Jackie Oliver Interview

dailysportscar.comIn his career as a racing driver, Jackie Oliver gained a reputation for speed and versatility. In Formula 1 he drove for BRM, McLaren and Shadow, in sportscar racing for Ford and Porsche, in the Can-Am for Autocoast and Shadow. He remains one of the few British drivers ever to race in NASCAR stockcar events.

In 1978, after retiring from competitive driving, Jackie was part of the group that set up the Arrows F1 team, and he remained a part of that organisation until he sold his interest in it to Tom Walkinshaw in 1998. Nowadays Jackie makes occasional appearances at historic meetings, usually in cars from his days as an active race driver. Included among these is the Ford GT40, the model with which he scored his most important race win, at the Le Mans 24 Hours in 1969. He might have been a Grand Prix winner by then, having led the British Grand Prix in 1968, in the Gold Leaf Team Lotus 49 (below left), but that win went to Jo Siffert, after the factory cars' retirements.

dailysportscar.comAlan Lis spoke with him about his experiences with the GT40 and the JW Automotive team that ran the cars.

When was the first time you drove a GT40?
"That was at Monza in 1967, sharing with Terry Drury. At that time I’d been driving a Ford Mustang in saloon car races, so someone must have thought I could handle the power of a GT40. The only impression I have of the car in that race was driving it round the Monza banking. In fact I thought that the full Monza circuit that the race was run on was stupid because of the banking. It was totally inappropriate for a modern racing car, it was so bumpy that I don’t think it would have been wise to use full throttle all the way round, and certainly not going onto the banked section or coming off it. It was too dangerous."

Your first race with the JW Automotive team was at Le Mans in 1968, sharing a third GT40 with Brian Muir…
"And the plonker put it in the sand trying to lead on the first lap. I was quite young then and I remember him talking to me about it before the race. He said he was going to lead the first lap because he wanted to impress everybody. I thought ‘That doesn’t seem a very bright thing to do, it’s a 24 hour race’ but I don’t think I made any comment. When I heard that he’d gone off I thought ‘That was a dumb thing to do’ …. so I never got to drive the car in the race."

dailysportscar.comFor the 1969 season you replaced Brian Redman at JW Automotive, as co-driver with Jacky Ickx - starting with the Daytona 24 Hours.
“That was my first big contracted drive for the team - and I had motion sickness during the race. Halfway through I asked to be relieved and Jacky took over the main effort. I was not fit, I think that was the problem. After that I realised that if I was going to be driving big sportscars professionally in 24-hour races I’d better get myself into shape.

“That was partly my own conclusion but also Grady Davis, the big man at Gulf Oil, was pretty rude to me in the caravan at the track. I was sick in the car and I was not as quick as Jacky because my performance was dropping off. So I went away from there thinking I needed to get into shape. Driving Elans, Marcoses and even Formula 1 cars for a two-hour race was not like driving a GT40 for three hours at a time. But it was Grady Davis, not John Wyer, that made me think.”

Your fortunes turned round pretty quickly at the Sebring 12 Hours with an overall win…
“I was quite quick there. I think I was quicker than Jacky for the whole race. It was an odd circuit, but I seemed to drive well on it and really got hold of the car. I found out that the GT40, for all its agricultural mannerisms, could be driven quite quickly. It held the road quite well, even though it had no real aerodynamic performance. You could drift the car extremely well in high-speed corners. It was easy to control. There was a straw bale lined section after the pits (three very quick bumpy left handers as the track went out onto the runway) and in the car in the dark there I was immensely quick. I think that’s where I made all the time up on Jacky. I felt I could drift the car through there with confidence. Then there were a couple hairpins where the torque of the big V8 meant that you could go through there very well too. So that race was where I got on with the car for the first time, at Daytona I really didn’t. Maybe because I wasn’t fit enough.

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“A week after the Sebring race, John Horsman sat me down at the office in Slough and went through all the lap times. He and John were great statisticians and that was a reason why they were so successful in long distance racing. They really used to control the race by analysis and previous experience and their preparation was superb. John said that the reason we had won was the times I had put up in the middle of the night. I was a second and a half to two seconds quicker than Jacky. He had seen that early on, so they had put me in the car more than Ickx. I had made up more than 50 seconds. That was his analysis and for a while I became flavour of the month at JW. It didn’t last very long, because Jacky responded and on most circuits after that he was quicker than I was.”

