JIM CLARK MARCH 4, 1936 TO APRIL 7, 1968

New Zealand Classic Car - - Motor Sport Flashback -

FIFTY YEARS AGO, THE GREAT­EST DRIVER OF THE 1960 SW AS KILLED IN A FOR­MULA 2 RACE AT HOCK EN HE I M. SOME MONTHS LATER, AN IN­DE­PEN­DENT IN­VES­TI­GA­TOR, WHOSE BACK­GROUND WAS IN AIR­CRAFT CRASHES, CON­CLUDED THAT THE CRASH WAS A RE­SULT OF TY RE FAIL­URE, AND FIRE STONE—THE SUP­PLIER OF THE TYRES ON THE ILL-FATED FOR­MULA 2 LO­TUS— AC­CEPTED CULPABILITY

It was widely re­ported that Jimmy Clark was killed in a mi­nor For­mula 2 (F2) race, but it was the open­ing round of the 1968 F2 Euro­pean Tro­phy, and Clark was one of three world cham­pi­ons en­tered, along with team­mate Gra­ham Hill. Chris Amon was also there with Fer­rari team­mate Jacky Ickx, who’d had a com­ing to­gether with Clark a week ear­lier in Barcelona when the Bel­gian rear-ended the Scots­man. Fer­rari right-hand man Franco Gozzi re­lated the in­ci­dent in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Me­moirs of Enzo Fer­rari’s Lieu­tenant, af­ter Clark had been put out of the race with dam­aged sus­pen­sion: “I re­mem­ber with how much de­ter­mi­na­tion Clark came into our pits.

“‘Tell your driver [Ickx] to calm down’ he [Clark] growled fu­ri­ously, ‘be­cause driv­ing like that, we’ll get hurt.’ He was right, and I asked him to ac­cept our apolo­gies, adding — to con­serve a lit­tle dig­nity — ‘But you English are all the same, you get stuck in too, but when some­thing hap­pens to you, you get tough.’ He be­came even more an­noyed. ‘I am not English, I am Scot­tish,’ he replied icily, ‘And don’t you for­get it!’”

Team Lo­tus did not take the car back to Eng­land for re­pairs to the dam­aged sus­pen­sion, and the car Clark raced the fol­low­ing week­end in Ger­many was the same one that had been hit by Ickx in Spain.

Fa­tal ac­ci­dent

Twenty starters lined up on a dull driz­zly day in south­west­ern Ger­many. On lap four of the first heat, Clark’s Lo­tus crashed on a fast right-hand curve. The great­est driver of his gen­er­a­tion was dead, his Lo­tus smashed against a tree. There were no skid marks. The car was taken back to Eng­land, and a Fire­stone tech­ni­cian and Pe­ter Jowitt of the Royal Air­craft Es­tab­lish­ment’s (RAE) ac­ci­dentin­ves­ti­ga­tion branch thor­oughly ex­am­ined ev­ery item of ev­i­dence. Both came to the same con­clu­sion.

Sus­pen­sion fail­ure was can­vassed but ul­ti­mately dis­missed. In his book Jim Clark: Trib­ute to a Cham­pion, Eric Dy­mock states: “The most likely ex­pla­na­tion was the ex­plo­sive de­com­pres­sion of a tyre, throw­ing the car off course and side­ways into the fa­tal tree. The tyre had lost pres­sure through a slow punc­ture, and al­though cen­trifu­gal force kept it in shape at speed in a straight line, side force in the gen­tle curve caused the beading to loosen from the rim and drop into the well.”

Pe­ter Jowitt was a se­nior en­gi­neer at the Ex­per­i­men­tal Air­craft Depart­ment at Farn­bor­ough. He spe­cial­ized in mil­i­tary pro­to­type air­craft ac­ci­dents and was highly ex­pe­ri­enced in tech­ni­cal anal­y­sis. He did the tech­ni­cal ex­am­i­na­tion of Clark’s car af­ter the crash, and wrote: “We had a piece of ev­i­dence of enor­mous value. A state­ment had been taken from the mar­shal who had been very nearly hit by the car, and it had been taken while he was white-lipped and trem­bling, and be­fore he had time to ra­tio­nal­ize. He said that he had seen the car, whilst com­ing to­wards him, start to break away at the rear end. There had been a cor­rec­tion which caused a sharp break­away the other way, fol­lowed by an­other cor­rec­tion which caused a fur­ther, fairly gen­tle but pro­gres­sive break­away in the orig­i­nal turn­ing left mode, which con­tin­ued un­til the car hit the tree.

“Any over­steer­ing ac­ci­dent will fo­cus at­ten­tion on the rear of the ve­hi­cle, and I found an oddly-shaped cut in the tread of the right-hand rear tyre. This cut went com­pletely through the tyre, and I could not find any part of the wreck­age which could have caused it. If the tyre had been punc­tured, there is an odd ef­fect which I had seen be­fore. At high speed in a straight line, cen­trifu­gal force will in fact hold the tread out so that it looks as if there is no punc­ture, and the driver will not know that the tyre has de­flated.

“As soon as a side load is put on, in cor­ner­ing, the tyre be­comes un­sta­ble, and can­not gen­er­ate the cor­ner­ing force the driver would ex­pect. With the right-hand tyre de­flat­ing, the ef­fect in a right-hand cor­ner would be some over­steer. Cor­rect­ing this by steer­ing left would put a heav­ier cor­ner­ing load on to the un­sta­ble right­hand tyre, which would give rise to vi­cious right-hand over­steer. Cor­rec­tion in the op­po­site sense, at high speed on a very wet track, would clearly be dif­fi­cult. The tachome­ter in the car, a me­chan­i­cal type, in­di­cated that Jim had the power on right up to im­pact, clearly try­ing to hold the car. There are, how­ever, si­t­u­a­tions when even the un­earthly skill of Jimmy Clark will not suf­fice.”

