There is little doubt the start of the 2015 FIA World Endurance Championship has proved a stern test for Audi Sport Team Joest racer Oliver Jarvis.
Yet as Jarvis approaches the 83rd 24 Heures du Mans, the Englishman reveals that rather than be disheartened with early season form, he is excited for the challenge ahead.
Recently, TheMotorsportArchive.com caught up with Jarvis to hear his thoughts on Le Mans, teammates and finding his path.
“I’m now living a dream,” states an enthusiastic Oliver Jarvis. By the time we get to talk, the Englishman may be on his way to French shores, but the thrill in his voice rings through as clear as day.
There were times where it seemed the almost-nomadic 31-year-old would struggle to settle into a position worthy of his talents.
Finishing runner-up in the British Formula 3 Series in 2006 would take the Cambridgeshire all the way to Japan, with his efforts eventually culminating in victory at the prestigious Macau Grand Prix at the tail end of the following year.
Yet, like for so many drivers, the Formula One train failed to pick up on the affable Jarvis and with his first major success in his pocket, the former Carlin and TOM’s racer was drafted back to Europe by Audi for a shoot-out with what would become a DTM race seat with Team Phoenix.
It would be the beginning of a lengthy relationship with the German marque – a relationship that has only blossomed further in the time since. “I moved into DTM and had two fantastic years […] and then was promoted to the new car,” Jarvis recalls.
Although Jarvis enjoyed a relatively positive experience in DTM – taking three podiums overall – his sights were higher still. Having tasted the experience of Le Mans for the first time in 2010 with Kolles Racing’s LMP1 effort (alongside Christijan Albers and the late Christian Bakkerud), Jarvis wanted more.
Driving a one-off entry for Audi Sport North America, he returned to the top class in endurance racing in 2012 and was promoted to the Audi factory squad a year later – albeit only the rounds at Spa-Francorchamps and Le Mans, as Jarvis explains further. “For the first couple of years, I was involved purely with Le Mans itself and Spa for the build-up. Then [I] had an opportunity to move across to the LMP squad and I jumped at the opportunity.”
The chance came when the legendary Tom Kristensen decided to hang up his helmet at the end of 2014, creating a vacuum in the #8 Audi entry. “Late on last year, I had a meeting with Dr [Wolfgang] Ullrich [Head of Audi Motorsport] and became aware that the seat to replace To [Kristensen] was available. I put my case forward and fortunately they felt it was the right decision to promote me.”
Admittedly, the start of the season has not been a perfect one for Jarvis. Despite the Audi R18 e-tron Quattro being down on top speed of its rivals at Porsche, the German manufacturer has taken both of the first two races in this year’s World Endurance Championship; however Jarvis and his teammates – Loïc Duval and Lucas di Grassi – were not on the podium for either.
Indeed finishing four laps down at Silverstone and eight adrift at Spa-Francorchamps was probably not exactly the start Jarvis had in mind for his LMP1 career with Audi Sport Team Joest. An early crash in the British round and electrical issues in Belgium humbled the #8 Audi and left trio well adrift in the Drivers’ Championship and while Jarvis remains positive, he is keenly aware of just how important this weekend is at La Sarthe – especially as the big race counts as double points for the championship. “[Le Mans] is hugely important – not just as a single race, but also in terms of the championship; it requires a different approach.
“Before the world championship, it was all about winning this big race, but now you also have to take on board that it can also be so valuable for the championship. There’s a lot to play for and it has a big impact on who wins the championship at the end of the year.”
That teammates André Lotterer, Benoit Tréluyer and Marcel Fässler have won both races in the #7 Audi only served to underline the potential lost in the opening pair of six-hour enduros.
Changing the Guard
With a history of competing in categories such as Super GT, DTM, A1GP and the now defunct GT1 World Championship, Jarvis is finally serving his first full season with Audi, but with the shadow of Kristensen still apparent, there are big shoes to fill in the #8 machine. “I can’t wait,” beamed Jarvis. “I’m just really looking forward to getting into the car. I think we have got a great car, but only time will if that is enough to recapture Le Mans and go on to reclaim the world championship.”
Roles have changed drastically within the Audi squad in recent years. Gone are Kristensen aided by cohorts Allan McNish and Dindo Capello, all of whom retired from LMP1 in steps between 2012 and 2014. Meanwhile Jarvis, Duval and di Grassi have stepped up, alongside the now established Lotterer/Tréluyer/Fässler party in the #7 machine. Waiting in the wings is the third Audi are Filipe Albuquerque, Marco Bonanomi and René Rast…
Such has been the change, Jarvis feels this is a pivotal moment for both he and the Audi Sport Joest team. “I really believe now if you look at the driver line-up, there are a couple in their mid-to-late 30s, but you could see them continue for another ten years, whereas in the last five years, there has been discussion about who is going to retire and they never did,” says Jarvis, before adding with a chuckle “…unfortunately for us younger drivers.”
