When considering who is the greatest Formula 1 driver in history, the only way to compare eras is to consider the reputation of each driver in the eyes of his peers, those that witnessed first hand the talents possessed by the man in question.
Debates continue over every driver considered amongst the greats. No era has a unanimous No. 1, a driver superior to all others, except one.
Many consider Sterling Moss to be at least a match for Juan Manuel Fangio had he been in a great car more often. Some also say that Michael Schumacher only dominated because of the machinery and resources he had at his disposal. Ayrton Senna had Alain Prost as a worthy adversary, and Sir Jackie Stewart thought one man was by far the best driver, certainly more talented than him.
That man was Jim Clark.
Clark was undoubtedly the best driver of his era. His two world titles may not compare to others, but Clark commanded the respect of every one of his comrades, and that is an equal accolade to any tangible achievement.
Born in Fife in 1936, Clark began his motor sport career in rallies and hill climbs, driving his own car, a Sunbeam-Talbot. After impressing Colin Chapman in a GT race at Brands Hatch in 1958 (finishing second behind the legendary designer), Clark advanced quickly to F1, making his debut at the Dutch Grand Prix in 1960.
Success followed shortly after, and Clark achieved 100% of the points available in both of his world championship years of 1963 and 1965.
Clark’s achievements, in percentage terms, are amongst the best in the history of the sport. Clark’s pole position rate is second only to Fangio, and his win rate third in the all time list.
Clark excelled in all forms of motor sport, winning the Indianapolis 500 in 1965, as well as Formula 1. Further championship success was almost certainly prevented by the typical fragility of Chapman’s Lotus cars.
Clark was known for his smooth driving style. His technique was to use minimal inputs to encourage the car to behave the way he wanted it to, a technique that also reduced the likelihood of failures in an age of intensely fragile cars.
Clark was without doubt the quickest driver of his era, but where does he rank amongst the greats from other eras?
But for the unreliability of his Lotus cars, Clark would surely have won many more races and more championships. Clark did not excel at the Monaco Grand Prix, but was peerless at the ‘driver’s circuits’ of Spa and Silverstone.
Away from racing, Clark was a quiet and introverted character. In his spare time Clark would work on the farm at home in Scotland, demonstrating his lack of interest in celebrity and extravagance.
Clark’s death shook the world of Formula 1. Having won the season opening South African Grand Prix months earlier, Clark was competing in a Formula 2 race at Hockenheim when his car left the track and crashed into the trees at the side of the track.
Jim was killed instantly, at the age of just 32, his Lotus destroyed beyond recognition. Such was the respect for Clark that the theory of ‘if a driver crashes he isn’t good enough’ was instantly discredited. John Surtees summed up the mood perfectly by saying: "If it could happen to Clark, what chance do the rest of us have?"
In the minds of his peers, driver error was not an option. Clark did not make mistakes. The cause of the accident is still unknown, but suspected to be a deflated tyre.
Even Senna did not command such respect from his peers. Clark must surely be ranked as the best in the history of the sport, and we can only wonder what he could have achieved had that fatal accident not occurred.
Jim Clark (1936- 1968)
Years Active: 1960-68
World Championships: 2 (’63, ’65)
Races: 73 (72 starts)
Wins: 25 (35%)
Poles: 33 (46%)
Fastest Laps: 28 (39%)
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