Sus­pen­sion fail­ure

Not ev­ery­one was con­vinced that the fa­tal ac­ci­dent was due to tyre fail­ure, and it was sus­pen­sion fail­ure that those peo­ple were point­ing to. In the May 23, 1993 is­sue of On Track mag­a­zine, Fred Gam­ble (a for­mer Goodyear tyre direc­tor) wrote a let­ter headed “Time for the truth”:

“Con­cern­ing the cir­cum­stances of Jimmy Clark’s death … maybe it is time the truth is told. I was priv­i­leged to be a part of that era and a friend of Jimmy’s, so was just as dev­as­tated as ev­ery­one else when he was killed. His car had a rear sus­pen­sion fail­ure; sadly one of the fre­quent and well-known re­sults of the bril­liant but frag­ile Lo­tus cars of that era.

“I was Goodyear’s first direc­tor of in­ter­na­tional rac­ing at the time and, as Fire­stone was con­tracted to Lo­tus, af­ter the ac­ci­dent and ru­mours of a tyre fail­ure, Fire­stone en­gi­neers showed me the tyre off the Clark car, not de­flated or failed, but ob­vi­ously dragged side­ways af­ter a sus­pen­sion fail­ure.

“A friend of mine ex­am­ined Jimmy’s tyres, along with the wreck­age, at Farn­bor­ough, and ob­served large brak­ing flat spots on the left front and right rear tyres, in both cases cov­er­ing the full width of the tread, very light scuff marks on the right front and slightly more pro­nounced ones on the left rear. I be­lieve it would be rea­son­able to as­sume that this would in­di­cate very heavy brak­ing just prior to im­pact. These marks sup­port the view that the right rear tyre had suf­fi­cient in­fla­tion at the time of the heavy brak­ing, but they do sup­port the very real pos­si­bil­ity that the left rear sus­pen­sion had par­tially or com­pletely col­lapsed, and that the left rear was be­ing sup­ported by only the rear anti-roll bar.

“In all the years that have passed since the ac­ci­dent, I have al­ways had a prob­lem be­liev­ing that a fail­ure of the right rear tyre was the cause. I was run­ning iden­ti­cal tyres that day, lap­ping at a very sim­i­lar speed, and I can say with al­most 100 per cent con­fi­dence that had I suf­fered a fail­ure of the right rear tyre at the very same spot, I do not be­lieve it would have re­sulted in an ac­ci­dent — there was just not suf­fi­cient cor­ner­ing load on the car for an in­side tyre fail­ure to have been a ma­jor prob­lem at that point. I feel strongly that it would be nice if the cir­cum­stances sur­round­ing the demise of a per­son who was, is and al­ways will be such a hugely im­por­tant part of the sport and its his­tory, had a rea­son­able chance of be­ing fac­tual. I’m cer­tain the in­ci­dent with Ickx at Barcelona dam­aged the Lo­tus’s sus­pen­sion, and was piv­otal to the whole thing.”

Com­pe­tent scru­ti­neer

Chris re­called Jowitt as “a very af­fa­ble per­son, a very com­pe­tent scru­ti­neer, and be­cause of his pro­fes­sion, [he] was ob­vi­ously an ex­pert in air­craft ac­ci­dent in­ves­ti­ga­tion. One of the tools used by air­craft ac­ci­dent in­spec­tors is data recorders or black boxes, be­cause it is of­ten im­pos­si­ble to es­tab­lish the cause of an ac­ci­dent purely based on ex­am­i­na­tion of the wreck­age.

“For any per­son to have had a re­al­is­tic chance of pin­point­ing the cause of this ac­ci­dent, they would have had to have ex­per­tise in ex­am­in­ing bro­ken or dam­aged parts of the car struc­ture and sus­pen­sion etc., to have ex­per­tise in all tyre as­pects and to have been an ex­pert in ve­hi­cle dy­nam­ics. I have not seen any­thing to sug­gest that Jowitt claimed ex­per­tise on tyres or ve­hi­cle dy­nam­ics, but he would cer­tainly have been very well qual­i­fied for the first of the three re­quire­ments.”

Jowitt was not paid by Chap­man to carry out the in­ves­ti­ga­tion; how­ever, he may not have had suf­fi­cient in­for­ma­tion to con­duct his in­ves­ti­ga­tion in ideal cir­cum­stances. Seem­ingly, Jowitt did not con­sult any in­de­pen­dent tyre ex­pert. For half a cen­tury the gen­eral con­sen­sus has had ‘the tyre’ as be­ing the cause, but peo­ple who were there, and/or know more about these things than most, re­main to­tally un­con­vinced by the tyre con­clu­sion and are also adamant as to the sus­pen­sion break­age as be­ing the most likely cause. In fact, the peo­ple who seem to have the strong­est-held views to sup­port ‘the of­fi­cial line’ are his­to­ri­ans …

All pho­tos are from Bill Pot­tinger’s book Tas­man Se­ries Me­moirs 1968–71, avail­able from Bill Pot­tinger, row­billpotty@gmail.com.

Clark brak­ing heav­ily in the Lo­tus 49 at Tere­tonga, Jan­uary 1968

Above: The mas­ter in ac­tion — be­fore he lost his nose cone en route to fin­ish­ing sec­ond to Bruce Mclaren’s BRM Be­low: Jim Clark pre­pares for his last race in New Zealand, Tere­tonga 1968

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