Jim Clark died because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. On 7 April 1968, fifty years ago today, Clark should have been at Brands Hatch giving the DFV-engined Ford F3L its debut in the BOAC 500 sports car race. But he had been double-booked that weekend, and instead spent it at Hockenheim in Germany for a big European F3 meeting where Lotus was fielding its works team, to oblige sponsors Firestone.

Clark was a sheep farmer from the Scottish Borders who had started competing in sprints in his Sunbeam Mk3 saloon in 1956. He won his first event. He raced friend Ian Scott Watson’s DKW Sonderklasse and Porsche 356 1600 Super before graduating to a Jaguar D-type run by the Border Reivers team.

In 1958 Scott Watson bought one of the first Lotus Type 14 Elites, and at the Boxing Day Brands Hatch race meeting Clark had Lotus founder Colin Chapman in his own Elite all but beaten, until a backmarker spun in front of him.

Clark’s smoothness and mechanical sympathy meant he could often get a Lotus to last a race distance where other drivers could not

By 1960 Clark was a Lotus F1 driver, and he won his first championship race at Spa in 1962. It was one of three wins that year, leaving him in contention for the world championship at the final race of the season in South Africa – but his Lotus failed him, and BRM driver Graham Hill was crowned champion.

There was no mistake the following year. Clark won seven of the 10 races in 1963 – the most any driver had won in one season – and took his first world championship win in dominant style.

Jim Clark in Lotus 49

Clark would surely have won many more races, and championships, in the DFV-powered Lotus 49 (above) and 72. Ford

Lead image: Clark at Indianapolis in 1963. Ford

Chapman was renowned for building cars that were as light as possible, but often their reliability was suspect. Clark’s smoothness and mechanical sympathy meant he could often get a Lotus to last a race distance where other drivers could not, but it didn’t always work out: in 1964 a strong of retirements robbed him of the chance to defend his F1 title. He was back in 1965 with the new Lotus 33, and six race wins guaranteed him his second world championship.

Graham Hill joined Lotus for 1967 – typically, Clark insisted they were both paid the same salary – and carried out much of the development work on the new Cosworth DFV engine. It was obvious that the DFV-powered Lotus 49 was the class of the field at its debut race at Zandvoort, so Hill and Clark tossed to decide who would win. Hill won the toss, but his car expired, leaving Clark to win – in a car he had never seen before that weekend.

Clark had immense natural ability: he often struggled to understand why other drivers couldn’t keep up

Arguably his greatest race came in the 49 at Monza later that year when he suffered a puncture while leading. The pit stop to change the tyre left him a lap down but he fought past the leading group to unlap himself, belying some commentators’ opinions that Clark wasn’t a racer, and was only any good when controlling a race from the front. He lapped faster and faster, caught up an entire lap, and passed the front-runners again to re-take the lead. But the epic win was not to be: the Lotus ran out of fuel with a couple of laps to go, and John Surtees won in the ‘Hondola’ RA300.

Clark had immense natural ability: he often struggled to understand why other drivers couldn’t keep up. When he had a big enough lead he would keep himself amused by setting the car up in a big slide for the benefit of trackside photographers. His feel for the car was legendary: driving the Lotus 49 for the first time at Zandvoort in 1967 he was convinced something wasn’t right with the car, though there was nothing obvious amiss. But when Team Lotus tore down the car overnight they found one of the wheel bearings was just starting to fail.

Jim Clark Jean Shimpton Ford Corsair

Clark was a motor racing superstar in the late 1960s. Here he poses with Jean Shrimpton and Ford's latest model, the Corsair. Ford

Clark won the first F1 championship race of the 1968 season in South Africa, where he beat Juan Manuel Fangio’s all-time record of 24 world championship Grand Prix victories. He was well-placed to win more F1 races and maybe become champion again in 1968, but then came Hockenheim…

Jim Clark's grave in Chirnside

Jim Clark's grave in Chirnside, Scotland. Andrew Noakes

His Lotus 48 F2 car was up against a strong international field and Clark was running eighth after the first four laps. On the fifth lap the Lotus headed uphill out of the stadium section of the course and into the woods, was seen to twitch, and flew off the road into the trees. Though the cause of the accident was never established beyond all doubt, it’s likely that a rear tyre failed, possibly due to debris from a previous incident. The Lotus hit a tree, and Clark died from a broken neck and fractured skull. He was just 32.

The whole motor racing community was numb. At Brands Hatch the news was announced to a stunned crowd. Colin Chapman was so destraught he considered giving up motor racing for good. Chris Amon, one of the greatest drivers of his era, summed up the general mood among the drivers by saying if this could happen to Clark, “What chance have the rest of us got?”

The shockwaves from his death were felt not just in Europe, where Clark was a superstar in F1 and touring car racing, but also in the US. Clark had been denied victory in the Indy 500 in dubious circumstances in 1963 but returned, and dominated the race, in 1965 – becoming the first F1 World Champion to win at the Brickyard.

But for a few quirks of fate, Clark could have been F1 champion 1962-1963-1964-1965-1968 and might even have gone on to race and win in the slicks-and-wings era of the early 1970s, which brought two world titles for the Lotus 72. He was, without doubt, one of the greatest drivers ever to race in F1.

Family and community meant a lot to him: his gravestone in Chirnside lists his occupation as ‘farmer’ before ‘World Champion motor racing driver’. There will be events all this weekend in and around the Jim Clark Rooms in Duns, a fitting tribute to a man whose achievements inspire respect and affection more than half a century later.

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