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Bruno Junqueira once faced Jenson Button in a Williams F1 shoot-out. Button got the nod – just – at the dawn of a fruitful career; Junqueira never would grace a GP grid, but harbours absolutely no regrets

We meet at Brands Hatch, where Bruno Junqueira is testing a Chevrolet SS prior to a run in the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series – symbolic of the gun-for-hire role that has become his motif. He’s at the dawn of his fifth decade, but still looks as trim as he did 17 years ago, when he split his time between challenging for the FIA Formula 3000 title and testing for Williams. He’d been within arm’s reach of F1’s hem, and yet…

“Even to be in that position was quite something,” he says. “I started racing when I was 10 and won the Brazilian karting championship three times. Despite my success, though, it was very difficult to think about making the transition to cars because we didn’t have much money.

“I was lucky, though, because I managed to find a bit of sponsorship that enabled me to do a few races, then [national fuel giant] Petrobras started a scheme to help young drivers and picked me to compete in the SudAm F3 Championship.”

He won that in 1997 and Petrobras put him on a plane to Europe, to race in FIA F3000. Junqueira proved to be a consistent front-runner, winning at Hockenheim in 1999 and earning a reserve role with Williams along the way. “I was invited to test alongside Darren Manning and others at Jerez,” he says. “It wasn’t just driving – we had to do written assessments, too, a bit like being at school, but they chose me and I became reserve alongside Ralf Schumacher and Alex Zanardi. When they fired Alex at the end of the season I realised there might be an opportunity, but they called and said they wanted to run me against a promising British driver – and that was Jenson.

“The test was hard, because the team was just starting a relationship with BMW, the engine was very new and there were reliability problems. We spent a few days at Jerez, but every few laps the engine kept blowing. Once we began running the team didn’t let us know about any lap times – somebody told me I was a tenth quicker, but I’ve no idea whether that’s true. I think what swung it was Jenson’s potential – I was 23 and he was 20, which at the time was considered incredibly young for F1 but might now be considered too old! Frank Williams and Patrick Head were very proudly British, which I respected, and Jenson was clearly very good, so he got the ride.

“ONE THING I’ve learned in my life, and it has probably been my best quality as a driver, is never to give up and to work really hard for what you want. I had real perseverance and a strong will to win, things that I think helped me more than any natural talent. In 2000 I was still very close to Williams, as test driver – I did more than 30 days that year – and was honestly very happy. Jenson was a nice guy, a great driver and looked a better prospect than Ralf. Even then I felt he deserved the seat. We both did! I never thought, ‘Shit, they picked him instead of me’ – and besides, I thought there might be a chance that they’d drop Ralf…”

Junqueira scooped the FIA F3000 title in 2000, winning four of the 10 races. “He was very good that season,” says Paul Jackson, principal of the DBA team that ran him. “He didn’t mope about what he couldn’t have but just focused on the job in hand. Did we think he was F1 material? Absolutely – and I know a few of the Williams engineers would prefer to have taken him over Jenson, too, because they told me as much. There was almost nothing between them in performance terms and they felt Bruno’s greater experience would have been advantageous over a season. He was quick, motivated and worked very hard.”

Junqueira: “I guess the frustration came when I won the championship and still couldn’t secure an F1 drive. I was talking to lots of teams, but nobody could commit and none of the available seats was going to give me a chance to win. Plus, by the late summer I had a Champ Car offer from Chip Ganassi. I carried on talking to F1 teams for another couple of weeks, but none wanted to commit – or if they did it was for a crazy five-year deal that would commence with a season of test duties, so it made sense to go to America. At that time the Champ Car series was still very strong and I would also be paid properly for the first time.”

It seemed logical. Former Williams test driver Juan Pablo Montoya had spent two years in America after winning the 1998 FIA F3000 title and was now poised to make the return trip – ironically replacing Button, who was being loaned to Benetton – after a fruitful stint that netted one Champ Car title and an Indy 500 victory.

“I was hoping to do something similar – see out my initial two-year contract with Ganassi and then return to Europe,” Junqueira says. “Juan’s success created slightly false expectations, because the American media seemed to think I’d be able to ‘do a Montoya’, but you have to bear a few things in mind. One, he’s an unbelievable driver – I reckon I was the most dedicated of that generation, but he was probably the most naturally talented. Two, he jumped in a Ganassi Reynard-Honda, a car that had won the title for the previous three years. After he’d won the title Ganassi switched to a Lola-Toyota and Juan slipped to ninth in the championship – that package was still evolving when I arrived.

