Fifty years ago, a British Formula One driver who many consider having been one of the world’s finest racers died in a tragic accident on the old Hockenheimring circuit in Germany. Jim Clark was 32 years old and was taking part in a rather insignificant Formula Two event at the request of Team Lotus for which he worked; he would have sooner been driving at Brands Hatch, south of London on that day.
This is the story of how a friend of mine, a lifelong Jim Clark fan, went to Germany and found the memorial stone buried in obscurity in the forests surrounding the Hockenheimring. The circumstances of his death have been well documented but start here.
Below: We could drive no further, so parked the car and set off on foot, following the circuit perimeter fence. How far would we have to walk?
Clark’s death was a tremendous shock to the motor racing fraternity, and he has a sure place in the history of motor racing. Clarke’s thousands of fans still keep his memory alive after all these years. One of them is my friend John Willats who is one of Jim Clark’s most devoted followers and was devastated when he heard of the fatal accident: “I was at home, and I can remember the exact moment I heard the news — prosaically, I was washing the dishes at the time.”
In the intervening years, John has kept in touch with many fellow fans, and for the past 30-plus years he has made the annual pilgrimage to Clark’s grave in the village of Chirnside, Berwickshire. On one such occasion, about ten years ago, he met Jim Clark’s remaining three sisters at the graveside and ended up being invited for lunch. Since then John has kept in touch with the family and has come to learn a great deal more of the background of this revered racing driver.
Over the past half century, John’s lasting ambition has been to visit the site of Jim Clark’s terrible accident, but the exact spot is notoriously tricky to find. In 2002 the Hockenheimring was shortened and the major part of the old circuit, running through the forest, was torn up and the area reforested. It is almost as though this part of the course never was. The actual site of the accident is now buried in the forest and requires a great deal of sleuthing to find. There was even some doubt as to whether there would be anything to see even if we were lucky enough to find the spot.
For several years I have been promising to drive John to Hockenheim and help with the search. He felt my knowledge of German would be useful and, indeed, this proved to be the case. I suggested we visit Hockenheim before attending the LHSA meeting in Wetzlar this coming weekend. John and another friend and I set off from London by in the car last Saturday, and we meandered down from Aachen, on the German border, through the Eifel mountains, with a night near the Nürbugring, then down to Zell am Mosel before ending up at Hockenheim. On Monday we drove to the Hockenheimring to start looking for this needle in a haystack. We knew that the place to start would be the new Jim Clark memorial, but even finding that was challenging.
Fortunately, I found someone in the Hockenheim Museum to give us directions, although she denied all knowledge of the original crash site. “There is only one memorial,” she maintained. So we set off my car, following the perimeter road as far as we could. Eventually, the way turned into a footpath with a vehicle ban, so we abandoned the car and set off on foot, following the outside of the circuit perimeter fence.
After about half a mile we came to the new memorial, sitting in a small clearing at the junction of two footpaths. So far so good, photographs were taken before we turned our attention to a handwritten map given to John by another British Jim Clark fan. It wasn’t at all clear from this map which way we should go, but we set off in what turned out to be the right direction. It was more luck than good management.
The instructions were to follow the footpath to a small bridge, but we soon came to a crossroads with absolutely no indication of which way to go. We decided to go straight on, after a brief difference of opinion, avoiding the enticing left and right turns and ended up on a very straight path through the trees disappearing in the far distance. But there was no sign of a bridge, nor of any water. We walked for what must have been over a mile and had almost concluded we’d taken the wrong turning at the crossroads. Then, in the far distance, we saw a slight rise in the path with two parapets either side of the road. It could be a bridge, we decided and carried on.
It was indeed the bridge, and the map told us to turn right and walk along the high river bank, which sloped off steeply into the trees. We walked and walked, with no real idea of what we were looking for. We had been told that the original crash site was marked with a small stone which lay between two conifers, planted as a marker for the site. After nearly a mile we had decided we were on the wrong track.
Disappointingly, the prospects of finding the memorial were slim. We stopped and decided to turn back, but just then John spied a small conifer in among the other trees on the river banking. We had found the site of Jim Clark’s tragic accident. On closer inspection we discovered a small stone, accompanied by bunches of flowers, sitting between the two small conifers. Mission accomplished. More photographs and John savoured the moment of achieving his ambition.
Jim Clark died on this spot, supposedly from a mechanical or tyre failure, on a track that no longer exists. He would have been 82 years old this year.
Although we had set aside a full afternoon to find the crash site, we were there and back in a couple of hours, having walked four miles through the forest. But there was an interesting sequel because John had booked us into the very hotel where Clark and the Lotus team had stayed on the fateful weekend. It wasn’t a long drive from Hockenheim to Altlussheim, on the eastern bank of the Rhine, opposite Speyer.
The Luxhof is still more or less as it was, although it is perhaps not as Lux as in the late sixties. There is a certain faded elegance about it, but it was easy to imagine the life and bustle of that weekend in April 1968 as the team prepared for the race.
Behind and under the hotel is a series of locked garages where the Lotus team cars were based — Graham Hill was also driving that weekend. We had heard rumours of a guest book bearing Jim Clark’s signature, but the hotel staff had no idea about that, the hotel having changed hands perhaps more than once in the past decades. The receptionist was aware of the Clark connection, however, and it was clear that we aren’t the first pilgrims and certainly will not be the last.
While we wouldn’t go out of our way to visit the Luxhof, it is comfortable, reasonably priced and has ample parking. Speyer is just across the bridge, and it makes a nostalgic base for anyone on future Jim Clark quests. Indeed, it is possibly an essential part of the whole experience.
All images in this article taken with the Leica CL and 23mm Summicron-L
This as article is intended as a record of the quest for the Clark memorial and I hope it helps others who want to follow the same path. If there are any factual errors please let me know and I will do my best to put the record straight.