The man who replaced Jim Clark at Lotus: 'No arm round the shoulder'


F1 debuts are never easy by any stretch – and Jackie Oliver had it tougher than most when getting behind the wheel for Lotus following Jim Clark's tragic death, as he explains in Motor Sport's May edition

Jackie Oliver Lotus 1968 British GP Brands Hatch

Jackie Oliver soon showed his pontential by leading the 1968 British GP for Lotus at Brands Hatch

Bernard Cahier/Getty Images

When any racing great leaves the stage, replacing them is no easy feat for any team. While performance is one thing, presence out of the car is crucial in pushing the squad forward too.

Tyrrell never truly filled the space left by its three-time champion Jackie Stewart after his 1973 retirement, whose brilliance on track was matched by his idomitable personality off it.

Ferrari eventually drifted into a fallow period following Michael Schumacher’s first grand prix exit in 2006 and it took Mika Häkkinen years to develop into the driver to lead McLaren forward in its post-Ayrton Senna years, admittedly while driving difficult cars too.

Perhaps the greatest act to follow was F1 legend Jim Clark, the Lotus star cut down in his prime in 1968 in a tragic accident at Hockenheim.

In the May issue of Motor Sport, we talk to the man who was tasked with filling his racing boots: Jackie Oliver. As the 1969 Le Mans champion describes, not only did he have to match up to the 25-GP winner’s incredible performance levels, he also had to gain the approval of its mercurial team leader Colin Chapman, who often appeared simply uninterested in the young Brit’s efforts.

Jackie Oliver Graham Hill Lotus 1968 British GP Brands Hatch

Oliver and Graham Hill get a TV grilling while Colin Chapman watches on

Bernard Cahier/Getty Images

Rising through the ranks, the Essex native first found himself at Lotus in the late ’60s not through Chapman, but others at the dynamic team who oversaw more of its junior activities.

“You don’t know how good you are,” he says. “It’s other people who judge that, and give you an opportunity to progress.

“It’s this confidence in you that turns into ambition. I’d been racing a Lotus Elan, and then a Formula 3 Brabham, so when Lotus was looking for a driver for their F3 team Jimmy Clark recommended a Scottish rally driver, and Jim Endruweit, who became Colin Chapman’s team manager [after being race engineer], suggested me for the test. I’d had previous F3 experience so the rally guy didn’t have a chance and I got the drive.”

After impressing in the third tier, Oliver then made his way up to the F2 for ’67 onwards – then tragedy struck, changing everything at Lotus.

From the archive

On April 7, 1968 during an F2 race round a deluged Hockenhim circuit, the team’s talisman Clark speared into the tress – he was killed instantly.

Lotus was left reeling, but it needed a driver. Chapman, who had been extremely close to Clark, couldn’t bring himself to replace the Scot for the next race in Spain, but come the 1968 Monaco GP it became apparent that the second Lotus 49 seat needed to be filled, and Oliver was the man – or at least some within the fold thought so.

“[Lotus team manager] Andrew Ferguson liked how I was going, and [race engineer] Endruweit was a big fan, but Colin Chapman didn’t want to know,” Oliver said in 2009. “He was only interested in Jimmy and Graham. Colin was impossible, all over the place. Then Jimmy died, and he was even worse. His best driver, his best mate, was gone.”

From the off, Oliver knew there would be no easy ride – never mind a bedding-in period – when getting his feet under the grand prix table at Lotus.

“Ironically when Jimmy was killed I had this macabre opportunity of going to Formula 1,” remembers Oliver. “Graham Hill was team leader but I wasn’t nervous about it, I was very confident, a little bit of an arrogant young man.

Jackie Oliver Lotus crash 1968 French GP Rouen

What was left of Oliver’s Lotus 49 after frightening Rouen crash

Grand Prix Photo

“Colin was the worst person to try and bring on a young driver who’d just been dumped in Jimmy Clark’s seat. No opportunity for any testing, and on the Monaco grid he stuck his head in the cockpit and said, “Lad, no more than six people ever finish this race.” I didn’t know what he meant. He could have been more helpful, a bit of advice, and I might have got some points for the team.

“As it was, Bruce McLaren crashed on the first lap and, arriving behind him I had nowhere to go to avoid his car and hit the stationary McLaren.”

“I walked back to the pits. Colin, bent over his lap chart, didn’t even look up. ‘You f***ed that up, didn’t you. You’re fired.’ Not a long F1 career. Half a lap,” he added in 2009.

“Colin didn’t have an arm around anyone’s shoulder. He designed the car, found the money, chose the drivers, he was unique, a dynamo, like a whirlwind, and he didn’t want me there. He had the best car. He wanted someone who’d already done it, and didn’t want to spend time messing around bringing young drivers on.”

Oliver wasn’t actually fired – but the mood in the camp wasn’t exactly at an all-time high. Things then got worse once in France when the F1 circus rolled up for the grand prix at Rouen, a thrilling yet dangerous mountain climb which threaded its way past rock faces instead of barriers.

It was at this race that Oliver soon found out he was the mule for all new gadgets on Lotus cars – whether they were safe or not.

“There was never any question of going testing with any new bits,” he says. “Colin would have an idea, and insist it was on the cars for the next race. So there was this giant wing above the back of my car. I was the test rig. Stick it on Oliver’s car and see what happens.

“I looked at this thing up there on stalks, nobody in the team could tell me anything, so I went and asked Chapman what it was all about. ‘Aerodynamics, lad,’ he said, ‘It’s the future.’ I gave one of the struts a push, and it moved from side to side. I said to Chapman, ‘Is it meant to do that?’”

Oliver barely managed half a lap before it all went very wrong – a precursor to Hill and Jochen Rindt’s massive crashes at Montjuich Park the following year.

“The grip was unbelievable, grip I’d never experienced before,” said Oliver in his ‘Lunch with…’ interview. “On my third lap I was flat out past the pits behind Richard Attwood’s BRM. He moved aside to let me past, and suddenly I swapped ends. What I think happened was, in the turbulent air behind the BRM the wing collapsed, fell over backwards and lifted the rear wheels off the ground.”

The Brit suffered an almighty crash down the pit straight, ripping both ends off the 49. Somehow he emerged unscathed, but it was a timely reminder of F1’s occupational hazards, and particularly being a Lotus employee behind the wheel.

From the archive

Still going after that harrowing smash, at this point Oliver was one of the most promising young drivers in motor sport, and soon showed it behind the wheel of a 49 – but even that wasn’t enough to impress Chapman.

Oliver qualified well for the ’68 British GP at Brands Hatch and was leading in commanding fashion before an incorrectly installed Cosworth DFV melted a pipe – and blew the engine.

“When I led the British Grand Prix in the old car – he’d sold the new one to Rob Walker – Colin said nothing afterwards,” says Oliver.

“I never felt he had any confidence in me and I was dismayed. I had always raced as Jack Oliver and Endruweit told me later that it was Colin who entered me as Jackie because he’d wanted Jackie Stewart in the car but he’d turned it down because of Colin’s extreme passion for saving weight, which Jackie considered risky. The cars were the best, but a lot of things did break.”

At the end of that season Oliver switched to BRM, relieved to be out of the Lotus F1 furnace. Having rounded off his Hethel tenure with a podium in Mexico, he would score just one more for Shadow in ’74.

However, the top level racing talent first shown at Lotus would eventually garner success for a serious racing prospect – a 1969 Le Mans win with Jacky Ickx and a 1974 Can-Am title proved what Chapman seemed to refuse to believe.