Jim Clark. We all know that one. About his amazing speed. His almost ethereal touch of a racing car. And of his colossal achievements. But this year marks the 50th anniversary of not just an F1 season but a calendar year in motorsport in which he surpassed even his own norms. An astonishing 12 months, without any hyperbole likely the most towering in success achieved by anyone ever.
The numbers from Jim Clark’s 1965 read like something from fantasy, perhaps from a Boys’ Own publication of yesteryear with its characteristic tales of preposterous daredevil achievement. But no, it actually is sane motorsport history.
He cantered to the Formula One World Championship. Indeed for much of the year his win record, at least in the races that he showed in, was 100%. And he set a record for sealing the title ahead of time that stood all the way to 2002. Most Grands Prix were demonstrations; any tension around was over who would finish second. Clark disappeared time after time; ticking off the laps with a minimum of ostentation. Yes, Jimmy has the best car in the Lotus 33, but no one, least of all his contemporaries, doubted that Clark also personally was in a class of one.
And that year F1 was just the start of it.
Over and above the Grandes Epreuves he won several of non-championship and auxiliary F1 events. He excelled in Formula 2 also, perhaps even more visibly than he had in F1, and he bagged the British and French F2 championships. He took in races in saloon cars in his beloved Lotus Cortina, indeed he entered the year as the British Saloon Car (the forerunner of the BTCC) champion, and in 1965 won two rounds in addition to another saloon car event. He also was superb in sports car races, uniquely getting a tune out of a couple of evil Lotuses, and won a couple of races therein too. Then there was the not-small matter of an Indianapolis 500 triumph. And all this in 1965. Within the calendar year he squeezed in 61 races, and he won 32 of them among 40 podium appearances.
Indeed rewind 50 years precisely and Clark’s decorated 1965 was already well underway. The opening round of that year’s F1 championship, at the East London track in South Africa, was on New Year’s Day. It had originally been intended to be the final round of the ’64 season, scheduled in between Christmas and New Year as the concluding rounds in ’62 and 63 had been. But then the local organisers decided to put it back a week…
And the race was a portent for Clark and for everyone else. He took pole of course, as he always seemed to, and then in the race he throughout was all alone out front. Indeed in Autocourse there is a shot from seconds after the race start; just about all of the pack are in a tight jostle, but Clark already is a few lengths ahead of the crowd, and his head is cocked, looking into the mirror. You can almost visualise the thought bubble above his head reading ‘where’s the opposition?’ He won by half a minute.
The next Grande Epreuve was close to six months in the future (really), but Clark didn’t relent. He and Lotus took the immediate opportunity to follow the sun by taking part in the Tasman Series in New Zealand and Australia, for old spec, 2.5 litre engined, F1 cars, which started a week later and stretched through to the end of February. And Clark creamed it, winning 10 times out of 15 (including heats), ensuring the series championship along with it.
Back in Blighty in March he won the first heat of the F1 non-championship Race of Champions at Brands Hatch, though managed to crash out of the second heat on Bottom Straight. And before the month was out he’d bagged a sports car victory with the difficult Lotus 30 in the ‘Guards Trophy’ at Silverstone, and a few days later also triumphed in the Cortina in the Sebring 3 Hours event.
Early April and Clark was back in the 33 for another F1 non-championship event, this time in the Syracuse Grand Prix in Sicily. And there he left the home hero Ferraris behind just like he had in East London three months earlier to win as he liked. So far with 1965 barely a third over Clark had started 23 races, 16 of them from pole, and had won on 15 occasions…
More races in a variety of disciplines lay in April, and as if to underline Clark’s versatility at a Goodwood meeting on the 19th of that month he partook in an F1 non-championship race – ‘the ‘Sunday Mirror Trophy’ – as well as in the supporting events of a sports car race in the Lotus 30 and a saloon car race in the Cortina. And he won all of them.
Following an F2 victory at Pau (lapping the field) and then an unfruitful weekend at Oulton Park in the Lotus 30, in early May Clark and Lotus were off to the Indianapolis 500 for a month. Twice before they had sought to conquer the Brickyard race that had long been thought unconquerable for the Europeans. In the first attempt in 1963 Clark had stunned all with his pace, as had Lotus with its mid-engined machine in a field of front-engined roadsters, and finished runner-up. To some controversially as Parnelli Jones’ victorious car had shovelled out oil behind it towards the end but didn’t receive an expected black flag. In 1964 Clark had led but his suspension collapsed. This year Colin Chapman and his charge were leaving nothing to chance. There would be no skipping back to Europe for various races during the Indianapolis month; the preparation was widely viewed as painstaking.
Things were however tougher than before, as the Americans had by now twigged and 27 out of 33 Indy starters were mid-engined. Relations between Chapman and their engine supplier Ford were also strained, a legacy of Chapman pulling his other car of Dan Gurney out of the Indy race the previous year following Clark’s failure.
