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Jim Clark - Yes, he really was that good - A different perspective on the talents of the British champion

Published by Steven Roy

Clark's Lotus Type 18, at Group Lotus' HQ in Hethel
Credit: Lotus

Having watched BBC4’s re-run of Jim Clark: The Quiet Champion recently I was surprised at the effect that he had on people even though I know all the stories and I have seen the film before. It seems incredible to me that someone like Dan Gurney still breaks down and cries when speaking about Clark even though the film was made 40 years after his death.

I have never been a big fan of using statistics to assess a driver’s ability. There are many examples of drivers who never achieved the results that their ability deserved. Chris Amon was rated as one of the very best drivers of his time but never won a world championship race due to his incredible ability to change teams at exactly the wrong time. However there are other cases like Fangio where the raw statistics tell you that this was indeed a great driver. There is only one interpretation that can be made from 24 wins from 51 starts.

Clark’s results like Fangio’s lead to only one conclusion but I want to dig into the bald statistics to show how he dominated the sport.

In simple terms, he started 72 races and won 25. Given that the reliability of the cars in the 1960s was nowhere near as good as it is now these are clearly exceptional results but they don’t come close to showing how good Clark really was. He drove only for Lotus and Colin Chapman made cars with two characteristics. They were fast and they were unreliable. Clark as a result retired from 23 of his 72 races and in many of those he retired from the lead.

So although he started 72 races he only finished 49 and he won more than half of those. You may think those statistics sum him up but there is better to come. Of those 49 finishes 32 were podiums and 40 were points scoring. In a career that lasted 8 seasons he only finished out of the points 9 times.

Any driver who pushed the limit too early was liable to have a very short career

In those days, of course, young drivers were not able to spend time in simulators learning the vagaries of their car and the circuits. Neither did they have telemetry to let them know where they were gaining or losing time. So they had to take time to settle into F1 and learn how far they could push their cars. Any driver who pushed the limit too early was liable to have a very short career.

Jim’s first race was the Dutch GP of 1960 but it was not until 1962 that he won his first race. The real measure of his domination is to be found in his results from the start of 1962 until his death after the first round of the 1968 championship.

During that period he started 58 races and failed to finish more than a third of them recording 20 DNFs. From his 38 finishes he scored 25 wins, 29 podiums and 34 points scoring finishes. In just over 6 full seasons he won two-thirds of the races he finished and only finished outside the points 4 times.

In those 6 seasons he only finished outside the top 3 in the championship once. This was in 1966 when the engine regulations were changed from 1.5 litre to 3 litres and Lotus did not have a very good engine until the Cosworth DFV arrived the following season. He won two championships but had Chapman gone for a bit more reliability at the expense of a little speed he could easily have taken 5 and drastically improved his already impressive statistics.

It didn’t matter what he drove he was just as good in any kind of car

Of course, in those days, drivers drove in many other categories and few drove in as many as Clark . Frustratingly for his rivals, it didn’t matter what he drove he was just as good in any kind of car. In 1964 he finished third in the world championship but he won the British Touring Car Championship in the Lotus Cortina. He won in formula two, sports cars and saloon cars. He won the Indianapolis 500 by two laps in 1965 and but for some dodgy lap scoring and some officials ignoring their own rules to ensure that one of their own won he would have won two more. He was even at home at the wheel of a rally car.

In the winters of the 1960s the top F1 drivers drove in the Tasman Series which was a series of races in New Zealand and Australia . It goes without saying that Clark dominated. He entered the championship for the first time in 1965 winning 4 of the 8 races and finishing second once to take the championship. The following year was his least successful finishing third in the championship with one win and 2 seconds.

In 1967 he was truly dominant. That year there were only 6 races of which Clark won 3 and finished second in the other 3. He scored 45 points while his nearest rival Jackie Stewart scored only 18 from his two wins. In 1968 the championship was again up to 8 races and Clark won 4 and was second in another to take yet another championship.

In four seasons Clark scored 12 wins, 7 seconds and one third from 30 races. In 4 seasons he finished on the podium in two-thirds of the races in the Tasman Series, winning 40% of them and taking 3 of the 4 championships.

It is hard to put into words how utterly dominant Jim Clark was but the numbers give an indication.