He has hit a point in his assessment of the current Audi line-up. Of the leading two entries for Audi in LMP1, the average age across the six drivers has dropped to 33 years – down from 39 years in 2012. There is plenty of speed in the sextet – with the added bonus of maturity and experience – however he was also keen to point out that age is by no means a barrier to speed or aggression, as anyone who had witnessed McNish in his later years can contest.
But times have changed and as Formula One has all but closes doors to those without government support, long held brand partnerships or manufacturer backing, endurance racing has become a more attractive proposition for those seeking to become top level professional racing drivers.
Jarvis believes now more than ever that sportscars has become a viable alternative to Formula One for those earlier in their racing careers and it is a factor that is also serving to lower the median driver age in endurance racing, although a now laughing Jarvis also notes that ‘Capello had ten years in a row when he was going to retire.’
The time for change was perfect though. With new LMP1 regulations debuting last year, the game at the top level of endurance racing was changing too. Despite claiming another Le Mans 24 Hour race win last year – as well as a win in the rain-affected Six Hours of COTA – Audi did not have a stellar time in the category’s other six-hour events. Although the Lotterer/Fässler/Tréluyer entry ended the season as championship runners-up, they were a long way adrift of eventual title holders of Toyota’s Anthony Davidson and Sebastien Buemi.
Keen to avoid a repeat of the 2014 hic-cough, Audi needed to make a step-up and have moved from the category’s 2mJ class to the 4mJ class – it is a move that has proved effective for the manufacturer so far. “At the end of every year, the team work extremely hard to make a step forward and this year, the engineers were coming up with some quite impressive figures.”
Silverstone showcased the stark differences between the Audi and Porsche LMP1 machines. With its huge downforce numbers, the R18 was stunning around the Northamptonshire sweeps, yet Porsche’s prowess down the Hangar and Wellington Straights – thanks in part to their placement in the 8mJ class – astounded even the most ardent of Audi supporters. Come the Spa 6 Hours, a new “low downforce” aero package allowed the #7 Audi beat the #18 Porsche in a straight fight, albeit only by 13 seconds.
Yet Le Mans is an animal all its own and Jarvis knows Audi cannot afford to relax for a moment, as performance takes a temporary backseat to reliability. “The number one thing at Le Mans is reliability; number two is to stay out of trouble and number three is performance – if you don’t have number one or number two, your performance has very little effect.
“We would hope from what we have seen at past races that Audi has fantastic reliability and drivers who can stay out of trouble and keep the car on track, because when you are pushing so hard for each tenth-of-a-second, it is possible to make mistakes. There are also factors that are out of your control, especially with many drivers on track and many who are less experienced, so you do have to be cautious, but you also have to have some luck.”
Like Porsche – but less so Toyota – Audi improved drastically and were having been running significantly quicker than last year; however the team based in Ingolstadt is still looking closely over its shoulders.
Pre-season comments of a three second gain at the Prologue in Paul Ricard seemed almost too good to be true, leading to claims that Audi and Porsche were ‘running light on fuel’, but the opening pair of contests have proved otherwise. The at Le Mans pole lap – a 3’16.8s; set by Porsche’s Neel Jani at Le Mans this week – is already six seconds quicker than the pole from two years ago.
The two leading LMP1 teams have also taken chunks out of their pace from last year, much to the astonishment of Jarvis and others. “You listen to it and think ‘3 seconds [improvement]; that sounds like a hell of a lot’ and what’s fascinating is what they estimated is what we achieved in Paul Ricard, so we are where we feel we should be. The big question mark was where our competitors are at.”
In the cockpit however, the changes have not been quite so drastic. “The way you drive the car is very similar, because it is the same concept, but you do feel that extra boost of power,” comments Jarvis. “To achieve the 4mJ of power, you have to harvest more energy or retrieve more energy, so it does have an influence during the braking phase, but the driver technique required is almost identical to last year.”
There is little doubt that the WEC has enjoyed an increased profile in recent years and with Nissan (finally) joining the fray from Le Mans onward, the manufacturer fight may intensify further.
For fans, this can only be a good thing. For competitors like Jarvis, it is gold and it would only serve to make victory at La Sarthe taste just that bit better. “This is the big one – we want to win it. To come away with a podium would be satisfactory, but we wouldn’t be jumping for joy with a 2nd or 3rd. Going into the race, from what we have seen so far, we are going in to win it. We say that about every race, but Le Mans is the big one – it can change your year and even your whole career.”
Jarvis starts this weekend’s Le Mans 24 Hour Race from 4th place.