Jackie Oliver Interview
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.
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.
Lis spoke with him about his experiences with the GT40
and the JW Automotive team that ran the cars.
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."
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."
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.”
turned round pretty quickly at the Sebring 12 Hours with an overall
“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
“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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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."
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!’”
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.