One scene since 1977 and was the Observer's motor racing correspondent for 20 years. He has written several books as well as commentating on Formula One for BBC Radio 5 Live
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Maurice Hamilton writes for ESPN F1. A veteran journalist in the paddock, Maurice Hamilton has been part of the Formula One scene since 1977 and was the Observer's motor racing correspondent for 20 years. He has written several books as well as commentating on Formula One for BBC Radio 5 Live