“In 2001 the Ford- and Honda-powered teams found a tweak that the Toyotas didn’t have, but I still won a race and took pole at Nazareth, my first oval. I did Indianapolis, too [not a Champ Car event at the time, but a round of the rival IndyCar Series], and went from 26th to fifth, with which I was happy. By the following season the Lola was better and the Toyota was at least as good as the Hondas. I also took pole at Indy, led until the engine blew, scored two wins, lots of podium finishes and finished second in the championship to Cristiano da Matta. While I was in the US Toyota discussed a long-term F1 contract with me – with the possibility of a race seat for 2003… but then Cristiano won the title and got the F1 drive. I think that’s when I accepted that my chance of racing in F1 had gone.”

Between 2002 and 2004, initially with Ganassi and then Newman-Haas Racing, Junqueira recorded six victories and 19 other podium finishes, but ended up second in the championship each time. He made a bright start in 2005 – third at Long Beach and victory at Monterrey giving him an early championship lead – but then came the annual detour to Indianapolis. “I was running strongly, in sixth, when we came up to lap AJ Foyt IV. I remember being clipped as I passed him, knowing I was going to hit the wall… and that’s it. I was quite heavily concussed.”

He also suffered vertebral fractures that sidelined him for the balance of the season.

“Looking back,” he says, “that season might have represented my best chance of taking the title. In 2002 Cristiano was just better than I was, in terms of preparation and everything else. And over the following two seasons I think I put too much pressure on myself, because I wanted to win the title so badly, and ended up overdriving.

“My philosophy changed a lot after my accident. Previously I’d always regarded second place as being first of the losers, but when I came back I’d come to accept that it was a better option than finishing third. My attitude to many things in life changed.”

He returned to Newman-Haas in 2006, taking fifth in the championship, but lost his seat to promising youngster Graham Rahal for 2007, when he switched to perennial backmarker Dale Coyne Racing.

“It was a very small team at the time,” he says. “I think they’d had something like one top-three finish in 20 seasons, but I nearly won a couple of races, scored three podiums and took seventh in the championship, which was quite something. The accident didn’t really seem to affect my driving.”

THE UNIFICATION of American single-seater racing led Coyne to the IndyCar Series in 2008, but most Champ Car refugees took time to adapt to new equipment – and Coyne had fewer resources than most. There were a couple of decent results, but it was a low-key season and by its end there were no longer the funds to keep the Brazilian employed.

“For the next three years I received last-minute offers to do Indy,” he says. “I’d turn up on Bump Day and set a time quick enough to qualify – but on two of those occasions my place on the grid was sold on to somebody else. After that happened in 2011, I decided I’d had enough.” There would be a one-off appearance for Fisher Hartman Racing at Baltimore in 2012, but since 2011 he has concentrated mainly on sports car racing in the United States. There have been a few appearances in the Brazilian Stock Car Championship, and he was offered a full-time ride there for 2012, but with his family settled in Miami – and a deal in place to compete in the American Le Mans Series – he declined.

“If you’d asked me many years ago I’d have said there was no way I’d ever be a sports car driver,” he says, “but now I think I’m one of the nicest. I wish I had me as a team-mate! I’m usually paired with a gentleman driver and really enjoy helping them. I’ve grown to love the sports car environment. I had a promising World Endurance Championship deal lined up for 2016, but the project collapsed, and I competed in IMSA’s Prototype Challenge class [with BAR1 Motorsport] for much of 2017.

“I’m still looking for a future WEC deal. I love doing IMSA, but I’ve won in Monaco [F3000], I’ve had pole at the Indy 500 and I’ve also won at what I think is one of the world’s best tracks, Surfers Paradise. My remaining dream is to race at Le Mans, so I’d love to do a full WEC season. I’ll continue driving until the time comes that I can’t compete at the same level as the young kids. If ever I feel I’m slower, I’ll quit. I still work out a lot and can kick the asses of a few 20-year-olds when we go training together…”

Has he kept in touch with Button since fate dispatched them in different directions? “We’d nod to each other when our paths crossed in the paddock,” he says, “but that didn’t happen very often after I left Europe. And then, last January, he was in Miami for the Race of Champions and, as we have a few friends in common, we ended up meeting. He then invited me to his birthday party – and that was the first time we’d ever really had a chance to sit down and chat properly. A couple of months later I went to meet him in California and we went out for a bike ride. It’s quite funny that we reconnected like that after so many years doing different things.

“I have no regrets about the way things have worked out. It would be nice to have won the Champ Car title, but I look at things this way. In 2005, just before my accident at Indy, somebody asked me about not being in F1 and I pointed out that Jenson was fulfilling what used to be my dream, was making at least 10 times more money than I was and probably wasn’t paying much tax in Monaco, but at that stage he hadn’t scored any victories whereas I’d won a major title in Europe and quite a few races in America – I’d been fighting for titles and had gone into every race during that time knowing I was capable of challenging for victory, so I’d had a lot of fun. I hadn’t realised my dream, but I had no right to complain.”