Clark, Amon, and the speculation that rules motorsport history
As we approach the 50th anniversary of Jimmy Clark's death, David Malsher examines what might have been for the brilliant Scot and what should have been for Chris Amon in 1968. But first, a few more hypotheses from F1 and IndyCar history…
In racing, the success or failure of participants is determined purely by results – but you’ll have noticed that’s never enough for the rest of us. After a race, much of the sport’s allure, intrigue and enchantment (or any other bottled fragrance) is provided by speculation over what might have been. Yes, we anticipate the next episode, but we’re equally intrigued by dissecting the last, and theorizing over how it might have turned out differently.
Within minutes of the checkered flag, there are drivers, team managers, sponsors, journalists and fans giving vent to their opinions. ‘If Team X had changed its driver from wets to slicks one lap sooner in qualifying, he’d have taken pole, and probably the win,’ or, ‘If we’d used the same tire strategy as Team Y, then I’d have done a quicker out-lap at the second pitstop so we’d have beaten them,’ or, ‘If Team Z managed to finish fourth with that talentless C in the car, they’d probably have won it if they’d kept hold of A.’ And so on.
Hindsight is 20/20 but can also generate two-thousand-and-twenty interpretations, many of which may cause you to roll your eyes. But others offer different perspectives and can provide insight. And, let’s be honest, that kind of thing can keep us going for the next several days… before we switch our attention to the next race.
These ‘What if…?’ stories also make motorsport history fascinating. Some scenarios rely purely on guesswork – How might Parnelli Jones or AJ Foyt have performed in Formula 1? How well would John Surtees or Stirling Moss have adapted to USAC dirt and paved ovals? Given the outrageous versatility of all four gentlemen, we might assume they’d have shone – but we’ll never know for sure. Hence the debates.
A more educated form of hypothesizing can be applied to situations that depend on timing – good or bad. How many more wins – or even championships – might Keke Rosberg have earned had he not switched from Williams to McLaren at the end of 1985? How would two-time Indy car champion Tom Sneva have performed at Penske had he been retained to partner rising star Rick Mears, rather than being replaced by Bobby Unser? Had Nigel Mansell not quit Williams and F1 to join IndyCar, could he have beaten Alain Prost to the 1993 World Championship? (Quite a divisive one, that…) We can be reasonably certain that Al Unser would be the only five-time winner of the Indy 500, had he not handed the keys to John Barnard’s glorious Chaparral 2K to Johnny Rutherford at the end of ’79.
One similarly poignant story rose to prominence again in January. Dan Gurney’s decision to leave Jack Brabham’s Formula 1 squad at the end of 1965 in order to focus on the nascent Anglo-American Racers arm of his All-American Racers team was noble, admirable… and inopportune, as seen in retrospect. His erstwhile employer saw the stars and F1 regulations align for ’66, so that Jack and teammate Denny Hulme clinched the next two F1 World Championships. Gurney drove his Eagle-Weslake to a famous and historic victory at Spa in ’67, but had he stayed at Brabham, he’d surely be a two-time champ.
A few days after Gurney’s death, I raised this subject with his friend and journalist Robin Miller.
“Davy, you’re right… but then he wouldn’t have been Dan!” he chuckled. “He just wasn’t wired that way to follow the easy route. He wanted to use that great mind of his to do things his way, with his own team and even his own engine. I mean, sure, he made it hard for himself – but he loved it that way! That’s what made the Big Eagle so goddam special.”
So at least we can be content that Gurney’s miss (or hit, depending on your viewpoint) was his own choice, just as Parnelli Jones – a man who could have won Indy four times rather than just once – was able to quit open-wheel on his own terms at the age of 35, and just as Stewart could retire aged 34 with his third World Championship in the bag. Others were less fortunate, and far too many of these rueful extrapolations start with a motorsport ace getting killed while still in peak form.
Alberto Ascari could have doubled his win tally and won two or three more F1 titles. Skip forward a few eras, and how different might 1980s Formula 1 have looked had Gilles Villeneuve lived to depart Ferrari for McLaren at the end of 1982, probably as World Champion? Once the TAG-Porsche engine arrived, the little Canadian genius would have surely earned three more titles, ’84-’86, and then confronted Senna in the same team.
Meanwhile, Prost, fired by Renault at the end of ’83, would have found no vacancy at McLaren and may perhaps have become a Williams lifer, earning the ’86 title that Mansell and Piquet let slip away, before adding the ’87, ’91, ’92 and ’93 crowns.
On this side of the Atlantic, three-time National Championship (Indy car) winner Ted Horn should have finally earned an Indy 500 victory after racking up a sequence of nine straight top-four finishes at the Brickyard (still a record, by the way). Instead, he died in a shunt at DuQuoin in 1948.
