Just under half a century ago, the opening Grand Prix of the 1968 Formula 1 World Championship season took place on New Year’s Day at South Africa’s Kyalami circuit.
JAN 01st 2017
On this day in... 1968
It wasn’t the first time the season had got going as early as the calendar could possibly allow; back in 1965 Jim Clark had kickstarted the final year of the 1.5-litre formula by trouncing the opposition from pole position in Colin Chapman’s Lotus 33 in East London’s third South African GP.
Three years later, the F1 circus once again forfeited the traditional Christmas week by heading off to Johannesburg’s Kyalami venue, which was hosting the country’s F1 race for only the second time.
The British-built Lotus 49s, powered by Cosworth’s sensational 3-litre Cosworth DFV V8, were clear favourites, thanks to Clark’s back-to-back victories in the USA and Mexico at the end of ’67. In fact, it was only mechanical frailty that prevented Clark from winning many more races that summer – he led in Belgium, France, Germany, Canada and Italy before the car let him down.
Once again backed up by Graham Hill in the Lotus camp, Clark started the weekend in the best possible fashion by securing a record 33rd pole position, by a full second from his team-mate. Victory would take him past five-time World Champion Juan Manuel Fangio’s record haul of 24 career wins to be the sport’s most prolific winner…
Caught napping by third-fastest qualifier Jackie Stewart at the start, Clark had to give best to his fellow Scot’s Matra MS9 on the opening lap. It wasn’t long, however, before the superior Lotus got to the front. Once ahead, Clark pulled away in the car sporting the traditional green-and-yellow livery for the final time – Gold Leaf tobacco sponsorship would ensure the car featured a red-white-and-gold colour scheme for the Spanish GP onwards.
Stewart maintained second place, albeit more than a dozen seconds adrift of the leader, until lap 27 when Hill edged past to make it a Lotus one-two. And that’s how it stayed until the end. Clark’s advantage after 80 laps was 25 seconds over Hill, the Englishman finishing five seconds ahead of Jochen Rindt’s Brabham-Repco.
To no one’s great surprise Jim Clark had taken a record-breaking 25th Grand Prix victory. What would soon become a terrible shock was that it proved to be his last. On 7 April, Clark crashed to his death in a rain-lashed European Formula 2 Championship race at Hockenheim. His record 25 wins (not overhauled until July 1973 when friend and compatriot Stewart took his 26th victory), 33 pole positions (beaten by Ayrton Senna in 1989) and 28 fastest laps (eclipsed by Alain Prost in ’89) – from just 72 starts – remains one of F1’s best hit-rates by one of its greatest stars.
South African GP, 1968
1. Jim Clark (GB) – Lotus 49-Cosworth, 80 laps
2. Graham Hill (GB) – Lotus 49-Cosworth, 80 laps
3. Jochen Rindt (A) – Brabham BT24-Repco, 80 laps
4. Chris Amon (NZ) – Ferrari 312, 78 laps
5. Denis Hulme (NZ) – McLaren M5A-BRM, 78 laps
6. Jean-Pierre Beltoise (F) – Matra MS7-Cosworth, 77 laps
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