Essex-born Jackie Oliver, a Goodwood regular since his return to competition in historic circles in the late-1990s, was one of the linchpins of Porsche’s long-distance racing success during the final year of the Group 5 period.
With immaculate pedigree, having won the Sebring 12 Hours and Le Mans 24 Hours in a JW Automotive-run Ford GT40 with Jacky Ickx in 1969, he joined the factory German squad, masterminded by JWA, for 1971, sharing its Gulf-liveried 917K with Pedro Rodriguez. The pair went on to win the Daytona 24 Hours and the 1,000km races at Monza and Spa. Unusually, he also raced Ferrari’s 512S – just once, at Brands Hatch in 1970.
Oliver dovetailed sportscar racing with Formula 1 outings for Lotus, BRM, McLaren and Shadow, as well as a successful attack on the US Can-Am series, making him one of our most versatile racers. And that was all before he went on to help set up the Arrows Grand Prix team in 1978 and run it until the mid-1990s.
Here the great man looks back on his time racing two of the world’s most iconic racers. ‘Before I first drove the 917, I’d heard lots of horror stories about the car from Vic Elford,’ he says. ‘And the early cars did have roll centre and aerodynamic deficiencies which made them quite lively, especially at the back. I never experienced those evils because by the time I drove it John Wyer and John Horsman had them sorted for the Gulf team.
‘The long-tail car at Le Mans was particularly stable, and they were great at somewhere like Spa with long, fast corners. So they did have a bad reputation early on, but they became iconic sports cars like the GT40 and the 512 Ferrari. It was a great era in sports car racing, very different from today, and people do like to look back and enjoy memories of a car like the 917.
‘The flat-12 engine, low down in the chassis, produced very similar power curves to a Can-Am car, with tremendous horsepower, but the Porsche was a more subtle car than the early Can-Am cars, which were quite unsophisticated. The speeds were very high – 250mph down the Mulsanne at Le Mans in the long-tail car, flat through the kink, and that was unheard of at the time. The 917 was just an outstanding car and that’s why it was so successful, giving Porsche their first win at Le Mans.
‘People ask about fear in those cars; there were a lot of high-speed accidents, but if you thought about that when you closed the door then it’s time to stop. When you’re succeeding, and winning races, then fear and exhilaration are very good bedfellows.
‘Fans see the 917 as something very special, but when you were racing them in period it didn’t feel like that – for a driver it’s just one of those memories. Winning at Le Mans is not a top favourite memory for me, because it’s a manufacturers race – you couldn’t drive flat out all the way like they do now, and you share with other drivers which doesn’t always suit a selfish individual like a race driver. Something like a Formula 2 car round the Nordschleife is probably a better, more satisfying memory.’
The 74th Members’ Meeting will feature daily demonstrations of a staggering horde of Group 5 sports-racers from a highly evocative period of the International Championship of Makes – the World Sportscar Championship by any other name. The years 1969-1971 produced incredible battles between the fastest and most beautiful, purpose-built endurance weapons ever seen, including Porsche’s flat-12 917, Ferrari’s V12 512S – and later 512M – and British brawn in the shape of the V8-engined Lola T70 Mk3B.
Lead image courtesy of LAT, interview by Rob Widdows.