Making the most of local knowledge, the struggling Lotus new boy suddenly felt right at home in Formula One, He tells Adam Cooper
By his own admission, Jackie Oliver was not a great grand prix driver, but at Brands Hatch in 1968 he came close to winning his home race and in only his fourth Formula One start.
In 1967, Oliver had performed well for Lotus Components in Formula Two even finishing fifth overall in the German GP with a 48. And so it was that, despite a general lack of experience, he was handed the difficult task of replacing Jim Clark alongside Graham Hill after the Scot was killed at Hockenheim in April 1968.
“At the time I was the third driver in the team,” he recalls. “I was testing everything including the Indycar if Jimmy or Graham wouldn’t turn up. Jim Endruweit, who was team manager at that time, was a great supporter, and Andrew Ferguson was also a fan, and between them they pushed and convinced Colin that I was the one to have.
“Colin quite rightly saw the limitations in me, but really he had no choice. Because the season had started, the drivers he would have preferred had gone off and done something else. He was pretty down he’d not only lost his best driver, he’d also lost his best mate – and so he effectively left that decision to Endruweit and Ferguson.”
Jackie’s maiden grand prix appearance was at Monaco, and it proved to be a tough baptism.
“To be launched into your first F1 race at Monte Carlo, when you’ve never seen the circuit before, was difficult. I didn’t do a very good job there, and in fact I got fired! Colin told me before the start that never in the whole history of Monte Carlo had more than six cars finished, and that if I just trundled round at the back of the pack, I would get my first world championship point.
“As I came out of the tunnel on the first lap, McLaren and Scarfiotti tangled. The only room that was available to me was between Scarfiotti’s car and the cliff face, or plunge into the harbour. The water didn’t look very enticing, so with the words of Colin still ringing in my ears, I tried to squeeze between Scarfiotti and the wall.
“I took all the wheels off the Lotus and sledged it down the hill to the chicane. When I stroked back to the pits, Colin said, ‘You’re fired!’
“Jim Endruweit convinced him that was a bit rough and got me back in the car for Spa. Being there for the first time in a wet practice was daunting, but nearly everybody retired and I was running last, i.e. fifth, when my car stopped.”
Those two fortunate points took the pressure off – a bit. At a very soggy Zandvoort, Jackie plodded round with drowned electrics, and then next time out, at Rouen, he suffered a huge crash in practice, writing off 49B.
“With a wing of that size on an F1 car for the first time, the grip was phenomenal. But it just wasn’t strong enough. On the third or fourth lap, as Diclde Attwood moved over from one side of the track to the other to give me room, his turbulent air caused my wing to become detached, or bend backwards. Whatever happened, it turned from downforce to lift and took the back wheels off the ground. It was like trying to ride a one-wheeled circus bicycle.” With no spare car, Oliver was unable to start.
For the next race at Brands, the team retrieved an old-spec 49 from Rob Walker, who had taken delivery of a new 49B for Jo Siffert. Despite not having the freshest equipment, Jackie was on the case and qualified behind Hill in a superb second.
“It was the first time in F1 that it was a circuit I’d been to before, and also one where I seemed to have a bit more pace than any other circuit. My confidence was high as I knew the circuit well, and I felt I was quicker than Graham there, even in the old car. What the differences were between the cars, I don’t know.
“I got less wheelspin than him at the start and I got a car length’s ahead as we changed into second gear. After three laps, though, I let him through on the inside at the hairpin. I thought it was the appropriate thing to do. There was no signal as such, it was just the result of the pre-race discussions: ‘You might like to consider this’, sort of thing…”
When suspension failure claimed Hill on lap 27, Oliver regained the lead.
“I went away at a second a lap. It was the best car in F1, and I knew the circuit. It’s always easy when you’re in the lead all the things that make the car quick come fully under your control.”
All was not well, however. Almost from the start, Oliver had been trailed by a haze of oil smoke. When it began to ease, it meant either that the problem had been resolved, or that there was no oil left.
“It was going to take care of itself, so worrying about it wasn’t going to change it! The Cosworth engine used to breathe very heavily in those days, and a large 15mm diameter plastic breather pipe used to go back into the collector tank. A mechanic had put the pipe on the wrong side of the exhaust, so it burned through, and eventually the engine expired because of lack of oil. The wheels momentarily locked up, I got a bit sideways, it rattled to a halt, and that was it. Colin announced that it was the transmission, but it wasn’t.” Ironically, victory went to Siffert with the 49B Chapman had traded for the older chassis.
Jackie had little luck throughout the rest of the season, but he did at least make it to the podium with a third place behind Hill and Bruce McLaren in Mexico.
‘The Olympics had been held a few weeks before and I got a bronze medal – it’s the only time there have been Olympic medals in motor racing. But it got confiscated by Colin on the way home. I’ve been trying to get it back ever since, but nobody seems to know where it is. So that one got away, too.
“The good thing is that my drive in the British GP prompted BRM to make me an offer for ’69. The money was similar to what Jackie Stewart got paid two years before, so everything has a silver lining. I don’t think winning that race would have had much effect on my career, except I would have had that one race in the record books. Mr Nearly!”