Bill Vukovich’s jaw-dropping brilliance at IMS might have led to a still-unmatched win tally there, but on Lap 57 of the ’55 race, while probably heading for a third-straight victory, ‘Vuky’ was caught up in a clash between cars he was lapping, and he was doomed. In the space of five days, the racing world had lost Ascari and Vukovich; two weeks later it would be rocked still further by the Le Mans disaster.
There are several pundits in the 21st century who ruminate on the potential combo of Greg Moore and Team Penske. The deal was done for 2000, but the five-time race winner was killed in CART’s 1999 finale. Those who watched him or raced against him agree Moore was exceptional; he simply ran out of time to make the Indy car record book reflect that ability. Other greats who died while still at their phenomenal best, such as Tony Bettenhausen and Jimmy Bryan, had the stats to prove their class.
That’s small consolation in life’s big picture, though. However much we sympathize with Lloyd Ruby and Michael Andretti for their unrewarded brilliance in the Indy 500, at least they lived to rue their lost opportunities, their days of what might have been.
The great Jimmy Clark never did. The 1968 season was simply terrible for open-wheel racers – Clark, Mike Spence, Ludovico Scarfiotti, Ronnie Duman and Jo Schlesser were killed in the space of just 12 weeks. But as we approach the 50th anniversary of the brilliant Scot’s death at the age of 32, it seems appropriate to consider how his career may have played out.
Appropriate, too, to consider the far less tragic yet still cruel ‘if only’ theme that would haunt the brilliant Chris Amon’s grand prix career. That ’68 F1 season would prove to be a star-crossed template for what was to come.
How much more might Clark have achieved?
By the age of 32, Jimmy Clark was a two-time F1 World Champion, and only mechanical failures had robbed him of a run of five out of six titles from ’62 through ’67.
Then, on Saturday, April 7, 1968, in a Formula 2 race at a wet Hockenheim, a suspected tire failure sent Clark’s Lotus 48 squirming beyond even his control, and a 140mph impact with the trees left no chance of survival. As a choked-up Gurney said in a Clark documentary several decades later, “The world was never the same again.”
Clark was often blessed with the fastest car in his career, but boy, he knew how to use it, as highlighted by comparative performances with his teammates. The most accomplished of these by far was 1962 World Champion Graham Hill, and he could rarely match the quiet Scot in the 10 F1 championship races they ran as teammates with the same equipment.
Some people have suggested that Clark was pondering retirement already, and that a third title in ’68 might have persuaded him to return to Chirnside, Scotland, to resume life as a sheep farmer. Others, such as Jackie Stewart – Clark’s friend, rival and another true great – disagreed, felt that his compatriot not only retained a passion for the sport, but was also learning to appreciate the more sophisticated lifestyle of a sports champion living in Paris.
Jimmy still shied away from the hype and glory that inevitably and increasingly followed his triumphs, and he was too wise not to have acknowledged the perils of the sport, and the reputation of Lotus to build fast but fragile cars. But he was not yet plagued by thoughts of his own mortality as Jochen Rindt would come to be, and by all accounts Clark still derived a lot of satisfaction from racing in general. He was, for instance, enthusiastic about the Lotus 56 turbine car he was due to race in the ’68 Indy 500. (It was the car in which his replacement, Spence, crashed with fatal consequences, and in which Joe Leonard so nearly won the race…)
So could Jimmy really have walked away from F1 while knowing he was still the best – better even than rapidly rising star Stewart, the extremely quick Rindt and Ferrari’s aces Amon and Jacky Ickx? Surely the temptation to slap down these impudent ‘youngsters’ would have spurred him into digging deep and carrying on.
But had he done so, would he have remained a Lotus driver? Some might think that a strange question considering all 72 of his grands prix – as well as countless non-championship F1, F2, Indy car, sportscar and touring car races – were at the wheel of Lotus machinery. Clark and Lotus founder Colin Chapman had formed a near-telepathic bond, and the Gold Leaf tobacco sponsorship introduced in ’68 might also have helped boost Clark’s salary.
But we shouldn’t dismiss the notion of Jimmy potentially switching teams, especially if he felt his potential was being wasted by unreliability. Clark’s immediate sub, Jackie Oliver, was blighted with car issues through the remainder of ’68, and the Lotus 49 proved mechanically frail in ’69, too. Oliver’s replacement Rindt accumulated five poles but only one win and a disastrous seven DNFs – the kind of depressing tally that might persuade any ace to look elsewhere.
Neither Brabham nor Bruce McLaren’s fledgling team could offer cutting-edge cars, but from ’69 both had the highly desirable Cosworth V8, both team owners held Clark in high regard (how could they not?) and their cars were regarded as stronger than a Lotus.
Could Elf and Ken Tyrrell have come up with the money to form one of the greatest driver pairings of all time – Clark and Stewart? Might Gurney have persuaded his friend and rival to race his Eagles on the USAC circuit in the early ’70s? Probably not full-time, but ’65 Indy 500 winner Clark might have tried to add more IMS triumphs, and could have been interested in other potentially lucrative one-off outings.
