Jackie Oliver – nearly man

He’s modest about his record, but most people would be delighted to count a Le Mans victory and a Can-Am championship on their CV

"I was the nearly man,” he says with a smile I cannot precisely read, “I always thought if you were good enough, then the opportunities would come. Perhaps I was never good enough to win a grand prix. So you can call me Mr Nearly.”

Well, it’s better than Noddy, the name chosen by his Lotus mechanics owing to the ease with which he was able to take a nap at any time, even just before a race.

What Jackie Oliver has so far failed to mention is that he won the Can-Am championship, won Le Mans, and won long distance sports car races at Sebring, Daytona, Spa-Francorchamps and Monza. He still holds the fastest-ever lap of the Sarthe. And then there’s the grand prix team he created which became a university for some exceptional young designers and the odd talented driver on the way up.

“Yes, I was good enough to be a professional driver, but I didn’t have the talent for the big prizes. Maybe if I’d won a grand prix I would have won many more, who knows?” The smile again, and this time he looks into the distance. “I started my own team because the phone stopped ringing.”

This is the man who led grands prix for both Lotus and BRM, but it was always mechanical reliability that let him down. Jackie Oliver is a motor racing enigma, despite the facts in the history books. The cynics say he was, at least latterly, in it for the money. Some say he was one of the best, just unlucky and in the wrong car at the wrong time. Certainly, he’s a man of many parts and yes, he did make a great deal of money. 

He started racing as a teenager supported, as so many are today, by his father. But his earliest experiences of speed came, not from karting, but from ‘borrowing’ his father’s road cars.

“I took them out at night, Mercedes, Maserati, whatever he had. Drove around between Romford and Southend, met up with mates at the Green Tiles café, never crashed one, always got away with it. But I think he knew.”

Oliver senior sorted this out by supplying his son with a Marcos with which to go racing. He did crash that, comprehensively at Snetterton, and found himself sitting on the track among the bits.

“Didn’t bother me though, I was untouchable. All through my career I believed I was untouchable, I had so much confidence in myself and in my ability. I’d always had fantastic car control, loved getting sideways. Sometimes I’d show off to the guys in the pit lane, getting all sideways for them.”

The next step was a Formula 3 Brabham and he was immediately quick, impressing the Lotus team. “My Dad had bought an Elan so knew Chapman and I was asked to test at Silverstone where I was faster than Piers Courage and Roy Pike. Next thing I had a seat in the Charles Lucas F3 team, but at the first race I tightened up, couldn’t repeat the pace.
It happens like that.”

But he settled down and caught the eye of Jim Endruweit, Chapman’s team manager. “I told him I was quicker than any of them; he must have thought I was an obnoxious kid. And I was.”

He looks me in the eye, this time challenging. “Look, I was aggressive, still am. I mean, I like litigation, love the challenge.” 

The big break for Oliver came in macabre circumstances, after Jim Clark was killed in a Formula 2 race at Hockenheim. “The chances came like that then,” he says. “The death rate in those days was high, and yes, it was macabre, especially as Jimmy was Chapman’s best friend and of course he was the best driver. So they drafted me in. I was the obvious choice; I was in the F2 team and they knew me.”

His first grand prix was at Monte Carlo in 1968, the baptism of barriers. “It was tough. Chapman came to me on the grid, stuck his head into the cockpit and told me to just get round, score a point. Imagine that – I’m just about to start my first grand prix.”

Oliver didn’t get round. Coming out of the tunnel he found the cars of Scarfiotti and McLaren spread all over the road. “There was only one light bulb in the tunnel. I went through, came out into the sunshine, saw the other cars and it was either into the harbour or into the wall. I chose the wall and took all the wheels off. Back at the pits Colin Chapman looked at me and said: “That’s the last race you’re doing for me, lad.”

It wasn’t, of course. Oliver went on to complete the season, leading the British Grand Prix at Brands until the transmission let go and finishing on the podium in Mexico with the Lotus 49. He was then replaced by Jochen Rindt, but there was a silver lining, because 1969 was to be one of his best years.

“I probably went to Lotus too soon, too young,” he pauses, thinking. “There wasn’t much support from the team, maybe the occasional arm round the shoulders. It was the deep end without armbands and, looking back, Lotus was a university of motorsport for me. I learned a lot from Chapman, watched his methods, listened to him. He told me: ‘Lad, it’s easy having the ideas; it’s getting things made, getting things done that’s the hard part.’ I remembered a lot of this when I started my own F1 team.”

Oliver signed with BRM for 1969 alongside John Surtees, and Ford took him on to drive the GT40. “I never got on with Surtees; he always wanted everything for himself. There was no delegation, and that was a lesson learned for the future. It was much better in 1970 with Pedro Rodriguez and we had a new car, the P153, from Tony Southgate who later came back into my life at Shadow and then with Arrows.” Internal politics and unreliable machinery at BRM dogged those two years while a horrible fiery crash in Spain didn’t improve matters; the ‘untouchable’ coming out unscathed.

