Mystery of Jim Clark’s fatal crash lingers 50 years on

Jim Clark will forever be a Formula 1 legend, his fatal accident 50 years ago on 7 April 1968 robbed the sport of a driver many regard him as the greatest of all time.

Clark was an all-rounder of note, quite comfortable hurling a Cortina on two wheels around the tight confines of the Brands Hatch Indy circuit as he was power sliding his Cosworth V8 powered Lotus Formula 1 car through the forests of Spa-Francorchamps.

His stats of 72 grand prix starts, 25 wins, 32 podiums and 33 pole positions is virtually unmatched in terms of percentage success rate.

Clark’s love for racing at all levels ultimately led to his death. During a four-month (!) hiatus between his final Grand Prix in South Africa on 1 January 1968 and the Spanish Grand Prix in May which he never got to race in.

For that early April weekend Clark was originally slated to drive in the BOAC 1000 km sportscar race at Brands Hatch, but instead chose to drive in the Deutschland Trophäe, a Formula 2 race, for Lotus at the Hockenheimring.

Often described as a minor race, it was hardly that as it featured an impressive line-up including the pace-setting Matras for Jean-Pierre Beltoise and Henri Pescarolo, Tecnos for Carlo Facetti and Clay Regazzoni, Brabhams for Derek Bell and Piers Courage, a Ferrari for Chris Amon and Graham Hill partnering Clark in the Gold Leaf Lotus team

There were two heats for Formula 2 on the day, but on the fifth lap of the first heat, Clark’s Lotus 48 veered off track and crashed into the trees. He suffered a broken neck and skull fracture and died before reaching the hospital.

Few witnesses were on hand and thus the exact cause will always remain a mystery.

Now, 50 years down the road Auto Motor und Sport have provided interesting insight into the accident that killed Clark:

The accident happened at the 2.1 kilometre mark, a long way behind the first chicane, which was later installed in response to Clark’s death.

Track marshal Winfried Kolb saw the tail of the Lotus break loose with the right rear end of the car giving way first, the driver then caught the fishtail, but then it veered off into a forest which lined the track only a mere three meters away from the tarmac.

Clark appeared to fight the out of control Lotus for 300 meters, but finally it hit the edge of the track at an angle of 45 degrees, slid on to the damp grass, mowed down a fence, was hoisted over a small embankment, ploughed through trees and came to a stop when it hit a 1.5 metre tree with a thigh-thick trunk.

When examining the engine, it turned out that Clark had remained full on the gas until the very end.

And those are the facts that are generally accepted as what happened on that fateful day.

Although no new information has been forthcoming, there are still fascinating memories that have tales to tell that are fitting for this 50th anniversary of Clark’s death.

Photographer Werner Eisele was the first to arrive at the accident scene even before the marshals and took pictures of the crash site which he likened to a plane crash.

“There must have been at least three big hits with different trees before the Lotus 48 came to a halt behind another group of trees. The front end had separated from the engine and transmission. Debris was scattered over a 40 meters area.”

At the time it was noted that it was strange that the back of the cockpit with roll-bar attached separated with the front end of the wreck. Normally it stayed connected to the chassis or hang on to the engine.

Eisele went on to recall how he saw that Clark was flung out through the open cockpit, breaking out of his seat belts and found head first on the forest floor, his legs still halfway inside the chassis. In the cockpit was his race shoe and his watch.

While a marshall turned Clark on to his back and tended him, Eisele ran to a field telephone and informed the race director, who immediately sent an ambulance to the scene of the accident.

Eisele goes on to describe how a few minutes later, officials appeared at the scene, among them former Porsche race director Huschke von Hanstein. They requested that the photographer hand over his film, which he did.

Shortly thereafter Lotus mechanics with Graham Hill showed up to recover the wreckage. At this point Eisele took a few pictures of the accident aftermath.

More photographers arrived on the scene and together they helped marshalls collect debris, when Eisele handed Graham Hill a five-by-five-inch piece of the nose of the Lotus 48, he was told, “Take it with you. In memory of Jimmy.”

Hill already knew the cruel truth.

Although Clark was probably dead on the spot he was still taken by the ambulance to the University Hospital in Heidelberg, where among other injuries, he was found to have suffered a broken neck and a skull base fracture.

Eisele admits that later in the day when told of the fatality he was shocked “for me, it looked as if he was asleep. I could not detect any external injuries.”

Race leader at the time of Clark’s crash was Kurt Ahrens, who recalled, “I was ahead. It must have been the sixth lap when I saw on the left an ambulance and a police officer. There was no sign of an accident. We were not even shown the yellow flag.”

“I thought maybe someone fainted… With every lap there were more and more [emergency] vehicles parked on the left side of the scene. Eventually, the ambulance drove on to the track.”

“In the paddock after the race, I met up with my dad and he asked me: What happened to Jim Clark? I asked him why and he responded by saying: Well, he’s dead.”

“At that moment, I remembered the ambulance…” said Ahrens.

Also adding to the mystery of the legend’s unseen death is that the investigation file regarding the case of Jim Clark has disappeared. Also gone is the telling film confiscated from photographer Eisele.

New expanded Jim Clark Museum to open by 2018