Justin Wilson’s signing for Minardi has finally brought into F1 a young British driver whose talent and speed were in little doubt, even before he dominated Formula 3000 in 2001. Having scratched around for a decent drive ever since he won the F3000 championship, he is now bringing more than £2 million of sponsorship to Paul Stoddart’s little team, and will himself be driving virtually for nothing. But this is no paid-for seat: Justin has won the drive on merit.
His career thus far has followed the typical pattern for today’s rising stars. He started karting seriously when he was eight, and was racing cars as soon as the licensing rules allowed: in fact, he was the first 16-year-old to win a single-seater race. At 19, he was in Formula Palmer Audi, winning the championship in this highly competitive category, and also impressing Jonathan Palmer sufficiently to gain him as a manager. During three tough seasons in Formula 3000 he matured from a shy, lanky youth into a brave, determined and intelligent racer, and became the first Briton to win the title which features on the CVs of Juan Pablo Montoya, Nick Heidfeld and Olivier Panis, but which eluded the likes of David Coulthard, HeinzHarald Frentzen, Eddie Irvine, Mark Webber and Antonio Pizzonia. What is not typical about Justin Wilson is that he is 6ft 3in tall. Today’s Formula One cars are, of course, built as small as they can be within the regulations: aerodynamic efficiency, rather than driver comfort, is the criterion. And F1 drivers are, by and large, small men. The weight and ballast rules take the driver’s weight into account, so in theory a heavy driver is on equal terms with a light one; but nothing can be done about a driver’s height: Heidfeld is 5ft 4in, Montoya 5ft 6in, and the towering Michael Schumacher a mere 5ft 8.5in. F1’s tallest are Coulthard and Button at 5ft 11in and Webber at 6ft.
When Minardi chief Paul Stoddard decided to stand down the lacklustre Alex Yoong last August, he immediately thought of Wilson as his replacement. He flew Justin to the Minardi factory at Faenza, and they tried everything to cram him into a car: but his knees were jammed immovably against the top of the cockpit. Stoddart, seeing his bitter disappointment, vowed to make the 2003 Minardi longer, with a lower seat. And now, having found the finance to do the deal, Wilson will be on the grid in Melbourne.
But it is doing Justin no injustice to say that he will almost certainly be towards the back of it. Minardi will have customer Cosworth engines this season, lighter, higher-revving and 70bhp more powerful than last year’s Asiatech; but they will continue to be minnows on a minnow budget at a time when, despite all those much-vaunted but so far fruitless efforts by FIA president Max Mosley, F1 is still not yet getting any cheaper. And that’s Wilson’s gamble: he is staking his young career on being able to impress in a car that will only put him in the limelight if a lot of the others drop out.
The alternative must have been tempting: top CART team Newman-Haas was keen to have him, and Justin could undoubtedly have become rich and famous in North America, as Dario Franchitti and others have done. (Of course, both Montoya and Villeneuve used winning the CART championship as a route to F1 – but both had done it by the time they were 24, which is Justin’s age now.)
But Justin obviously subscribes to the racing philosophy of Piercarlo Ghinzhani, whose oft-quoted motto was: ‘Better to be at the back of F1 than not in F1 at all’. Piercarlo, in case you’ve forgotten, spent most of his F1 career with the shoestring Osella team. He was entered for 111 grands prix during the 1980s, failed to qualify for 31, and retired from another 57. Only once did he finish in the points, in Dallas in 1984, when he came home fifth, two laps down. He must have had some ability, because he hung on in F1 for eight seasons; but he was never really able to show it.
Of course, several Minardi drivers have done rather better than that. Four Faenza graduates are now racing for bigger teams: Jarno Trulli and Fernando Alonso are with Renault, Giancarlo Fisichella is at Jordan and Mark Webber has moved to Jaguar, while Luca Badoer has a steady job as Ferrari test driver. Nevertheless, F1’s recent history is littered with young hopefuls whose careers were effectively destroyed by a bad rookie season with a slow team.
