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Fifty years on: Remembering the day motor racing lost Jim Clark

Two-time world champion Jim Clark was killed in a Formula 2 crash at Hockenheim on April 7, 1968 Bernard Cahier/Getty Images

Heaven forbid that it should happen, but in the event of a fatality or a serious accident in any major motorsport event this weekend, you will know about it within minutes. By the end of the day, you will have full detail, either precise or formed by many opinions regardless of their integrity. But you will have a focus; an explanation of some sort for the cause of your distress.

Fifty years ago, it wasn't like that. Not in the slightest.

Early in the afternoon of Sunday 7 April 1968, I received a phone call from a friend and fellow enthusiast. He said he had heard something about Jim Clark -- the two-time world champion -- having been killed in a race in Germany. Did I know anything?

My mate was fond of wind-ups but I could tell from his tone that this was not a joke. And yet it didn't make sense. Clark was supposed to be sharing a Ford F3L with Bruce McLaren in the BOAC 500, a round of the World Sports Car Championship at Brands Hatch. What was he doing in Germany?

There was no means of finding out. Motor racing had never been high on any sports agenda, never mind home news. With the exception of Monaco, the British and occasionally the Italian Grand Prix, F1 races were not covered live. To discover details, it was necessary to wait for reports in Monday's national newspapers.

In the absence of anything on the local radio news bulletins that April afternoon, we consoled ourselves with the thought that Clark was indestructible; he never made mistakes. And yet, given the obituaries appearing on almost a weekly basis in the motor sport magazines, a nagging fear proved difficult to suppress as I joined mates and aimlessly kicked a football around a friend's back garden.

My thoughts strayed to Silverstone the previous July when we had made the annual pilgrimage from Northern Ireland to the British Grand Prix at Silverstone and witnessed what would turn out to be Clark's last win in the UK. He had dominated that race in the dark green Lotus 49; it was what we had come to expect of the modest man with the delicate touch and deceptive speed.

That had been business for Clark. And then there was fun. My mind went back to the Gold Cup at Oulton Park in September 1966. Clark was taking part in the F1 main event, of course, but he was also driving a Lotus Cortina in the saloon car race. Watching at Old Hall, I have never seen a touring car so sideways, either before or since. Clark's control -- and his obvious pleasure and total ease of delivery -- was a joy to watch.

I remembered, too, a moment of awkwardness a few days before. There had been an unofficial test at Oulton, and Lotus -- no surprise -- had failed to turn up. But Clark was there, cooling his heels. Choosing a perfect moment when no one was around, I asked for his autograph -- and, would you believe, the bloody pen ran out of ink. Jimmy, more embarrassed than I was, leaned heavily as he finished the signature. Chastened, I spent that evening attempting to gently fill in the treasured mark he had left on the page.

This literal impression joined others during that long afternoon of 7 April 1968. Jim Clark dead? No, no; can't possibly be true.

I held onto that hope until sitting down with my parents to watch the Six O'Clock News on BBC TV. When the newsreader Michael Aspel, with a portrait of Jim Clark in the background, began with the sombre words: "The Scottish racing driver Jim Clark..." reality hit home.

The rest of the bulletin was a blur: "...killed...motor race...Hockenheim...twice world champion...winner of 25 Grands Prix...considered one of the world's greatest...". I left the room in tears. The farmer from the Borders, gentle but with such outrageous talent, was the man I most wanted to be.

There were so many questions unanswered: How did it happen? What was he driving? What was he doing at Hockenheim? Where the hell is Hockenheim, anyway? Why? Why? Why?

As if hoping this had been a dreadful mistake and Clark was not dead, I scoured the Monday morning papers. It was front-page news. Because the leading British motor sport journalists had been at Brands Hatch, the reports were either second hand or written by correspondents in Germany who knew nothing about the sport.

But the message was painfully clear. In the absence of barriers of any kind (this was in the early days of 'safety' as we now know it), Clark had been killed instantly when his F2 Lotus 48 left the wet track on a gentle high-speed curve, smashed into trees and was torn in two. He had been lying eighth and was neither being challenged nor dicing for position. So why had he crashed?

The reason for the accident was not known then and remains a mystery now, the most likely cause being either a deflating tyre or a mechanical failure of some kind. Either way, the world had lost one of the greatest drivers of his or any other era.

F1 followers of a certain age will remember exactly what they were doing on this day 50 years ago just as surely as a younger generation will have painful recall of 1 May 1994 and the loss of Ayrton Senna. I can easily visualise that cream Bakelite telephone with its dial, sitting on the table at home as I took the call on 7 April 1968.

It was a moment that changed everything. If it could happen to Jim Clark, then no one was immune. That message still holds true. The difference now is that you no longer have to wait half a day for confirmation of one of this wonderful sport's most terrible realities.