THE SECOND COMING?
The schoolboy who shares a car, and a name, with a racing great. By Jack Cozens
One of Britain’s most famous racing names from history won a touring car race in a Ford Lotus Cortina at the Oulton Park Gold Cup last year. Well, sort of.
The late Jim Clark was part of a generation of drivers just keen to go racing in whatever they could. In a time before complex contractual clauses and crammed calendars, Clark regularly switched between all sorts of cars – from the Lotus 25s and 33s in which he claimed the 1963 and ’65 Formula 1 World Championships to the Cortina with which he contested the British Saloon Car Championship – before his death at the wheel of an F2 car at Hockenheim in 1968.
In an age where drivers are perhaps more conservative than they’ve ever been in terms of trying new cars (though admittedly that’s a trend that slowly appears to be changing) it’s perhaps fitting then that a namesake of Clark’s is starting to building a reputation – no thanks to the unconventional mix of cars he’s raced.
Step forward James Clarke. Named after the double F1 world champion – albeit with an added ‘e’ – and just 16, Clarke is one of a batch of young drivers building his profile. His first steps in racing came in the Junior Saloon Car Championship – though Clarke admits the transition from karts to cars was something that he had initially overlooked.
“My dad was always into racing,” says Clarke. “His dad lived near Oulton so they’d always go to watch Jim Clark in the Gold Cup. I guess I’d always shown an interest, and when I was seven my dad took me down to a local kart track. That Christmas I got a kart, but I wasn’t eight until April. I turned eight on one Friday and was racing on the Saturday – pretty much as early as I could have. I did a couple of club championships and then went to MSA karting and worked up.
“My parents realised there was the opportunity to go further and started looking into the next step before I’d even thought about it. We knew we couldn’t afford Ginettas, and felt there wasn’t any point in going down that route – it’d be expensive and I’m not sure how much I’d have got out of it.
“That left Junior Saloons or Fiestas, and Junior Saloons was the cheapest. There was a taster day with Tockwith Motorsport, and I did that. I didn’t really want to, if I’m honest; in my mind I thought with a good engineer we’d stay in karts. But as I got out the car, Dave [Beecroft, JSCC manager] turned to my parents and said ‘I think you guys are screwed’. He twigged how much I’d enjoyed it immediately.”
While the Suffolk teenager joined as a rookie, success came quickly and it soon became clear that his spell in the JSCC would not be a long one.
“After we’d won both races by quite a big margin at Brands, we looked at things and said depending on how the rest of it went it might not be worth another season [of JSCC],” he says. “We’d made a lot more progress than expected. The aim was to try and get a podium by the end of it, but by round three we’d achieved that. We were only aiming for a top eight in the championship and we nearly won it.
“By the mid-season we were third and only four or five points off the lead. That really made our minds up about 2016 – we worked out we needed to move on. By halfway through this year, I might well have outgrown it.”
The logical next step, then? The BARC Clubmans Championship, of course. With links to Beecroft and his Orex team, Clarke was leant a drive in the Catchpole Mallock MK18BF 1600, modified and raced by the late Autosport cartoonist Barry Foley and his son Justin. There was method to the madness, though, as he explains.
“It’s not a particularly well-trodden path,” he admits. “[But] we wanted to move into something ideally with slicks and wings that was rear-wheel drive that replicated a sportscar.
“We knew Dave ran Clubmans, so we went to watch them. As soon as I saw them going round, I thought ‘oh, they’re nice’. And then I saw the times and I was a bit blown away by the fact that, depending on class, they’re as fast as, or even faster, than a GT4 car.”
Clarke had to wait until round three at Rockingham to make his debut, his April birthday again causing him some grief, but he made up for lost time over the remainder of the season – coming close to a debut win at the Corby circuit until he suffered brake failure before winning five races on the bounce.
Later in the year, he dovetailed those exploits with a run in the HSCC’S Historic Touring Car Championship in a Lotus Cortina at Brands Hatch, Croft and at Silverstone – with a deal that, once again, owed some thanks to Beecroft and his connections.
“[Historics] was never a plan – certainly not in my mind. I knew the Cortina’s owner, John Kyle, and Dave and Orex had run the Cortina so I knew about it. I spoke to John who owned it and he sort of took an interest in me – though Dave said he only paid attention at the start because my name was ‘Jim’ Clarke!
“It wasn’t being raced so it was sat gathering dust in a workshop. It was something where we thought maybe if the year goes well we can ask about doing something at the end of the year, but after the early Clubmans success my dad asked if we could use it. John said we could, but it’s the same deal we had in Clubmans where we basically rented the car.”
The highlight, though, came in Cheshire in late August when Clarke emulated his namesake after half a century and drove in the Gold Cup meeting in a Cortina – producing a great drive to grab a class win and second overall in the second HTC event at Oulton. That didn’t mean there weren’t holes to pick in his performance, though.
“I knew it was a big weekend, and I always get more nervous before driving the Cortina,” he says. “It might just go hand-in-hand with the fact that they’re bigger meetings.
“I was a wreck before race two, but got in the car and felt OK. When you’re in the car, your racing brain takes over and I was thinking in terms of when it would go right, rather than what if it goes wrong?
“Sure, I won my class in the second race, but I lost another podium at the Gold Cup [in race one]. It’s only now that the season’s finished that I’m OK with it – for weeks afterwards I was angry with myself because I felt like we had the pace to win overall.
“But if I hadn’t made a mistake [running wide at Cascades in race one] I wouldn’t be sat here now being able to pick out what went wrong and I wouldn’t know what to do next time. As a 16-year-old in a Cortina, I was always going to make a mistake.”
His previous fear of outgrowing the JSCC clearly hasn’t extended to his current exploits, though, as next year Clarke will continue in Historics and Clubmans ( see Racing News).
“They’re both great fun but for very Jbk jkkb kjkb different reasons: The Mallock is great because it does bkbkjkbkjkbexactly what you want – you can carry so much speed through the corners without feeling uncomfortable – while the Cortina is the opposite and not great through the fast stuff. You have to really fight it.”
But that’s not to say either is the end goal. Clarke is quick to recognise the importance of racing in the two categories, which could scarcely be more different from one another, but he’s tempered enthusiasm about his current results with a desire to wait to be assessed in a few years’ time – when he hopes to be a ‘top driver’. And for someone whose career has been so unconventional so far, it’s perhaps no surprise that one of his ultimate ambitions lies far afield.
“The main goal would be Le Mans and endurance racing,” he says. “That’s why I’m staying in Clubmans. LMP1 is the pinnacle of endurance racing, even if the current formula has some problems.
“The series that I really enjoy and would love to do is IMSA over in America. I think some of the best drivers are there, they’re all factory outfits and they have some of the best tracks in the world.”
The way he’s catapulted through the ranks means there’s no headline title success in cars, but Clarke’s record is still a remarkable one that marks him out as one to watch. ■
Clarke has also impressed in Cortina
Jim Clark driving Cortina at Oulton Park in 1965
Clarke took breakthrough Clubmans wins at Brands
Second full racing year was 2016Photos: LAT, Gary Hawkins, Steve Jones, Oliver Read
Teenager also raced Catchpole car in Birkett Relay