Things went a lot better at Ford, with Oliver winning Le Mans and Sebring in 1969, sharing the GT40 with Jacky Ickx. And in 1971, with only a part season in F1 with McLaren, he joined John Wyer’s sports car team, winning at Daytona, Monza and Spa in the spectacular Porsche 917, again sharing with Rodriguez. “ I liked him; we got on well and of course he was very quick. I could win in sports cars, no problem.”

Here we pause for breath and Oliver fixes me with one of his eye to eye, toe to toe numbers. We are approaching Shadow and Arrows territory. “You can ask me anything. I only ever told one lie in all my motor racing and that was about my intention of signing a particular driver.” 

Oliver joined Shadow in 1972 and won the Can-Am title for the team two years later. “McLaren had gone by then; the opposition was weaker,” he says, that smile returning.
“I was living in America, racing in America, I knew the tracks.” This period at Shadow was to lead to the biggest and boldest move he was ever to take outside the cockpit of a racing car. Towards the end of 1977 he knew Shadow was going nowhere unless it built the cars in the UK, but owner Don Nichols didn’t see it that way, preferring sunny California to somewhere along the M4 corridor. So Oliver left, took Tony Southgate with him, roped in Alan Rees and Dave Wass and found some money from Italian banker Franco Ambrosio, while German beer Warsteiner came with driver Rolf Stommelen. So Arrows was launched into a 1978 F1 season that brought immediate speed on the track and lots of expense and aggravation in the High Court.

“I knew we had trouble. It was an infringement of copyright. Tony Southgate brought a handful of initial drawings from Shadow; he should have brought the information in his head. There’s a difference. So I thought, OK, what’s it going to cost and how much time have I got to build a new car while the court makes up its mind?” he explains, matter-of-fact. “The lawyers decided that the FA1 was a copy of the Shadow DN9 and we built a new car in
50 days and that was that.”

This is the middle of the season. The first Arrows had been quick right out of the box, Riccardo Patrese leading the team’s second ever race at Kyalami before an engine failure and then finishing second in Sweden. A promising start which the new A2 reinforced, Arrows beating Shadow by five points in the Constructors table at the end of the year.

“It was a good car and we continued with good cars from Southgate and Dave Wass, while the team was very well run by Alan Rees. My job was to find the money, do the deals. Formula 1 is a business, very tough, very political and when a small team looks like it might challenge the grandees, in particular Ferrari, someone’s going to get after you, try to push you back down. Every time we came up with something, started to show real speed, then the rules would change or there would be some other interference from the big boys by poaching key staff or drivers. Or the politicians would get involved.”

In the late 1980s a bright young thing from the drawing office at Ford-backed Beatrice joined the team.

“I’d been trying to get Neil Oatley but he went elsewhere. Then this guy called Ross Brawn called me and I took him on. He was sharp, full of ideas and very good with people, knew how to get the team behind him. That’s partly why
he’s done so well, his ability with people.”

Strangely, though, Arrows was never to win a race in all its 255 starts. The little team was often nearly there, but never on the top step. Money was a perennial problem despite the Japanese corporation Footwork relieving some of the pain in 1991. But Arrows was becoming a university, the roll call of drivers including Villeneuve, Jones, Berger, Cheever, and Warwick – who scored the most points of them all, coming joint fourth in the 1988 championship. And designers came, Alan Jenkins following Brawn to Milton Keynes.

“You simply don’t understand what F1 is about, what it’s really like, if you’re outside,” says Oliver, leaning forward, spreading his hands. “Even as late as 1994 we had a good car and Jenkins had found an advantage with the aerodynamics, producing a clever venturi effect. At Imola we were right on the pace. But then Senna and Ratzenberger were killed and the FIA decided on radical changes, all of which benefited the bigger teams, especially Ferrari. Funny how Ferrari always seems to come out on top; and it’s bad news if a small team starts to get too successful. But then Ron Dennis did it with McLaren, Briatore did it with Benetton, so it can be done. We just didn’t get it done and by the end I was increasingly under pressure financially. Bernie stepped in and put me and Tom Walkinshaw together which saved the team but I couldn’t work with Walkinshaw.”

Oliver called it a day in 1999, accepting an offer for the team which made him rich. “When Lady Luck comes along you take her hand,” he says. “It may be some time before she comes round again.” And Oliver’s life today would seem to support such a homily, his toast dropping butter-side-up once again.

“Maybe I didn’t take big enough risks,” he says, gazing out over his many acres of Bedfordshire. “Not in the race driving and not in the business. But I owed it my people to get out on top and not go bust.”

Jackie Oliver still goes racing, sifting the best invitations, to Goodwood or a weekend at Spa, the maroon helmet packed alongside the golf clubs. There’s a Ford GT in the garage, a reminder of the wins with the GT40. “Edsel Ford said I must have one, you know, with my Le Mans win and all that. Then he sent me the invoice.” You win some, you lose some. But then Jackie Oliver knows all about that.