The apprentice

He’s not yet a fully fledged endurance aristocrat, but Oliver Jarvis – Audi Sport’s foremost British racer in the post-Allan McNish era – is forging a solid reputation
Writer: Simon Arron

It’s a tale almost as old as the wheel. Promising young kart racer switches to cars, surfs his way through a few junior categories, collecting victories and titles en route, but then comes up against a sizeable barrier that can be hurdled only with a cash-stacked briefcase.

Time was that drivers would loiter here, hoping to scrounge the odd drive that might sustain their Formula 1 dreams. Sometimes this paid off – Damon Hill’s tenacity in the unloved Footwork Formula 3000 chassis kept him on the radar for long enough to earn him better opportunities and, ultimately, a Williams F1 test contract – but more usually it didn’t.

In more recent times, the average age in one-make racing championships – once the preserve of 30-plus businessmen with disposable income – has come down as kart graduates see greater career potential in saloons, GTs and sports cars. And then there are those such as Oliver Jarvis, who reach a crossroads and divert from what was once considered the mainstream.

The son of former FF1600 racer Carl Jarvis, Oliver switched to cars in the winter of 2002 and raced initially in Formula Ford before stepping up to Formula Renault and winning the 2005 British title. At the end of that season he won the BRDC McLaren Autosport Award and committed to British F3, in which he finished second to Mike Conway.

“That’s when I had a big moment of realisation,” he says. “I’d been very fortunate to race in F3, because [team owner] Trevor Carlin helped us a great deal and we had some money from the BRDC Award, but I also borrowed a lot. It was a good campaign, but then I had to think, ‘What next?’ If I wanted to step up to Formula Renault 3.5, which was probably the next option, it would have cost about half a million pounds at that time – and GP2 was significantly more expensive still. Under no circumstance were we ever going to be able to find that kind of money.

“Formula Ford had been a stretch, Formula Renault had been a stretch – and to be honest F3 was a stretch too far. At that point I was offered an opportunity to carry on racing F3, in Japan, and it was about then that I started looking around to see where I might be able to build a motor sport career. If that wasn’t in F1, so be it.”

Audi came calling at the end of 2006, too, but by then he had committed to Japanese F3 and wanted to honour the contract. “It was a matter,” he says, “of telling them, ‘Really sorry, I can’t, but please let’s keep in touch’.”

He was third in Japanese F3 but, more crucially, won the end-of-season blue riband race around the streets of Macau, defeating a cast that included future Grand Prix drivers Romain Grosjean, Kamui Kobayashi, Bruno Senna, Nico Hülkenberg and Sébastien Buemi. “At the time that made me think there might still be a chance of reaching F1,” he says, “but I spoke to several teams and testing opportunities were very limited, so it all looked a bit unlikely.”

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And then Audi reappeared, with the offer of a DTM test and no other contracts by way of impediment. “Afterwards,” he says, “one of their very first questions was, ‘How serious are you about stepping away from the F1 dream?’ For me it was very simple: when a manufacturer such as Audi rings, you don’t turn the chance down. If you can race in motor sport and make it your career, it’s an incredible privilege. I couldn’t have spurned the offer and I’m glad I didn’t.

“I haven’t regretted my choice for a second. I wouldn’t say I’d become disillusioned with the single-seater ladder, but for me it didn’t work. Progression to F1 is nowadays such a mess. Back when the likes of Jenson Button were moving up, you did a good job in Formula Ford, stepped up to F3, did a good job again and then hopefully tested an F1 car. Nowadays there are so many championships and, if you look at the quality of the fields, they are dominated by money. Don’t get me wrong: there are some extremely talented guys out there, but when you’re asking €1.5 million for a season of racing, you’re instantly excluding 70 to 80 per cent of the potential talent.

“My generation has been very fortunate, with one or two making it through to F1 – Lewis Hamilton and Robert Kubica, for instance – but others are popping up in sports cars, Indycars and elsewhere. I came up against some really talented guys in karting and they’re probably now doing regular office jobs, or possibly working on market stalls. You should always appreciate what you’ve got, not what you could have had. People still ask whether it bothers me that I never made it to F1, but if you gave me the choice between a back-of-the-grid Grand Prix seat and a top sports car drive, it’s an easy decision. I’d rather be chasing wins.”

The DTM can be something of a cul-de-sac for aspiring racers: Jamie Green was once mentioned in the same breath as Lewis Hamilton and won the European F3 title in 2004, a year earlier than his rival. The biggest difference between them was that he was a Mercedes driver, and thus placed in the DTM (where he remains to this day, now part of the Audi set-up), while Hamilton’s McLaren backing was geared towards single-seaters so he was placed in GP2. Their paths have not since converged.

Jarvis spent four seasons in the series and, on the surface, results weren’t particularly eye-catching, with best championship finishes of ninth in 2009 and 2010.

