Jim Clark is often hailed as the best F1 driver ever. But usually only by people who have ties to the European Island called Great Britain. So I was inclined to think it was some nationalistic BS, since they’re pretty good at that. But somewhere last year I decided to investigate a bit more. And I found out that the stories of back then are justifying the pedestal Clark gets put up on.
This week it’s time for the Belgian Grand Prix, and as it happens, Jimmy was brilliant at Belgium. He earned his first GP victory here, and won it four times. Only two drivers did better; Michael Schumacher and Ayrton Senna. Who did it six and five times, respectively. And one equaled Clark; Kimi Räikkönen. But there is something that makes Clark’s feat a bit more impressive. First of all, he did it four consecutive times and he did it on the old lay-out of the notorious track.
Of all the times he won it, his second one probably is his most impressive one. Why? Because it seemed impossible before the start, and the manner in which he did it is why people put him so high on the list of “greatest ever F1 drivers”.
The 1963 Belgian Grand Prix
Clark had been unable to qualify his revolutionary Lotus 25 any higher as eight. Naturally people thought he’d be lucky to fight for a podium here, which would be impressive when starting from the third row. Especially with the big names of that era in front of him. Graham Hill took pole position and Dan Gurney was second. Third was the Belgian Willy Mairesse in his Ferrari, and behind him both Cooper cars of Tony Maggs and Bruce McLaren. Followed by Jack Brabham in his own car. In seventh place it was Innes Ireland, then Clark self and the top ten was completed with Richie Ginther and John Surtees.
But once the flag dropped it was all about Jim. He was able to take the lead before the pack reached Eau Rouge. Jumping everyone on the outside, diving down the ending of the pit lane. Only one able to follow was Hill in his BRM. By the end of lap one the duo had a fifteen seconds lead on the pack. But it wasn’t easy for Clark, his Lotus had developed a gearbox issue which made it jump out of top gear, the whole time. Furthermore the track wasn’t in a good condition either, being damp all round. Needles to say he had his hands full with the ever charging Hill in his rear. The second lap ended with the both of them twenty-two seconds adrift. Mairesse in his Ferrari was third followed by Brabham, McLaren, Gurney and Surtees, who all seemed to be fighting for the fourth place.
By lap five Clark had been able to gain eight seconds on Hill, but that didn’t mean the danger had passed. But it seemed Clark was finding his mojo, as he got ever closer to lapping the Belgian track at under 4 minutes. Something he’d finally do on lap 16, with a 3m58.1s lap.
At that point something else happened; the rain started falling. Again. It had been raining all morning, but some moments before the race would go ahead the rain ceased, and it started to dry up. it was believed that the rain would not return that day and the race would be driven on a gradually drying track. But there it was, the weather that Spa Francorchamps has a patent on. For those of you who don’t live in Belgium (or England), we have these kind of rainy days where everything just floods. And this day would be one of them.
Clark was in front of Hill with a lead of over twenty-six seconds. And Hill, in turn, lead Gurney with another forty-five seconds.
Right up until the seventeenth lap was on its way, where Hill suffered transmission problems, leading to his retirement… This increased Clark’s lead on the then second placed Gurney to more than a minute and a half!
The rain got so bad that Clark was forced to bring his pace down so much that he didn’t even exceed 100kph on some laps. Lightning and thunder rumbled through the torrential rain. Conditions that would see a race red flagged these day. Not to say no one tried to get the same done back then. Colin Chapman, who ran the Lotus team wanted officials to bring the race to its end long before it would officially be over. With one of his cars in the lead, who can blame him?
But that day Clark was in a class of his own. Even with the reduced speed, lapping the Ardennes forest at 6m40s, compared to his fastest lap just shy of 4m, he was putting an ever growing distance between him and second placed Bruce McLaren. Bruce McLaren had fought his way back in to this race though, passing Clark on lap 30 to unlap himself and passing Gurney to get that (deserved) second place in the race.
They were driving on a track which was made up out of public Belgian roads. Those of you who ever visited Belgium know how abysmal their state is. They were in the sixties and they are today. Current day Francorchamps is perhaps the best part of asphalt Belgium has. But back then it wasn’t a closed circuit, so imagine patches of standing water, potholes, crumbled and rough edges. And all the while raining cats and dogs.
In the end it took so much of Clark’s physique that he crossed the finish-line at such a low speed that he stopped right after it. Not even attempting a slow down lap. Apart from one other driver, all five of the six finishers did exactly the same. Six finishers out of twenty starters… Most of them crashing out due to the weather.
In the end Clark took the victory with a five minutes advantage on second placed McLaren. Five minutes… While starting down in eight. If that doesn’t count as an impossible victory what does?