Monday, April 20, 2009

The Quiet Champion

He died ten years before I was born, and yet, in a round-about way, I suppose he is ultimately responsible for my life-long fascination with the world of motorsport. Jim Clark was my father's boyhood hero, and as with many a racing fan I've known, it's an obsession I picked up from my dad. He took me to my first race as a seven year old kid - the European Grand Prix at Brands Hatch. I still remember the impact of seeing mid-80s turbo cars sprinting down into Hawthorn Bend, showers of sparks flying up from their titanium skid plates. I remember too, being taken around the pitlane to look at the cars in the fading light of early evening in October and getting my photo taken sat in the cockpit of Derek Warwick's Renault.

Had it not been for that trip, I might never have been drawn to the sport. Certainly, motorsport aside, I was always more interested in music, film and novels than I was in sport. So perhaps it really does all come down to the impact that an unassuming hill-farmer from the Scottish Borders made on a teenager in Cheshire nearly fifty years ago.

Last weekend's BBC4 documentary, Jim Clark: The Quiet Champion (UK readers can watch it on Iplayer until 8pm on Saturday) used archive footage, interviews with those who knew him and interviews with the man himself, told the story of the man whom many, my father amongst them, regard as the greatest racing driver there has ever been.

The film, the last of the BBC's triptych concerning Britain's multiple F1 champions, following on from Graham Hill: Driven and Jackie Stewart: The Flying Scot, transports viewers back into a world far removed from the modern sport. Ian Scott-Watson, who is interviewed for the programme, was Clark's early mentor, and lent him use of his DKW car to compete in a local sportscar race in 1956. Scott-Watson found that, within a few laps, Clark was able to lap 3 seconds quicker than he had been able to. A year and a half later, he was a works driver for Colin Chapman's then fledgling Lotus team, and by 1960, he was a Formula 1 driver.

In today's world, where F1 drivers have typically been racing karts since they were barely out of nappies, have come up through highly structured (and very expensive) junior formulae, often with the help of manufacturer-backed driver development programmes, it is amazing to think that, at one time, it was possible to go from being a hobbyist amateur, racing a borrowed car at a local motor club to a paid F1 driver in the space of under four years. It drives home the fact that the racing world was much more ad-hoc, much less commercialised than it is now.

Two years later, Clark was winning Grands Prix - picking up three wins in 1962 for Lotus, and a year later, he had won his, and Lotus' first World Championship. He was also an accomplished sportscar and touring car racer, particularly spectacular at the wheel of a Lotus Cortina. The documentary gives considerable time over to his trips to the US to compete in the Indianapolis 500. At that time, it was all but unheard of for European road circuit drivers to make the journey across the pond to pit themselves against the best of America's oval racers. Yet Clark proved to be a natural - leading 28 laps and finishing second on his debut. Two years later, in 1965, he won the race outright and becoming the first non-US driver to do so.

The documentary's title - The Quiet Champion hints at what stood out about Clark at the time. In an era when racing drivers were expected to be larger-than-life daredevils, Clark was, according to former Lotus mechanic Bob Dance "diffident and shy, not at all like any other racing driver." As someone who lives not far from the Border farming country where Clark grew up though, it doesn't surprise me so much. Even now, fifty years on, the Borders appear a quiet, conservative kind of place where the pace of life is slow, and not much ever changes. How much more true this must have been the case in the late 1950s and early 1960s?

As the documentary tells it, it is in the aftermath of that Indianapolis win that the commercial pressures begin to enter into Clark's life. Formula 1 might not have had anything like the media profile it does now, but an Indy 500 win was enough to get Clark on the front of Time Magazine. Whether this sat comfortably with a man who liked to relax while away from racing by returning to his Borders farm and tending to his sheep is not entirely clear. Certainly, he doesn't come across as being as comfortable in the spotlight as his contemporaries and subject of the two earlier documentaries, Stewart and Hill.

How he would have coped with the modern media-saturated version of the sport, where drivers are expected to be constantly available to speak to the press, to be figureheads for the corporations that fund their teams, that is hard to know... Perhaps it's simply a wrong-headed way to think about it. He was as much of his time as anyone, and even in today's racing world there are those who seem more comfortable in the spotlight than others. Today a Nico Rosberg or a Lewis Hamilton comes across happier being the centre of attention than say, a Fernando Alonso or a Kimi Raikkonen...

One moment in the film really rams home how different racing really was in Clark's day though. Clark is asked by a television interviewer "What's left to prove, how do you assess your chances of reaching old age, or even middle age, if you push it any further?" These days, such a question would be hyperbolic - motor racing may not be safe in the workaday sense of the word, but it has been 15 years since a driver died in a Grand Prix, and the possibility of dying at the wheel probably doesn't much trouble the average F1 driver. In Clark's day, though, such a question might be impertinent, but it wasn't sensationalist. it was a very different and much more dangerous world for a racing driver. A clip from the film drives the point home forcefully - "In 1958 these 16 men lined up for the start of the 1958 season. Today 7 of them are dead" a TV announcer declares in a stentorian tone.

In the end, Clark's luck ran out. A still unexplained accident in a minor Formula 2 race at Hockenheim, Germany saw his Lotus plunge off into the trees, killing him instantly. For all that death was far from unknown in the sport in those days, the impact of his death was still immense - for the simple reason that he was seen by his peers as the best of them all. Every racing driver, while knowing the dangers, probably preferred to think that others might have fatal accidents, but it wouldn't happen to them. But, as Chris Amon would later say "If it could happen to him, what chance do the rest of us have? I think we all felt that. It seemed like we'd lost our leader."

Was Clark the best of his generation? From this distance, I couldn't possibly say. I wasn't there at the time and the bare statistics can't tell the whole story. Those statistics are damned impressive though, with 25 wins from 72 race starts, his win/race ratio is bettered only by Michael Schumacher, at least once you strip out the anomalies who competed in only a few Grands Prix. And Schumacher, it should be remembered, was competing in an era where mechanical reliability was vastly better than it was in the 1960s. My father always thought, though, that the most telling statistic was that, in his whole career, he only ever finished second twice. As he put it, if the car held together, Clark usually won.

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Anonymous Geneza Pharmaceuticals said...

You also know and history of motorsports in details!

6:11 AM  

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