Julian Bailey shone in Formula 3000, and when Tyrrell offered him an F1 seat in 1988, great things were expected. But the Tyrrell 017 was not a good car, and the whole season was a desert of retirements and non-qualifications. It took the determined Bailey two years to clamber back on the F1 bandwagon, having scraped together the backing for a deal with Lotus in 1991. The only time he qualified the 102B-Judd, he scored a point, but after four races he was dropped in favour of Johnny Herbert.
Irishman Tommy Byrne was so quick as a young F3 hotshoe that he was offered a seat in Teddy Yip’s Theodore F1 outfit, and took time off from winning the 1982 F3 title to do the last five GPs of the season. Three failures to qualify and two spins into retirement impressed no-one, and his F1 career was over almost before it had started.
The following year another rapid Irishman, Kenny Acheson, threw in his lot with John Macdonald’s RAM team, but out of 10 races he qualified three times and retired twice before moving to a more successful career in sportscar racing.
Sometimes it is the driver that holds a shaky team together. David Brabham, youngest and most talented of Sir Jack’s three sons, is the only one to have had a serious crack at F1 — although Gary dabbled fleetingly with the disastrous Life, which never qualified for a race. David had a tough F1 baptism in 1990 with the unsuccessful Middlebridge-owned team that carried his family name, but returned in 1994 with Nick Wirth’s ambitious Simtek effort.
He earned the respect of the whole F1 circus that year, doing much to remotivate his colleagues after teammate Roland Ratzenberger was killed in practice at Imola: he insisted they continued with the weekend, only to crash himself in the race when his steering failed. At Monaco just two weeks later, the suspension broke, at Magny Cours it was the gearbox, at Hockenheim the clutch, at Spa a wheel fell off after a pitstop, at Monza the brakes went. David continued to drive his heart out, but at the end of the season he read the signs and took a BMW touring car drive. Simtek staggered on for another half-season before the funds finally dried up.
All these drivers had real talent that was never fully realised. There have been others, particularly in the days when Formula One wasn’t the closed shop it is now, who were able to find impoverished teams that were only too happy to sell them a drive, and not ask too many questions about their ability. The Belgian Philippe Adams persuaded his brother to sell his business — an old people’s home — so that he could take a seat at Lotus in their final shaky season for half a million US dollars. That bought him two races: his home GP at Spa, when he spun off, and Estoril, where he kept going to finish last, four laps behind. Then he went back to touring cars.
Jean-Denis Deletraz, Beppe Gabbiani and Gregor Foitek all fell into the category unkindly termed ‘Rent-a-Plodder’ by the cynical mechanics. Foitek spent the whole 1989 season with EuroBrun without qualifying once. The following year the 30-year-old Italian Claudio Langes, also with EuroBrun, notched up an unenviable record that makes him statistically the least successful F1 driver: 14 times he failed to even pre-qualify, and he never started a race.
An unspecified portion of the £2m Justin Wilson is bringing to Minardi has been raised by selling shares in his future earnings. That may not be so silly: if you’d been able to buy 10 per cent of Michael Schumacher in 1990 for £200,000, you’d now be very rich.
World champions have needed similar help early on. Damon Hill borrowed a six-figure sum from a family friend when his career seemed to be becalmed, and was no doubt able to repay it a few years later with good interest. And, most famously, Niki Lauda started in F1 with ‘sponsorship’ from an Austrian bank: in fact it was just a very hairy loan, and it did not get repaid until he joined Ferrari.
It may well be that Justin’s backers will be soon be able to start feeling good about their investment. At Melbourne, he will have Webber’s wondrous fifth place for Minardi last year to aim for — and Webber is someone he consistently beat in F3000. With the new championship points system earning stretching down to eighth place, let’s hope it won’t be too long before Britain’s newest F1 driver opens his score.