No one need have worried though as this year Clark and Lotus got it right. Absolutely. AJ Foyt, by force of will it seemed, pipped Clark’s stunning practice speed to take pole, but in the race no one was touching the Flying Scotsman. Headed for only 10 laps of the 200 he simply stretched clear, setting a stunning pace in the early part (which a watching Jan Norbye described as a ‘soul-stirring average of 152 mph’) then cruising, aided by Clark’s feather touch achieving much superior tyre wear to those behind. During the race too we were witness to the final part of Chapman’s meticulous planning.
In previous years the Lotus Indy pitstops were more in keeping with the Keystone Cops, but this year Chapman wouldn’t let Lotus or Ford people near the refuelling at halt time and had hired the Woods Brothers stock car crew instead. Clark’s first stop took just 17 seconds and the second one 25; this in a race wherein any halt under a minute was thought reasonable. Clark came home first, close to two minutes clear.
And the towering scale of this achievement is not to be underestimated. Clark was the first non-American to triumph at Indy since 1916, and as Nigel Roebuck reflected Clark’s performances and ultimate triumph in that particular race: ‘always seemed to me proof of his real greatness. Plenty of first quality Formula 1 drivers have failed at the Brickyard over the years. For Clark, it was simply another race – and, to him, somewhat of an overrated one. It was far more difficult, he would say, to get around Clermont Ferrand or the Nurburgring properly’.
Back from the US Jim was a week later in the unique surroundings of the Crystal Palace park to win both heats and the aggregate of the F2 meeting there (as well as finished second in a saloon car race on the undercard), before he resumed his F1 championship programme the following weekend. And how.
Clark had missed round two of the schedule in Monaco as he had been tied up in his Indy business, and the next round was at fearsome – triangular, 14 km in length – Spa. But just as he had in the States on his return to Grand Prix racing he put everyone into their place, which was second at the very most. Jimmy had for a long time loathed the Belgian track; in 1960 in only his second Grand Prix encountering the stricken body of Chris Bristow on the track before him left an indelible impression. But equally it seemed he couldn’t stop winning there.
Graham Hill, the Monaco victor, took the pole, but come the race and just as in 1963 the track was awash with familiar Spa rain. Hill’s stiffly sprung BRM was no good in such conditions, Clark passed on the first lap and moved clear steadily and inexorably in that way of his. In the end only Jackie Stewart, impressing in his freshman season for BRM, was on the same lap, and Clark took his fourth Spa victory in a row. He however with his typical modesty, combined with apparent genuine surprise that things were so easy for him, noted: ‘It was so wet that I had to keep lifting off, even on the straight. I suppose I won because I lifted off less than the others’. His team mate Mike Spence reflecting on being lapped by him that day reckoned that it was ‘as if your side of the road was dry’.
The sport then made its first visit to classic Clermont Ferrand for the French Grand Prix, which Autocourse painted as ‘widened and resurfaced country roads, climbing and falling, twisting and turning in typical Auvergnois fashion’. But even with a new venue the story was the same, Clark pulling clear from a comfortably-won pole, within half a lap the opposition being mere specks in the rear-view. Once again only Stewart was close – a relative term, him being close to 30 seconds back at the conclusion. The next guy after that in the shape John Surtees was upwards of two minutes adrift even of JYS.
Next up in the F1 chase was another event that Clark couldn’t stop winning, the British Grand Prix, this time at Silverstone. And indeed Clark won again – and just as in Belgium it was his fourth on the bounce at that race. But this one was far from easy. Clark’s records, and not just those from 1965, likely would have been even more imposing with modern-day reliability. And even in the zeitgeist his succession of Lotuses were notorious for not holding together.
Clark, possibly minded of this, developed a strategy of building up a large race leads in case problems struck later. He also was skilled in nursing an ailing machine, as well as in still getting reasonable lap times from it. All were vital in his latest Silverstone win. It looked business as usual for the most part as Clark smoothly cleared off from pole and built a lead eventually of 35 seconds. But in the final 15 laps Clark’s Coventry Climax engine started to run short of oil. He coasted at strategic parts of the lap, even switched the engine off deliberately at certain points in order to save oil, and Hill in second place took around two seconds out of the Scotsman’s lead each time around. The crowd rose at the chase and almost no one could envisage the sick engine making it to the end. But still the times Clark continued to put in – usually within three seconds of the record – were stunning. And even when his oil pressure reached zero with four laps yet remaining Clark somehow against all odds kept the thing going. The gap was down at eight seconds with two tours left, five seconds at the start of the last lap. And when the chequered flag fell Clark was still ahead, 3.2 seconds to the good. An admiring Autocourse called it a ‘feat of unparalleled brilliance’ from Clark.