In the contemporary race reports and in historical books about the period, Jacky Ickx is portrayed as the star driver, while Jackie Oliver is mentioned in a supporting role. Did that bother you?
“Politically Jacky was much more mature than I was. He was able to get the attention of John Wyer and John Horsman. To his credit he was a quick driver, quicker than I was on most, but not all, occasions. Together with his ability to ingratiate himself in the team and his demands, wanting to start and finish the race, he managed to present himself as the number one driver of the team. I was quite happy to drive the car alongside him. They were happy for us to share a car because we were both the same size. So Jacky would take the credit. I wasn’t upset by that at the time, I accepted it as part of life. If you are willing to accept that role then you get what you deserve. I think the team was happy with the Ickx / Oliver combination because there were no problems. I was happy for Jacky to start and finish the race and for me to put in solid performances on the circuits I wasn’t so quick on, and dovetail with Jacky on the circuits I was quick on. It all worked out well. It was probably why our car was the more successful of the two driver combinations.”

The 1969 Le Mans is generally perceived as Jacky Ickx’s great race. Why have we never heard your side of the story?
“For those same reasons. Jacky was the prima donna of the team. He started the race, he finished the race. My memories of that race were that it was easy, we were cruising. In fact I was quicker than he was at Le Mans; it was another of my good circuits. I was good in quick corners and there are a lot of them at Le Mans: for example through White House, I could get the car almost flat through there. I knew Jacky couldn’t. He said he was but I knew he wasn’t. In the race we were instructed to drive just off the limit with the brakes and everything else, cut our braking distances back, cut the revs back, be smooth with the gearbox and the car. I drove that way and so did Jacky. But Jacky claimed to Horsman all the time that I was going too fast. He told them to slow me down. Horsman talked to me between stints. We drove two hours on and two hours off then. I said ‘Quite honestly John, I’m smooth.’ He understood that and didn’t say anything to me and told Jacky to shut up.

“What Jacky would do when he had taken over from me was put one lap in that was just a little bit quicker than mine and then settle back to his pace. I didn’t bother with that, but it was important to Jacky because he wanted to remain number one in the team.”

What was your reaction to seeing Jacky Ickx walking across the road at the start of the race?
“I was amused, because he said he was going to do it as a protest - but the last few steps were a bit of a run because there were cars coming at him! That made me laugh.”

Was it always planned that Ickx would do the last three hours of the race?
“Jacky always asked to start and finish the race and I was always happy to be the co-driver.”

What were your feelings about those last three hours, watching your GT40 and the Hermann / Larrousse Porsche racing wheel to wheel?
“I knew our car’s capabilities against the Porsche because I had raced against it in the same race, and I knew Jacky’s ability. Horsman and I had talked about what was going to happen and we decided that we’d got the legs on them. We knew that even if the Porsche got by, Jacky would be able to pass him at the end of the straight and if he got him there, he would not be able to get back at him through White House. We knew that was going to be the result. It was impossible for them to win because they couldn’t hold the GT40 back on the straight. It was quicker there. The Porsche was nimble but Jacky was making our car as wide as he could. That’s why it was such a close finish. Jacky was holding him up. Short of Jacky making a mistake or something going wrong we had them.”

In the 1974 book "My Greatest race" by Adrian Ball, Jacky Ickx provides a curious (and slightly contradictory) insight into what was happening during those last three hours and 20 minutes. "Although it was not so fast as earlier in the race, it (the Hermann / Larrousse Porsche) was still much faster than the GT40 - both flat out and on average," says Ickx. He had to stay in the 908's slipstream as it passed him on Mulsanne otherwise "it would probably have gained another 150 yards over me before Mulsanne (Corner)". So the GT40 wasn't faster on the straight then? Ickx used the time racing against the German driver (for the last two hours 20 minutes) to feel out where he had an advantage - "I began to mosquito him" - and once he discovered that he could begin a sprint at Arnage, gain ground through Maison Blanche and "cut in under braking before the Ford Chicane", Ickx knew that "mechanical troubles apart, I was going to win." Ed.

dailysportscar.comWhat was your relationship with John Wyer?
“I thought John was great, he was the strength of the team. Very even, very determined. Together with John Horsman he used to calculate things extremely well, which was just what you need for a long distance racing team. He also had a good wit. His famous line was to one of the Porsche people at Le Mans, when they said there was a problem with one of the cars. John replied “Nothing too trivial I hope!’”

The story of that epic race is told on the 30 minute video, "La Ronde Infernale". We had hoped to bring you this interview at the same time as a review of Michael Cotton's book, "Blue and Orange" - the history of Gulf Oil’s sponsorship in motor sport. Deliveries of the book are delayed though: we'll bring you a review asap.

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