x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Even legends have heroes

It is difficult to find a bit of peace and quiet in Sao Paulo.

The former world champion Jim Clarke in action above in his Lotus on his way to victory in the 1962 British Grand Prix. He proved to be an inspiration for many future drivers including Ayrton Senna.
The former world champion Jim Clarke in action above in his Lotus on his way to victory in the 1962 British Grand Prix. He proved to be an inspiration for many future drivers including Ayrton Senna.

It is difficult to find a bit of peace and quiet in Sao Paulo. The world's seventh largest city in terms of population, where traffic jams of 100km are not uncommon, it is not so much the smog as the noise that gets to you; the non-stop wailing of emergency sirens, angry car horns, chattering mopeds and clattering helicopters (and the size of Sao Paulo's fleet of choppers is second only to New York).

But it is possible to find solitude; away from the street sounds, the crush of humanity, the choking fumes and the rundown "barrios" where millions eke out an existence lies the Cemiterio do Morumbi, set on a tranquil hillside overlooking the affluent and leafy southern edge of the chaotic metropolis. It is here, under an ipe tree that pilgrims come to stand before a simple brass plaque bearing the inscription "Nada pode me separar do amor de Deus" (Nothing can separate me from the love of God).

Even here, however, you are seldom completely alone because Ayrton Senna's final resting place attracts more visitors than the graves of John F Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley combined. Although it is safe to assume that should Lewis Hamilton clinch the Formula One world driver's championship at the nearby Interlagos circuit tonight, he will be allowed a moment or two of privacy when he comes to pay his respects to his boyhood idol.

In the hearts of minds of each and every Brazilian, Senna is remembered as the greatest Formula One driver of all time. The man in question might have disagreed for three years before he was killed during the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix at Imola, Senna commissioned the Mexican artist Hugo Escobedo to deliver an oil painting depicting the ultimate "fantasy" grand prix; an impression of the starting grid at Monaco featuring all the greatest drivers in motor-racing history.

This being the era before Michael Schumacher staked his claim to be so recognised, the German is absent from the canvas, but there sits Juan Fangio at the wheel of his 1950 Alfa Romeo 158. Alongside the Argentine, Stirling Moss is seen climbing into his Vanwall, while Jackie Stewart, all Sergeant Pepper sideburns, pulls on his helmet in the cockpit of his Matra-Ford. Emerson Fittipaldi, the first of the great Brazilians, is there in his early 1970s Lotus, Niki Lauda in the classic Ferrari of '75 and Senna himself (well, it was his painting, after all), squeezed into the all-conquering McLaren-Honda in which he won the 1991 world driver's championship.

Senna laid down two non-negotiable instructions: the Frenchman Alain Prost, with whom he had many an angry confrontation, was to be made conspicuous by his absence, and, secondly, the artist could place the drivers in any formation he chose on the Monaco grid, providing Jim Clark filled pole position. "After all," explained the Brazilian in a rare moment of modesty, "he was the best of the best."

Even today, 40 years after his death in an otherwise meaningless Formula Two race at Hockenheim, Jim Clark is still revered "the best of the best" by many within F1. In a tragically brief career of 72 grands prix, he recorded 25 victories, occupied pole position on 33 occasions, and was the first overseas winner of the Indianapolis 500. At the time of his crash he had been world champion twice (in 1963 and 1965) and had only just turned 32.

Four decades on, the mystery surrounding Clark's crash at Hockenheim continues to baffle everyone involved in the sport. On the sixth lap and under no pressure, Clark entered a gentle right-hand bend at more than 140mph whereupon his Lotus shot off the track. This being in the days before safety barriers at Hockenheim, the car somersaulted into a copse of trees. Although the track was wet from morning rain and the circuit shrouded in mist, driving error was immediately ruled out; Jim Clark did not make mistakes.

Theories abound to this day; the most popular being that shortly before the accident two children had been seen running across the track, causing Clark to perform a fatal swerve. Although a spectator subsequently phoned a German newspaper offering photographs of the incident, no such pictures have ever been published. The Lotus team chief, Colin Chapman, subsequently pieced together every fragment of the wreckage by hand. His conclusion was that Clark died as the result of a puncture to his rear right tyre "although this accident need not have been fatal if adequate crash barriers of the type used at Monaco and elsewhere had been installed".

Something mystical overcame a car placed in the tender care of the Scottish farmer. Not just the bottle green Lotus F1, but the Jaguar sports car, the Sunbeam Talbot touring car and the Ford Cortina rally car which he regularly drove in a variety of competitions. Even the old tractor on the family's Borders farm was said to purr with pleasure whenever Clark took the wheel. Fangio, Stewart and Moss worshipped him as a young god, while Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin said by way of introduction: "I suppose you will be in awe of me, just as I am in awe of you."

Roguishly handsome, wryly amusing and endearingly charming, Clark never allowed his celebrity to invade what he called "real life". As Chapman was moved to say during Clark's funeral service at Chirnside Old Church in the Scottish borders three days after his death - a service attended by Jackie Stewart, Graham Hill and Jack Brabham among many hundreds of mourners: "As a man, he meant more to me than any other. He was so thoroughly well brought up, so thoroughly well adjusted. There was so much good in Jimmy he improved me as a person in so many ways."

Never one to flaunt his celebrity, his gravestone in the old churchyard at Chirnside reads simply: "In Loving Memory of Jim Clark OBE. Born 4.3.36, died 7.4.68. Farmer of Edington Mains...and World Champion Motor Racing Driver 1963 and 1965." And if Ayrton Senna considered Jim Clark to be "the best of the best", then who are we to argue? rphilip@thenational.ae