“The stats might not reflect as much,” he says, “but my first two years in the DTM were great. I had a one-year-old car that was about a second off the pace, but I achieved some podiums and people within the team could see what I was doing. Things didn’t go quite so well, though, when I switched to a new car in 2010. Its balance and characteristics didn’t suit me, I couldn’t get on top of it and I probably didn’t gel as well with the new team as I had with the previous one.”

There was one interesting new development, though, when he made his Le Mans debut in a Kolles-run Audi R10 TDI, sharing with Christijan Albers and the late Christian Bakkerud but failing to finish.

“From the first day I joined Audi,” he says, “I made it very clear that I wanted to be involved in Le Mans. On a couple of occasions I came close to joining the Le Mans team sooner than I actually did, so I took that 2010 drive to make sure I was better prepared as and when the chance came. That happened at the end of 2011 and I jumped at it.

“I think Le Mans used to be perceived as a race for drivers who were perhaps past their prime, but when I joined Audi they had Emanuele Pirro, Frank Biela and so on. People assumed they were being retained for heritage reasons, but when you saw what they were doing in the car they were still blindingly quick. Allan McNish, Tom Kristensen and Dindo Capello were all superbly fast into their 40s, too, and I don’t think they’ve necessarily been given due credit.

“It’s not so long since endurance races were won by looking after the brakes, transmission and tyres, saving fuel and so on. That’s still important, but you are pushing hard from start to finish, hitting every apex. It’s no longer endurance racing but a 24-hour sprint. You don’t have the opportunity to take things easily. At Le Mans in 2011 the winning margin was less than 14 seconds after 24 hours and 355 laps – in terms of performance difference per lap, it’s a ridiculously small margin and underlines that you really can’t afford to back off.”

Shifting from the single-minded, necessarily selfish world of single-seaters, some drivers take time to adapt to the concept of freely shared data.

“It couldn’t have been any easier for me,” Jarvis says. “From the moment you make the switch, you’re aware that whatever you do might henceforth benefit everybody. If you tell your team-mate to try third here, or take a little bit more kerb there, it benefits you, too. I can imagine that some drivers have issues with car set-up, but so far I’ve always been able to find a common route with my team-mates. There’s always going to be a slight element of compromise, but for me it has been a straightforward transition.

“The hardest thing for me – and this might sound silly – was finding a seat. If you have two differently proportioned drivers, like Tom and Allan, Tom will create the base seat and Allan will have his own specially moulded insert. I’ve been sharing with other drivers of similar size, so you can’t really just throw in an insert, and small physical details mean one seat will never fit all three because we all have different hips, shoulder widths, leg lengths and so on.”

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Despite successive appearances on the Le Mans podium, Jarvis rates his 2013 Sebring success – his first outright win with Audi, partnering serial Le Mans pace-setters Marcel Fässler and Benoit Tréluyer – as his career highlight to date. “I’ve won at Sebring and scored a class win at Daytona,” he says, “so now I just need to repeat that and win at Le Mans…”

He had high hopes of challenging for a repeat class victory in this year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona, but they ended almost before the race had started when American co-driver Charlie Putnam crashed after five laps. It was an event, though, that underlined sports car racing’s appeal to the broad-minded, with factory representation from Audi, Porsche, BMW, Corvette, SRT (Dodge) and Aston Martin, all of whom had at least one British driver on their books.

“Le Mans and Daytona are very different,” Jarvis says, “but I love them both. There is a higher percentage of amateurs at Daytona, but the main difference is that you can fall several laps behind and yet still recover because of the ‘wave-through’ policy that applies to lapped traffic behind the safety car. At Daytona you generally gain from the safety car, but at Le Mans it might cost you the race. If you miss one by two seconds, you can lose 40 awaiting the next and it’s very hard to claw that back.

“When I first raced at Le Mans, incidentally, I found it almost impossible to sleep and probably managed no more than 30 minutes throughout the race. I think it had something to do with the emotional attachment I felt to the car, and wanting to know it was still in good shape. I have since got better at it...”

Jarvis’s precise programme had still to be defined at the time of writing, but includes Le Mans, a few more events Stateside and a separate programme of GT events with Lexus in Japan. He hasn’t, though, ruled out a single-seater comeback. “You should never say never,” he says, “but I wouldn’t race one unless it meant making a professional step, and really that leaves only F1, IndyCar and perhaps Formula Nippon. I would like to do a test one day, purely for curiosity’s sake. A sports car is nowadays so close to a single-seater that I’d love to see how easy it is to make the transition.

“My real goal, though, is to win the WEC and add a world championship to my CV, but the most important thing is to enjoy these career opportunities and relish the racing. I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t still enjoy it as much as I did when I went karting, as a kid.

“I still have that nervous energy on the grid, or at the start of a qualifying session. Some people don’t enjoy the nervous side of things, but for me that’s the adrenaline. When you’re nervous it’s a sign of excitement – you know there’s something worth fighting for. I love the competition, pushing the car to its limits, but also savour the interaction with the team and trying to improve the car. For me every aspect of the sport is enjoyable, but I realise I’m lucky to be in this position.”