The following Dutch race at Zandvoort was unusual by 1965 standards in that someone else led for the first five laps. Clark didn’t get the pole, Hill did instead, and off the line it was Richie Ginther in the Honda, who’d completed the three-car front row, who led from the line. Hill outbraked Ginther at the usual Zandvoort passing spot of Tarzan on the second tour, two laps later Clark followed suit and then next time around he resumed his rightful position by pulling the same move on Hill. The sigh from the crowd was audible. Still Clark didn’t quite leave the rest as he had usually that season; his win was ‘only’ by eight seconds. But the nine points were all the same, and they left Clark on the very brink of title honours
And a fortnight on (Clark had enjoyed a rare weekend off between times) all assembled at the formidable Nurburgring. Clark again took pole, this time by upwards of three seconds, and then on the opening race tour broke the lap record – from a standing start! From then it was the usual pattern, and later Clark set the first 100mph average race lap at the track, a mark previously thought unattainable. Some had thought that the bumps and other challenges of the ‘Ring would be too much for the fragile Lotus, but no, the thing was still functioning like a watch at the end, and in first.
And thus we were only on the first day of August and the year’s F1 title was officially, mathematically, Clark’s. A record in wrapping things up ahead of time that was only beaten by Michael Schumacher’s 2002 tour de force. In so doing too Clark claimed the maximum points available for that F1 season, in that now he had six wins (from six appearances) and only the best six scores counted. This is a feat achieved in F1 only three times ever, and this was the second time Clark had done it (the other was in 1963, while Alberto Ascari did the same in 1952).
It was perhaps just as well as from that point on the time-honoured Lotus unreliability – or rather some from the Climax engine – kicked in, and Clark didn’t finish any of the remaining three Grands Prix thanks to engine woes in all.
Throughout the year too Clark’s sprinkled his magnificent canvas with fine F2 drives. And perhaps herein his driving genius was even more of an important discriminator in his success, as while in F1 the Lotus 33 clearly was the class of the field in F2 things were much closer. Lotus had strong opposition from the Brabhams; its Cosworth engine faced up to units from BRM, Honda and Renault with similar power outputs. The cast of competing drivers was weighty too – Jack Brabham, John Surtees, Graham Hill and others. But Clark triumphed five times and none of the rest won more than once. As mentioned two F2 championships that year were his.
As also mentioned Clark in 1965 also continued to wow crowds by throwing around his Cortina –usually on three wheels – in saloon car events. In the British Saloon Car Championship he claimed two wins – one outright, one in class – while as noted too he also seized victory in the Sebring 3 Hours. Those close to Clark such as long-time friend Graham Gauld reckoned he got more pleasure from the Cortina than anything else he raced. The crowds watching on probably agreed.
Then there were the sports cars; the Lotus 30 was far from a classic but in 1965 Clark triumphed twice in it. During the year Chapman produced a replacement machine, the 40, but somehow it managed to be even worse. Richie Ginther who’d sampled it laconically remarked that it was ‘the Lotus 30 with ten more mistakes’. Still, somehow, in his final drive of his marathon 1965 year Clark hauled the thing to second place in the Times Grand Prix event in Riverside, California.
In subsequent years too Clark would expand his repertoire even further and participate in an RAC Rally in 1966 – being in with a genuine shout of victory before hitting a rock and losing a bunch of time (and not long later crashing out). And then in late 1967 he even partook in a NASCAR event in Rockingham, North Carolina…
And those close to Clark insist that his peripatetic ways were not in the pursuit of money, nor particularly in the pursuit of glory. Instead it was because his enthusiasm for driving and for racing, any racing, for its own sake, was uncontainable.
Jackie Stewart concurred: ‘Oh, Jimmy would get into things I wouldn’t look at. There was a race for Historic Cars at Rouen one year – and there he is, driving Pat Lindsay’s ERA faster than Pat himself! When we’d do the Tasman Series, you’d find him in all sorts of weird and wonderful local specials – I mean, things I wouldn’t even sit in.’
Of course, at the time F1 drivers competing in other categories wasn’t unusual; indeed it was the norm. But Clark didn’t just participate but was superb in just about everything else too, with his gentle touch seemingly capable of submitting almost any four-wheeled machine to his will.
Chapman died in 1982, but even in his own time acknowledged that ‘these days, of course, Grand Prix drivers are just that. They hardly ever race anything else…But what you have to remember about Jimmy is that he excelled at everything. I think only Dan Gurney was a serious rival in Formula 1 – but think of Indy, of that sports car race at the Nurburgring with the little Lotus 23, of the saloon car races with the Lotus Cortina, Formula 2…
‘For me Jimmy will always be the best driver the world has ever known. In time, probably, someone else will come along, and everyone will hail him as the greatest ever. But not me. As far as I’m concerned there will never be another in his class.’