Over a decade ago I did a kart race about which I can remember almost nothing except for one little detail: some children came out to do a demonstration. I am no talent-spotter but would have needed my balaclava on the wrong way around not to see that the kid leading the field was different not just to those failing to keep up with him, but also anyone else I’d ever seen in a kart. He gave every appearance of knowing precisely what the kart was going to do long before the kart did. It’s the only time I’ve ever made a point of memorising the name of someone I had never met nor expected to meet. His name was Lewis Hamilton.
Forty years ago another young lad called Jackie Oliver also found himself in his first season in F1 as team-mate to a world champion, but all the differences that separate a Lotus 49 from a McLaren MP4/22 are as nothing compared to the way these two potential stars were looked after by their respective teams. Hamilton has been under the wing of McLaren and Ron Dennis since he was a child, serving the best apprenticeship conceivable. Oliver was dumped in a car at Monaco and told not to stuff it, which he duly and, in his view quite inevitably, did.
As you will read on page 32, Oliver is disarmingly modest about his talent, but when you hear the circumstances in which he ended up in the best car on the grid you might wonder how the story might have turned out had he received the nurturing enjoyed by Hamilton. For while he raced an F1 car for the first time at Monaco in ’68, replacing the late Jim Clark, it was not his first grand prix. He had raced the year before at the German GP at the fearsome old Nürburgring. He came fifth, which would have been outstanding for any rookie, even in the fastest car. But Oliver’s car was not just far from the fastest, it wasn’t even an F1 car at all, but a F2 Lotus 48 with an engine barely half the size of the others. On a circuit that rewarded raw talent and courage more than any other, he beat some of the finest drivers in some of the quickest cars in the world. Makes you think, doesn’t it?