Here in Britain, a wave of patriotic indignation greeted the news that Justin Wilson had lost his seat in the budget-challenged Jaguar F1 team. This, said the gossip, was in order to admit some unknown Austrian youth with an earring, who was buying his drive for many millions of dollars. Ultimate proof, surely, that Fl is all about money, and nothing else.
One lounge bar cynic told me he had it on good authority that Justin lost his drive not only because of his rival’s bulging pockets, but also because Ford’s marketing men – despite that earring – liked the image that went with the young man’s name, which was apparently Christian Clean.
In fact he is called Christian Klien. And, far from being an unknown youth, he has already been tipped to follow in the tracks of Austria’s two world champions, Jochen Rindt and Niki Lauda. He is still only 20 years old, although he will have had his 21st birthday before Melbourne. He was winning kart titles at 13, and racing in Formula BMW at 16. Having scooped the German Formula Renault Championship in 2002, he had a brilliant rookie season in F3 last year, finishing runner-up in the Euroseries after victories in the Marlboro Masters, and at Le Mans and the Niirburgring. When he had his Jaguar test he had never sat in an Fl car before, yet team boss David Pitchforth praised his calm composure and intelligent feedback.
However, Pitchforth’s somewhat defensive press announcement “our decision to employ him was based on merit, potential and speed” was conspicuous in making no mention of the £6 million Klien is thought to be introducing to the team, courtesy of Austrian energy drink millionaire Dieter Mateschitz. Quite how a red bull will co-ordinate with a leaping jaguar on the cars’ livery has yet to be revealed.
Twelve months earlier, the talent of the young Brazilian Antonio Pizzonia had been described by Jaguar in equally glowing terms, yet he was unceremoniously fired mid-season. Now it seems that Justin Wilson’s grand prix career is finished, just 10 months after it began with so much optimism. You’ll remember that this time last year his manager, ex-F1 racer Jonathan Palmer, masterminded a flotation which allowed the public to subscribe for shares in Justin Wilson plc, and thus raise enough money to get Justin his seat at Minardi. Even Fernando Alonso found it hard to shine as a rookie when he was at Minardi in 2001, but from the first race Wilson gave a doughty account of himself, showing that the speed, courage and intelligent racecraft which made him Britain’s first Formula 3000 champion were still in place. In his Fl debut in Melbourne he took advantage of a scrappy start to hustle his uncompetitive mount from 19th on the grid to ninth by lap two. Four months later, when Pizzonia was shown the door after the British GP, Jaguar signed Justin as his replacement, and his career seemed to be on its way.
Usually a driver learns to work with a new team in winter testing, rather than during the frantic hurly-burly of a tough season. Justin arrived at Hockenheim for the German Grand Prix to confront not just a new car, but also a whole new set of working relationships. (While all this was going on the team’s No 1 driver, the gritty, hardworking Australian Mark Webber, continued to show he is a far better, more intelligent racing driver than most had given him credit for.) As for Justin, he had just five races for Jaguar. The first three ended in mechanical failure; the fourth, at Indianapolis, earned him his first and perhaps his only championship point Now it’s hard to see where his career will go from here.
Hungarian Zsolt Baumgartner failed to set the track alight on either of his rent-a-drives for Jordan last year and, incidentally, has apparently never won a race in any formula. But he has been signed to drive this year for Minardi rather than Dutchman Jos Verstappen, who’d hoped to get the seat. It seems Baumgartner’s cash some of it from the Hungarian government came through, and Verstappen’s didn’t.
Of course, buying your way into Fl is nothing new. Back when life was simpler, a typical grand prix would have a grid of two halves. The first was composed of the works teams, most of whose drivers were being paid for their efforts (but often not very much, certainly by today’s standards). The other would be the privateers, men wealthy enough to buy an F1 car and tug it around Europe just for the fun of it. Sometimes a private entrant would run a good enough operation, and hire a good enough driver, to be a player among the works teams – Rob Walker was the supreme example of this. But as long as Maserati, for one, could balance its books by offering examples of the simple, reliable 250F for sale, there would be characters who could persuade enough start money out of race organisers around Europe to have a fun season.
Typical of these was burly Bristolian garage owner Horace Gould, whose bulk, and fiery style, earned him the affectionate title ‘Gonzalez of the West’. He carried his 250F around Europe in an old bus, and gave a good account of himself in non-championship races such as the Naples GP: he was second there in 1956, and in 1957 he was fourth behind the works Ferraris of Hawthorn, Collins and Musso. He started in 13 championship rounds between 1954 and 1958, by which time the Maserati was definitely long in the tooth, and scored two championship points on one great day at
Silverstone in 1956 finishing ahead of similar private Maseratis of Villoresi, Perdisa and Godia. He had many enthusiastic counterparts, from Italy to South America. Who now remembers Ottorino Volonterio, or Jorge Daponte, or Prince Gaetano Starrabba and his Maserati-powered Lotus 18?
By the 1970s the rising costs of F 1 encouraged several teams to hire out third and fourth cars to youngsters whose bank balance was obvious even if their talent wasn’t. BRM, in its Louis Stanley era, was one of the first teams to exploit this idea. Sometimes the arrangement was quite open and unashamed; at other times there was some token PR-speak to imply that the driver had earned his seat because the team were convinced he was a future world champion. In Montreal, Eatons is the Canadian equivalent of Selfridges, and a son of the family, a long-haired lad called George Eaton, did 13 grands prix for BRM between 1969 and 1971. He retired seven times, failed to qualify twice, and never finished higher than tenth. From 1970 to 1972 BRM ran 16 drivers: Rodriguez and Siffert of course, and Oliver, Beltoise, Ganley and Gethin, but also Helmut Marko, Vic Elford, John Cannon, Bill Brack, Vern Schuppan, Reine Wisell, Brian Redman, Peter Westbury and Alex Soler-Roig. Some of these fell into the Justin Wilson category: newcomers with potential who got their first taste of Fl from BRM because they didn’t cost much, or anything. Others, of course, simply bought their drives.
Spaniard Soler-Roig also popped up at March and also at Lotus, for Colin Chapman was always happy to rent cars to local heroes. Between 1964 and 1968, Moises Solana usually drove a works Lotus in the Mexican GP. He would also sell cars to wealthy young hopefuls: another Mexican, Hector Rebaque, ran his own race team in 1978-79, fielding year-old Lotuses. Then, after a disastrous attempt to commission his own Fl chassis, Hector took his money to Brabham. Bernie’s boys were concentrating their efforts on winning the championship with Nelson Piquet, and were very happy to have a No2 who quietly did his best and didn’t complain.
Once Fl teams had become strictly two-car affairs, some team bosses preferred to put all their budget behind getting a top Nol, and treat the No2 seat as anything between a necessary evil and a welcome profit centre. Understandably, Minardi cannot afford to run any driver who doesn’t bring money into the team, and Jordan, given the choice between a decent driver with money and a decent driver without, is always going to take the former. It’s the way of the world.
None of which will be much consolation to Justin Wilson. He has already had plenty of opportunity to learn fortitude after he won the Formula 3000 Championship in 2001 he had a quiet year before his Minardi break in 2003 and there is talk of a ChampCar drive, which should suit his quiet courage and opportunistic aggression. As for Mr Klien, he may prove to be the find of 2004, and the leaping jaguar and the red bull may well learn to make sweet music together. In about seven weeks’ time, in Melbourne, we’ll start to find out CI