Very rarely through the history of Formula One has a single country provided a number of drivers great enough to dominate the championship.
In 1964 British drivers Jim Clark, Graham Hill and John Surtees were all at the peak of their careers. Hill and Clark had won the two previous World Championships, Hill narrowly beating the Scotsman in ’62 before Clark dominated his way to the title the following year.
This was the era of the ‘garagistas’. The small British teams Enzo Ferrari had dismissed were now World Championship winning teams. As they did for their respective titles Hill would lead the BRM team, Clark the Lotus squad. Surtees would remain at the Italian team for a second season.
In the year in which Beatlemania swept across America British drivers would finish first, second and third in the points’ standings.
What order they would do so, however, was unsure until the final moments of the season.
All three drivers would start the final race of the World Championship, at Mexico City’s Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, with a mathematical chance of taking the title.
Hill had the advantage, holding a seven point lead over Surtees, with Clark another two points behind. At a time when a victory garnered a driver nine points only a victory for Clark would allow him to retain the championship.
Though his chances of doing that were slim, especially considering he had not scored a point since mid-season, in Mexico the early signs were good for the Lotus driver. He started on pole position and immediately leapt out to the lead.
Just as he had at the very start of the season.
Clark had started the Monaco Grand Prix from pole position, and used his advantage to take the lead ahead of Jack Brabham in his eponymous Climax engined car, Hill, Dan Gurney (in the other Brabham) and Surtess. Clark, however, would hit trouble. He was pulled into the pits from the lead to cure a dragging anti-roll bar, dropping him to third, giving Gurney the lead and Hill second.
Hill took the lead shortly after half way as Gurney began to struggle – his race would end just ten laps later at the hands of gearbox failure. Clark – though too far behind Hill to mount a challenge – was set for second place until his engine failed with a handful of laps to go. Though he retired he had completed enough laps to be classified fourth behind BRM teammates Hill and Richie Ginther and Lotus driver Peter Arundell.
For Clark the late retirement was a precursor of things to come.
Roles were reversed a fortnight later at Zandvoort, Clark winning the race while Hill finished fourth, the pair thus tied on points as they arrived at Spa-Francochamps for the Belgian Grand Prix.
Much like the final race of the year the event on the fearsome 14km Ardennes track would not be decided until the final stages.
Hill led onto the final lap, only to stop with a broken fuel pump. Behind Bruce McLaren was fighting a Climax engine in the rear of his Cooper that was cutting out, offering a life-line to pole sitter Gurney. He had led much of the race before making an unsuccessful stop for fuel, having to continue on his way without a top-up from the Brabham pits.
Within sight of the faltering McLaren Gurney’s fuel finally ran out leaving him out of the race.
After passing the stationary Hill McLaren, despite his own problems, led towards the flag. However, before he could turn through the La Source hairpin to face down the slope towards the finish his engine cut out. Through stormed Clark, himself recovering from a pitstop earlier in the race, beating a coasting McLaren by three seconds.
Hill, meanwhile, finished fifth.
Early in the Mexican Grand Prix it looked as though championship glory would slip from Hill’s grasp, just as race victory had at Spa.
A poor start had pushed him out of the top six – a result that would have given Clark the title. He fought back through the order, as did Surtees after his own early issues, and eventually took the third position he needed to guarantee himself the title regardless of Clark or Surtees’ results.
However, Hill’s attempts to keep Lorenzo Bandini’s Ferrari behind him ended with contact, the Italian hitting the rear of the BRM as they tried to negotiate the right hand hairpin at the far end of the course. The tangle punted Hill into a spin down the order. Worse still the contact had damaged the exhaust on Hill’s car, forcing him to pit and complete the rest of the race in a car down on power. With Surtees third – having passed Hill and Bandini as they both recovered – and Clark leading Hill was now relying on their ill fortune handing him the title.
Hill had led the championship since half way.
Clark had won three of the first five races, the last of which came at Brands Hatch as British drivers stood on all three steps of the podium, Hill second and Surtees third. Despite this his rivals – Hill especially – had been able to remain close behind; there was to be no repeat of the ’63 runaway.
When Clark retired from the next round at the Nurburgring while Surtees and Hill finished first and second, Clark was demoted to second in the standings, now behind Hill. Surtees was 11 points behind Clark, the deficit founded on retirements in Monaco, Spa and from the French Grand Prix at Rouen.
The Ferrari driver’s upturn on form ran through the whole second half of the season. All three of the title contenders retired from the Austrian Grand Prix at Zeltweg, Bandini taking what would be his only F1 victory before Surtees made it three Ferrari wins in succession in dominant fashion as he provided a home win for the team at Monza by over a minute.
Both Clark and Hill posted retirements in Italy, Clark put out by engine problems after clutch failure left Hill stranded at the start line.
Surtees’ task of hauling himself back into championship contention was completed when, his Ferrari in the American blue and white racing colours of the North American Racing Team (NART) due to a fued between Enzo Ferrari and the Italian racing authorities, he finished second to Hill in the US Grand Prix at Watkins Glen. The result moved him into second in the points standings, above Clark who remained stalled on the 30 point total he had accrued by Silverstone.
That was despite the Lotus team’s move in America. Clark had led from pole position, but a misfiring engine had put him out of the points. At that point the team opted for he and teammate Mike Spence to swap cars. Unlike earlier F1 seasons drivers who took over cars were not eligible for half points. Clark could, however, still earn Spence points, taking them away from his title rivals in the process.
He was in with a chance of doing just that until mechanical issues intervened in the closing stages once more, the fuel pump giving up Clark falling out of the points, setting up the Mexican finale.
As Hill struggled when it mattered most victory of Clark – his first points since Silverstone – looked more and more likely to secure him the title. He needed Surtees to finish no better than third, so when, already third behind Gurney he was passed by Bandini Clark’s second title was closer than ever.
Not for the first time in the season, mechanical problems to crank on a twist late in the race.
Clark’s Lotus began to leak oil.
Clark’s engine seized on the final lap.
Gurney moved past to take his second victory of the season, his own championship aspirations thwarted by his Brabham’s lack of reliability.
The NART team reacted quickly to Clark’s problem, calculating that if Surtees finished second he would score enough to overhaul Hill for the World Championship. As he started the final lap Bandini was instructed to cede position to his teammate which he dutifully did, giving Surtees the championship by a single point.
Clark, seemingly luckless so often over the course of the campaign finished the race fifth, and third in the championship.