Motor racing: The immortal champion
'Lap after lap, exactly the same line and he never seemed to work hard at it... he was so natural in a car'; Andrew Longmore makes a pilgrimage to the Borders to witness the enduring legacy of Jim Clark
Sunday 05 April 1998
The death of Jim Clark was no less shocking for the wider community of motor racing than the loss of Ayrton Senna 26 years later. The two men were bound together by an acknowledged chain of brilliance: Fangio, Moss, Clark and Senna. These were drivers in a category beyond great, as the Brazilian instinctively understood. In the Jim Clark Room in the centre of Duns, the Scot's adopted hometown, a photo of Senna has pride of place in a cabinet above his fading signature in the visitors book.At the behest of Professor Syd Watkins, the medical chief of Formula One, Senna came to Scotland to talk to the boys of Loretto, Clark's old school, and joined the pilgrimage to the heart of Border country where Clark learned his trade.
The world champion is Duns' biggest tourist attraction - 5,000 visitors come every year - but the tribute is typically understated, true to the town which honoured him with its freedom for his "prowess in the field of motor racing" and danced the night away at the Chirnside Drill Hall to the pulsating beat of Wattie Frater and the Hawaiian Serenaders. Clark made a rare speech of thanks, faithfully recorded in the Berwickshire News. "Not even winning the world championship can be as thrilling as the welcome here. It means much more to me to be among the people who I have grown up with..."
Clark would just have turned 62 had not some debris from another car lodged in his tyre on the long straight at Hockenheim, causing his unloved Lotus 48 to career down an embankment. The fact that it was an unnecessary drive in a non-descript race deepened the sense of disbelief. Ian Scott- Watson was sitting at home when the phone rang. He had to break the news to Clark's family, a few miles down the road at Edington Mains farmhouse. Eric Bryce had just returned for his tea and turned on the television to see the face he would never again photograph.
Returning to the community now is like turning back the pages of a dusty but well-loved book. Clark's career straddled the old and new worlds of Formula One. A public school hero, he died at the wheel of a Gold Leaf Team Lotus in the first year of commercial sponsorship which, almost overnight, banished the days of Sunbeam Talbots, thrashed round local circuits with backseats and bumpers removed, to the scrapbooks forever. Charterhall, the airfield where a flickering talent was nurtured, can be found on the Jim Clark Trail, along with the family farm, the parish church where he is buried and the memorial clock, but is long since overgrown. Yet Clark's genius was shaped by the countryside of his childhood, not just in his ability to master the sweeping curves and bends of Spa, which uncannily mirrors the terrain of the Border country, but in the thrift and calmness which characterised almost everything he did. "To us here," Bryce recalls, "he was just a Berwickshire farmer, just one of us, we never really saw him as a world champion." Clark once emerged from a Las Vegas casino clutching the same $10 note with which he went in; his discipline stemmed from a farmer's caution, his modesty from a Borderer's suspicion of flamboyance. "As a driver," Colin Chapman once said, looking at a photo of his first world champion at Lotus, "he was a complete genius... and, do you know, I doubt if he ever fully realised it."
Bryce farms pigs and cattle on his father's old farm between Gordon and Greenlaw to the west of Duns. Ask him where he was born and he will point to a cottage about 100 yards from his front window. His life is the land and his accent is as impenetrable as a Border mist, but somewhere along the line he embraced love of photography, which coincided with the emergence of a bright young racer from his backyard. Bryce's archive of pictures, mostly black and white,will form the basis of an exhibition being mounted in the library off Duns High Street this week and of a book entitled simply Jim Clark - Photographic Memories. And because Clark knew Bryce was one of his kind, his pictures reveal the true champion.
"I can remember once photographing him in the Aston Martin at some little circuit. I was on a bend and then, halfway through the race, I moved round the corner a little. The next lap, he went on the grass and nearly lost it. At the end, he asked me why the hell I'd moved. 'You were just right for pointing the car at,' he said. And we laughed.
"What marked him out for me was his consistency. Lap after lap, exactly the same line and he never seemed to work hard at it. Graham [Hill] would get out of his car at the end of a race soaked with sweat, Jimmy would look as though he'd just driven down from Edinburgh. He was so natural in a car." Bryce never saw Clark race abroad, but when he won pounds 75 in a photographic competition, he fulfilled an ambition by travelling to Monaco to watch his successor, Jackie Stewart. The meeting of Monaco high society and Border pig farmer can only be imagined, but heads were turned when Bryce had easy access to the world champion's exclusive company. Clark would have been the same.
Ian Scott-Watson has passed so many "landmarks of memory", as he calls them, Tuesday will be no special cause for reminiscence. If Clark came back now, he would find his old friend largely unmarked, surrounded by car magazines, still driving his beloved Alfas, and at a spritely pace for a 68-year-old. His memory, like Clark's eyesight, is pinsharp. Scott- Watson was an old-fashioned patron, intelligent enough to recognise that using Clark as a navigator, while he drove, was not the wisest distribution of labour. A chaotic outing, which ended with Clark huddled in the backseat under a raincoat, unable to look at the mayhem ahead, convinced Scott- Watson of the need for a role reversal. "He was the world's worst navigator and passenger," he says.
Scott-Watson has never revelled in the label of the man who discovered Jim Clark, not least because he knows Clark's talent was too transparent to warrant such a claim, but also because it was just not as simple as that. There were no made-to-measure champions back then. Scott-Watson was instrumental in persuading Clark to broaden his horizons. "I was sitting on the grass in the sunshine at Goodwood," Scott-Watson remembers. "Jim was sharing a drive for the Ecurie Ecosse team with Maston Gregory, who was one his heroes. The car was not set up for him, but Jim wrestled it into fourth place and could not understand what was happening when Maston dropped further and further back. I told him: 'You're the better driver.' He refused to believe it, but perhaps he began to understand then just how good he was."
The Clark family have been resolutely protective of the legend. Pride is balanced by a natural dislike of fuss. One old photo of Clark wearing his kilt and a commemorative plate is about the sum of Matty Calder's visible nostalgia. "You have to remember I was married when he was a boy. The legend was still in short trousers," Clark's eldest sister says briskly. Last summer was the first time she and her husband Alec had seen the memorial cross at Shrimp Curve, Hockenheim, where Clark was killed. She laid some heather. "Probably blown away in two seconds," she says. A company wanting to make a film of Clark's life was swiftly rebuffed, but she will lay a heart-shaped wreath for an Italian girl who never knew her brother. "It's a shame. She writes such beautiful letters."
The 25th anniversary, she thought, was the right time to cut the cord, before reality stretched into myth. One year for each of his grand prix wins. Now there is the Jim Clark memorial rally, the Jim Clark award, the Jim Clark room. "Where will it all end?" Much where it began, probably. In the robust and immutable landscape of the Borders and the grainy memories of those who, on Tuesday, fleetingly will remember how much they miss him.
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