Splitting from Chapman, however, would have meant Clark missing out on the amazing Lotus 72, which was a winner from 1970 through ’74. As things transpired, when Jimmy died, he had recently nudged past Juan Manuel Fangio’s record race win tally. Had he lived to race the Lotus 72 to the end of its useful life, Clark could have retired aged 38, having also eclipsed Fangio’s then-record of five World Championships… and that’s despite missing out on the ’62, ’64 and ’67 crowns through no fault of his own. Truly amazing, wasn't he?
How good was Chris Amon? Well, Ferrari’s Mauro Forghieri felt he was the Scuderia’s equivalent of Lotus’ Clark, while 1970 World Champion Rindt remarked that his only true rivals were Stewart and Amon.
The man himself was too modest to agree with such assessments, despite being the only driver to threaten Clark in the ’68 Tasman Series (an Antipodean kinda Formula 1-and-a-half which attracted several F1 aces Down Under during European winters). With Clark gone, Amon comfortably beat Rindt to the ’69 Tasman crown.
So he was that good. But whenever he had the right car, either unreliability or misfortune would kill off his hopes.
Considering how much luck is required in a 24-hour race, Fate peculiarly allowed Amon’s sportscar efforts to be rewarded by a Le Mans triumph with Bruce McLaren and Ford in ’66, and Daytona glory in ’67 with Lorenzo Bandini and Ferrari. He’d also eventually earn a couple of non-championship F1 wins. But when points were at stake, it truly seemed like he was cursed. It led to one of Mario Andretti’s classic remarks – “If Chris had gone into the undertaking business, people would have stopped dying.”
In ’67, driving the underpowered Ferrari 312, Amon achieved several top-three finishes and finished fifth in the championship. In ’68, he was quite exceptional, despite the screaming Italian V12 again being outgunned by the Cosworth DFV-powered opposition. Eight times he started from the front row, yet he retired from seven of the 11 races he entered.
At Jarama he took pole and led until a fuel pump broke. At Spa he took pole and led again until getting held up behind a limping, broken backmarker. That allowed John Surtees’ Honda past… and the ’64 champ’s car then spat up a rock that punctured the Ferrari’s radiator. At Zandvoort, Amon took another pole but couldn’t make his Firestones work on the wet track. At Brands Hatch he was a close second behind the Walker-entered Lotus 49 of Jo Siffert. Amon ran third at the Nurburgring until the diff failed, and was running second at Monza until the new hydraulic system for raising and lowering the rear wing leaked fluid onto his rear tires, triggering a huge shunt from which he escaped injury. (OK, so he did have some luck!).
But in St. Jovite’s Canadian GP, the Kiwi’s Ferrari held a one-minute lead when the transmission failed with 17 laps to go. Then he qualified fourth at Watkins Glen and second in Mexico, and both ended in mechanical failures.
So in a season when he should have won three races, could have won five, Amon scored just a single podium finish and was only 10th in the points table. Off-hand, it’s hard to think of a less accurate indicator of a driver’s pace and skill in any given F1 season… except perhaps Fernando Alonso’s pitiful results with McLaren Honda, over the past three seasons. But Fernando has 32 wins and two World Championships; for Amon there was no such consolation, not that year or any other. Despite several brilliant performances – overachieving for March, Tecno or Ensign, or trying to overcome yet another stupid setback while driving a potential race-winning Matra – karma never came Amon’s way.
Except, of course, he did survive a truly perilous time in racing without incurring serious injury. I recently asked Robin Miller who he’d nominate as Indy car racing’s equivalent of Amon – an absolute ace who never got the breaks he deserved.
“That’s easy,” he replied, “Lee Kunzman. He was a badass in USAC who overcame horrible burns and a broken neck in 1970, only to finally get his first good ride in 1974 – and then nearly die in a testing accident at Ontario. He had to learn to walk, talk and write again, but he almost beat Johnny Rutherford at Atlanta in ’79.
“Anybody who watched Kunzman will tell you he was as good as anybody on four wheels. Gary Bettenhausen and Vuky [Bill Vukovich II] used to say Lee was gonna win Indy three or four times and be USAC champ multiple times.”
Yup, Kunzman’s hardships put even the Amon jinx in perspective. As do the cases of drivers who perished before realizing their potential at the top level – Pete Ryan (22 years old), Ricardo Rodriguez (20), Bobby Marshman (28), Swede Savage (26), Stefan Bellof (27)…
As we hit ‘Publish’ on this story, I’ll surely think of yet more cases of what might have been in open-wheel racing history. I’m equally sure, too, that many readers will be ahead of me because, per my original point, we fans live and breathe this speculation.
Anyway, on April 7, spare a thought for Jimmy. And Chris. And the others, too.
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