I was fortunate to be able to spend a little time with Mark Webber as he prepared for his last F1 race – the Brazilian Grand Prix at Interlagos. We met early on Friday morning, at the Grand Hyatt in Sao Paulo, and chatted together en route to the circuit. Mark’s demeanour, I think, said it all: he was happy with his decision to retire from F1; equally, he is looking forward not only to some time off with family, friends and menagerie but also to a new challenge with Porsche in 2014.
Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed that the countdown widget on the right, entitled “Fifty Years Ago”, is actually keyed to an upcoming race that happened in 1963 – in this case the Lombank Trophy race at Snetterton on March 30.
The reason for this is twofold: one, it’s 50 years since that amazing year when Jim Clark won 70 per cent of the F1 championship rounds to secure his first World Championship. Along the way, he also finished second in the Indy 500, won numerous non-championship F1, sports, GT and touring car events and, together with Colin Chapman’s low-line, monocoque Lotus 25, changed the face of motor racing in general.
The second reason is because 1963 and 2013 share the same days – ie, February 15 was a Friday in both years. Because of that, and because I’ve always been fascinated by how a driver like Clark managed to cram so much racing into such a tight schedule, I’m going to try to take us through Clark’s 1963 season as 2013 unfolds. Thus the reference to Snetterton on March 30: it was Clark’s first race of the season. We can think of it as we think of it now – as a Saturday in (hopefully!) the early British spring.
Let me begin, then, by bringing you up to speed: the 1962 season ended with a classic showdown in East London, South Africa. Jim and Graham Hill went into the December 29 finale knowing that only one could win – and the title went to Hill. Jim was leading when a bolt worked loose. The engine slowly lost its oil. Jim, Colin and Hazel Chapman and the Team Lotus mechanics could only sit and watch from the pits as Graham cruised to victory.
There was little time, though, for post-mortems – not that they happened much in 1962. For most drivers, a mechanical retirement was more likely than a reliable finish; and, after a while, as Dan Gurney once said, you got used to the disappointments. “It was just one of those things that happen in motor racing and it couldn’t be helped,” said Jim at the time. “Graham had become World Champion deservedly.”
Jim returned immediately to the UK while many of his peers travelled on to New Zealand and Australia for the international series. (Graham, as newly-crowned World Champion, was obliged to spend 12 hours in quarantine in Karachi due to a flight delay – he had no yellow fever inoculation – and then contracted tonsillitis in New Zealand. He returned to England for an operation, leaving his Ferguson in the hands of Innes Ireland, and then flew back to Australia for the Feb 10 AGP at Warwick Farm.) I’m not exactly clear why Jim didn’t compete in the Antipodies that January/February. Team Lotus had given him a one-off drive in a Lotus 21 at Sandown Park, Victoria, in March, 1962, but didn’t enter the 1963 series in either New Zealand or Australia. I suspect this was because Colin Chapman had decided to put a massive effort into the new Indianapolis 500 programme and had scheduled early-year tests for the new Lotus 29 in both in the UK and the USA. The Ford-powered Indy car ran first at Snetterton in February, where it was set up with normal, symmetric suspension. “To my mind, the engine we had in for that first test didn’t go too well, because the timing was a little out,” Jim told Alan Brinton. “But though we were a trifle disappointed with the power, the car was certainly quicker on the straights than anything I’d driven before. Even in this state the prototype comfortably broke my existing 2.5 litre lap record by a couple of seconds.”
Almost immediately afterwards, Jim flew to Ford’s high-speed proving ground in Kingman, Arizona, a circuit Jim described as “a beautiful track, about five miles around, with two banked curves each of about 1.25 miles.” Dan Gurney, who had instigated the Lotus Indy programme, and who was to race a second Lotus 29 at Indy, was also present at the Kingman tests. “We lapped at about 165 mph without using much of the banking,” recalled Jim. “It was quite a change after the F1 Lotus and made for exciting driving.”
Those runs complete, Jim then returned to the UK – to Edington Mains, his farm on the Scottish Borders. He would move to a London base in 1964 but in 1963 his home was still in Scotland – and frequent were his road trips to and from the Lotus factory in Cheshunt. The Lotus Elan had yet to be released so, for now, Jim was driving a prototype Lotus-Cortina. “A number of development Lotus-Cortinas were built but when the model was announced in January, 1963, there was just the one vehicle built to the proper specification,” he wrote in Jim Clark at the Wheel. “As it turned out, the Lotus-Cortinas were not raced until late in the season – but they proved to be worth waiting for. I had already tried the Harry Mundy-inspired twin-cam engine in an Anglia in 1962 and I first drove a Cortina with a 140bhp version of the same engine in October, 1962. It really surprised me and gave me just about as much of a thrill as the F1 car. On the way to Snetterton for trials I thought the acceleration was out of this world for a family saloon but on the circuit for the first time I found the handling a bit odd. That afternoon we had a good chuckle at Colin. He decided to take the car round just after a short rain shower. He left the pits and then suddenly there was silence. We climbed into our cars and tore around the circuit to find Colin standing there, peering under the bonnet of the Cortina, muttering something about the engine cutting out. I happened to notice some criss-cross tyre marks on the road behind him, so I sidled up to him, suggesting that perhaps an ignition lead had probably come loose when he had spun the car. He turned bright red and admitted that he hadn’t been sure which had happened first!”
We’ll report next from the 50-lap, 133-mile non-championship F1 Lombank Trophy at Snetterton, where the entry includes two works BRMs for Graham Hill and Richie Ginther, a single Team Lotus entry for Jim Clark, Bruce McLaren in the works Cooper and two BRP Lotus 24s for Innes Ireland and Jim Hall (of future Chaparral fame). I see also that Morris Nunn is entered in a Cooper; it’ll be interesting to see how he gets on. Graham Hill and Roy Salvadori head the Saloon Car field with their 3.8 Jaguars (although Sir John Whitmore should be spectacular in the works Mini-Cooper) and the new World Champion will be out again in the 25-lap Sports Car race, this time in the John Coombs Jaguar E-Type. Can’t wait.