Newmarket racer Oliver Jarvis looking to deliver Mazda Motorsport the perfect final season in IMSA Weathertech Championship in the United States
If it does not happen on our doorstep, then we can become a bit oblivious to the reach and appeal of sports or competitions to which we are not familiar.
Household names in the UK can come to mean very little to those on other shores and vice versa.
You can highlight no end of people, but a good example may be Steph Curry.
He is the Golden State Warriors basketball player who is described as one of the greatest shooters in NBA history, and is instantly recognisable in the US, but would probably not register to the majority of sports lovers in this country. It means that we struggle to get a sense of perspective of the scale and impact.
Then you have someone like Newmarket-based Oliver Jarvis.
An elite driver who put his stamp on many races and series in which British motorsport fans are familiar in this country, such as the Le Mans 24 Hours and the FIA World Endurance Championships. He was also the winner of the McLaren Autosport Young Driver of the Year award in 2005.
From a regular face on the circuit, in 2017 the 37-year-old Burwell-born racer appeared to drive off into the sunset. However, that is far from the case as instead he was building a reputation in the IMSA Weathertech Championship in the United States with Mazda Motorsport.
It is a growing competition, which for the recent Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona had a combined Saturday/Sunday coverage on NBC Sports average audience of nearly 1.1m viewers – not bad for a 24-hour race.
“They are getting a really big fanbase and the TV audience is growing year on year,” says Jarvis. “They’ve just had a fantastic Daytona in terms of viewing figures, and last year also the best viewing figures they’ve had.
“It’s got a big fanbase in the US. It’s certainly well known within the motorsport community in Europe, but it’s probably not something that is known to the outside community here unless you are a motorsport fan.
“But in a weird way that works really well for me. I’m quite a private person when I’m at home – I like to keep to my close group of friends and family. To be able to go abroad to the US and do my job, it works perfectly.
“I was very fortunate to be able to head out to the US. It is so competitive and seats are hard to come by, so to get the opportunity was amazing and to still be here four seasons later is a real privilege.”
It is an arrangement that has been in place for Jarvis since 2017.
He had raced in the US on a number of occasions before, winning the 12 Hours of Sebring in the DPi in 2013, and on a couple of other occasions.
At the time of the permanent switch to IMSA, Jarvis was racing with Audi and the team was being run by Team Joest, who took over running the Mazda team in North America as Joest Racing. Mazda moved to Multimatic Motorsports in March 2020.
The DPi category is the Daytona Prototype international class, and the racing is all about the show, something on which Jarvis thrives.
“A lot of the regulations are different, whereby if there is an incident on track, they will put a safety car out and there are certain regulations whereby you’re allowed to get a wave-by so if you’re a lap down, you can get the lap back,” he explains.
“What generally happens with multi-class racing and the incidents, you often have a safety car at some point so you are constantly getting bunched up which means even if you are the quickest car on track, generally it always comes down to a last 30-minute sprint to the flag, however long the race is.
“We’ve just done Daytona 24 Hours and the top three cars after 24 hours were separated by five seconds.”
The vehicles for the sports car racing series – IMSA was a result of a merger between two existing North American series, the American Le Mans Series and Rolex Sports Car Series – are almost identical to their WEC and European equivalents.
There are also very few differences between the driving styles and techniques but, because of the regulations, there are more head-to-head battles in IMSA. It therefore requires greater mental concentration.
“I find it more challenging, certainly,” says Jarvis.
“In the WEC, if you are the quickest car on track, as long as you don’t have any problems then you are able to pull away and the chances are whether it be in Le Mans or in some of the longer races around the world, you will quite happily have a comfortable gap at the end of the race.
“If there is an incident on track then they pull out what’s called a virtual safety car where you all drive round at 80kph and you maintain position.
“Whereas in the US, they put out a safety car and if you had a 30-second gap, all of a sudden with 20 minutes to go you’ve got everybody right behind you.
“It makes for fascinating racing. It’s definitely more challenging on the drivers because it doesn’t matter how big the gap is, quite often at the end you are going to be going head to head for the win.”
Of course being based in the UK – Jarvis lives in Newmarket – and racing in the US does require some logistical planning.
In the past, he has flown out for a day’s testing, departing on a Tuesday and returning on the Wednesday night.
The jetlag has an effect but, going out to the States, Jarvis admits that it works in his favour as he can get so much done before everyone else is up. As for returning home: “When I come back, the greatest anti-jet lag thing is children because I don’t have the option. They quickly get me back in my routine!”
That has changed in recent times because of the pandemic.
Jarvis is able to travel on an elite sports person exemption, but has had to spend longer periods on the other side of the Pond.
Flying does tend to pose a problem, though, as there are fewer people on the planes.
“I actually find it’s been easier so far because we had the right clearance and the right documentation, it’s easier in the sense that the flights are always available,” says Jarvis.
“The difficulty is that they do tend to get cancelled from time to time. The long-haul flights to the US are virtually empty so it’s quite a nice experience to travel on a quiet flight.
“It’s a very different experience if you have to travel internally in the US as they are still reasonably busy so I try to avoid that as much as possible.
“But generally, back and forth to the UK, I have had no issues so far. We’re so cautious because not only do we have to stay fit and healthy, you just don’t want to take any unnecessary risks and to catch it while everybody is making so many sacrifices would just be very stupid of us.”
There are high hopes for the team this season, for what will be their last campaign after Mazda announced that it will not be continuing its participation in IMSA beyond 2021.
They are racing just one car this season, with Jarvis joining forces with fellow Brit Harry Tincknell.
“Before, we were team-mates but we were also going head to head and trying to beat each other,” says Jarvis. “Harry is an exceptionally quick driver, and another UK-based driver so we’re very fortunate. For Mazda North America to put two Brits together I think is a big deal but obviously they felt that both Harry and myself could do the job.
“We’re in a privileged position and, to be honest, we’re trying to go for the championship this year. We’ve both had the speed and opportunity in previous seasons, but it hasn’t quite happened, whether it be for reliability or bad fortune.
“This year, we’re hoping to put it all together and really fight for that title.”
Fortune will play its part, of course. For example, in the last race of last year, Jarvis and Tristan Nunez led the Sebring 12 Hours with 25 minutes remaining but, out of nowhere, they suffered a puncture.
“You can’t avoid stuff like that, but as long as a little bit of luck is on our side I certainly think we’ve got the speed and the team behind us to do it,” says Jarvis. “Mazda have produced an amazing car, together with Multimatic. It’s probably a smaller motorsport programme then say the likes of Audi or Porsche over here in Europe, but it’s got a very family friendly feel to it so we’re a very close-knit group.”
It was a promising start to the season, with third place in Daytona, followed up by the weekend's second place at the Twelve Hours of Sebring to see them lead the prestigious IMSA Michelin Endurance Cup, which runs across the four marquee races in the calendar. Next up is the Acura Sports Car Challenge at Mid-Ohio on May 14-16.
And what a way it would be for Mazda Motorsports to go out of IMSA by being crowned champions, which would surely cement Jarvis’ standing on both sides of the Atlantic.
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