Next weekend, at La Sarthe, Oliver Jarvis will step aboard an LMP1 Audi R18 e-tron Quattro, replacing Tom Kristensen in the team that has made a habit, in recent years, of winning at Le Mans.
Having set aside his career in single-seaters Jarvis is determined to prove that he is a future champion in sports cars, and there is no better place than Audi to do this. But it won’t be easy. As the great Dane has often remarked, “there is no short cut to anywhere worth going”.
Had you always been aware of Le Mans, even when you were focused on single-seaters and dreaming of Formula 1?
Macau win in 2007 established credentials
“Of course, it’s such a historic race, but it wasn’t until I joined Audi, stopped focusing on F1 and went to the DTM, that I really opened my eyes to the prospect of Le Mans. In that first year with Audi I went to the race as a spectator and it captivated me from that moment. Seeing the cars go through the Porsche Curves at three in the morning, I just knew I wanted to race there and maybe have a chance of winning it in the future.”
What was your first experience there like?
“There’s so much to take in. As a spectator you just see the race but there’s so much more to Le Mans. I remember the drivers parade, I’ve never seen so many people, and so knowledgeable, especially all the Brits who come to cheer on the drivers. It was incredible. What really impressed me was the atmosphere, the build-up to the race, there’s nothing else like it. I have no regrets about missing out on F1 – now I can fight for race wins, I’m not driving round at the back of the grid, and I’m aware that I’m in one of the most coveted seats in motor racing. So I’m enjoying it while I can.”
Endurance racing is all about teamwork, sharing the car with two other guys, a very different challenge from single seaters.
“Yes, it’s one of the toughest aspects of sports car racing and we all have good days and bad days. If you were to crash in the first hour, then you’ve really let your team-mates down, but what’s important is that you have built up such a strong relationship and you support each other – that’s what makes a really strong team, and it takes time. I love sharing the driving with friends, there’s so much camaraderie, but, yes, it does put you under a bit of pressure.”
Stepping up to replace nine-time Le Mans winner Tom Kristensen must have its expectations, there being no harder act to follow…
“Yeah, of course, he’s one of the drivers I really respect and look up to, as is Allan McNish. The way they work is hugely impressive, and I always loved watching Allan in the car, the way he started races, he was like a pit bull, attacking right from the start. Between them, I think people like Tom and Allan changed sports car racing. It was always seen as looking after the car, looking after the tyres, but now it’s flat out, more aggressive, and drivers like Tom, Allan, [Rinaldo] Capello and [Emanuele] Pirro were at the beginning of that. Of course you look back at what Jacky Ickx achieved, and that was incredible, but it’s different now.”
So is endurance racing really now a sprint from start to finish?
“Very much so. It really is flat out. You’re pushing every lap to get the maximum out of the tyres and the car and this is the biggest change over the years. The competition is so fierce, you can’t afford to lose half a second here, half a second there, and if you don’t get the maximum out of the car then you know your team-mates will. We do compare ourselves, we are aware where we’re a tenth or two quicker or slower, and the races come right down to the wire these days. At the same time you have to balance this with the risk; there’s no point taking huge risks at the start of a 24-hour race, there’s a long way to go. First you need reliability, second you’ve got to stay out of trouble and third you need performance – without those it doesn’t matter how quick you are.”
Audi keep on winning, even when the Porsches are faster outright. How do you achieve this consistency?
“Audi is such a great team. Winning isn’t just about the car or the drivers, it’s about teamwork, the mechanics, the engineers, and Audi just know how to win. Often they haven’t had the quickest car but it’s about making the right calls at the right time, the strategy, and they just don’t know how to give up.
Yes, the Porsche looks very fast in a straight line, but we have more downforce in the corners. The engineers have produced a great car this year and pure lap time is never going to win Le Mans. It’s about strategy, tyre degradation, fuel consumption, all those things.”
Impressive, but is the technology of the LMP1 car just too complex for the fans who come to the races?
“I don’t see that as a negative. It’s what sports car racing is about: driving technology forward, being relevant to road cars of the future – and it’s producing some great racing. There is a lot asked of the driver now, engineers asking you to change brake balance or the anti-slip control – there’s lots of things we can do in the car to make it more drivable. It becomes automatic and you can’t afford to switch off, not even for a millisecond, there’s so much happening. I love the night driving, that feeling of being at one with the car, just you, the car and the track. Coming out of the night into the dawn, pushing as hard as you can, on the absolute limit in every braking zone, the lights from other cars in front, and behind, it’s a wonderful experience, hard to put into words.”
Oliver shares the #8 Audi with Lucas di Grassi and Loïc Duval in what looks like being the most closely fought Le Mans for many years. Can they win it? Yes. But there’s a long, long way to go…