With F1 seemingly out of reach, Britain's Dan Wheldon jetted to America and joined the Indycar gang, He's had success, but a few rumbles too... BY ROB WIDDOWS
Wheldon has won the Indianapolis 500 twice, including victory in this year's race (pictured), has been the IRL champion, and made millions of dollars. He has an enviable home in Florida and a loving family. He has talent, is an ace on the ovals, and has made America his home since 1999.
So where did it all go so wrong for the 30-something British racing driver who once competed wheel-to-wheel with Jenson Button?
It went wrong when he rejected an offer to become a test driver for the BMW Formula 1 team. Yes, he told Mario Theissen that it was a race seat he wanted, not a testing contract. So Herr Theissen turned his attentions to Robert Kubica and a young German lad called Sebastian Vettel. The rest is history in the making.
To understand the full picture we need to go back further, to the early career of Daniel Clive Wheldon from Olney in Buckinghamshire, who began racing karts and graduated to Vauxhall Junior where he impressed. When in 1998 he joined the works Van Diemen team in Formula Ford he came up against old karting rival Button in a Mygale. The pair were closely matched. But that's as far as it went this side of the Atlantic.
"We ran out of money. All our decisions had been financially driven and we never could have raised a budget for Formula 3," says Wheldon, looking slightly wary of me as we settle into the story. "But I worked hard and won a lot of races and I think I had a good relationship with Van Diemen. It was a difficult time in my life — I was so desperate to move up to F3, all my mates were going there. But I had a deal to race in America for 1999 so that's what I had to do to continue being a racing driver. And honestly, I still thought I could get to F1. Not being cocky or arrogant, I just thought I'd get there at the end of 2005, having won the IRL series. And yes, I was offered that BMW deal."
Why on earth did he turn it down? He looks me straight in the eye, a half-smile on his face, the eyes glinting under his baseball cap. He leans forward, clearly keen to make a point.
"People told me not to trust anyone in F1, and I thought it was all too good to be true. Dr Mario Theissen said I'd be the test driver in 2006 and he'd move me up to the race team in '07, if not before. I just didn't think it could be true — but that's what they did with Kubica. My manager Julian Jakobi still holds it against me to this day," he smiles, "but I felt that America had given me an opportunity when England had not, and I had an offer from Chip Ganassi which is a great team to be with in America."
There must be regrets, I suggest. He looks a little defensive, anxious not to be misunderstood.
"I felt an emotional attachment to America and I was never mad at myself, or anyone else; that's not the type of person I am. So there was no big regret. I just wanted to be in a race car and I'd made my home in America. I love to be in the car, competing for wins every weekend, and these days I can be more selective about the teams I drive for. But yeah, I have made decisions that have hurt my career a bit and I'm still rebounding from that, I guess."
Decisions have, dare we say, not been Wheldon's strong point over the years. He had the plum drive with Ganassi and walked away. "I can explain that," he jumps in, looking inquiringly at his management people who are seated round the table with us. "We can tell the whole story, can't we?" There's a nod from across the table. "Look, it sometimes happens like this. Things weren't going so well, though I was still winning races in '08. Chip was looking at other drivers as he always does, and in May he'd offered to extend my deal for the following season. Then Tony Kanaan, who was at Andretti Green, approached Ganassi about a deal — probably to get more money out of Andretti Green — but Chip's lawyer was unwell and it got delayed. I knew what was going on and so I was looking at other teams when Chip called me — I was in the bath — and I said, 'Hey, I think you've got the wrong number, this is not Tony, this is Dan' and I told him he was out of order, that he'd offered me a new deal. But I don't hold it against him, that's the way it is with Chip.
"Anyway, to be fair, we [his management] had spoken to Panther [the team which gave him his IRL break in 20021 and they were prepared to offer me what I wanted and it seemed they could give me a competitive car. So we signed with them and it was a bad decision, based on too much emotion. You only have to look at the statistics to realise that Chip's team is a fantastic place to be. So, a bad decision, no hard feelings, and I've worked hard to get back from that. The rest is history now."
This was not the first time he'd made what appeared to be a strange decision. He often refers to 'we', as in his management, and sometimes you feel that the best place for Wheldon is in the cut and thrust of competition, not in the maelstrom of management.
"I have good people looking after me but in the end I make my own decision," he says, looking hard at me. "But yeah, maybe I should stick to the driving. I always thought I made good decisions but... maybe not."
Looking back over his career in America, from F2000 in 1999 to Toyota Atlantic, Indy Lights and on to the IRL, the results are impressive. This is despite his restlessly moving from Panther to Andretti Green, where he won his first Indy 500 and the IRL title, on to Ganassi and back to Panther, where he was replaced by Indy Lights champion J R Hildebrand — the very same Hildebrand who handed him this year's Indy win by crashing at the final corner. This is the kind of drama that seems to follow Wheldon.
"I commit myself totally to my racing and I expect the same back from the team, and I'm not afraid to speak my mind," he says. "People may see this as me being cocky — but look, I know my ability in the car, and I've learnt how to maximise my opportunities when I'm on the track. I've learnt how to develop the car, for road races and ovals, and that means working with the team, watching the tactics the other guys use. You have to be tough sometimes and maybe some people misunderstand the total commitment I have when I'm racing."
We can only speculate as to how well Wheldon would have dealt with the challenge of F1. More a racer than a diplomat, he might have found the lack of outright success at BMW not to his liking. When he won this year's Indy 500 - his first series victory in three seasons - he was understandably emotional, this dramatic last-lap victory being further vindication of his move to America a decade ago. Especially because he was without a full-time drive, joining forces with Bryan Herta for this one-off crack at the richest prize of the season.
"I knew I had a good chance and with three laps to go I saw Dario [Franchitti] and Scott [Dixon] slowing down, conserving fuel, and I maximised everything I had," he says. "I was still doing my best speeds of the race, running 223 to 224mph, and into the last lap I was closing on Hildebrand really quickly. I got a great run out of Turn 2, tried to dive inside Ana Beatriz into Turn 3, but couldn't quite make it. But I surprised her in Turn 4, and was focused on clearing her when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw that JR had got up into the grey and hit the fence. But then I had to avoid the debris. I wasn't thinking I'd won it then, but I could see he'd pancaked the car and I thought maybe he'd try taking me out — I mean, he was a rookie, I'd never raced alongside him before, and this was the biggest race in the world and you gotta do everything you can to win, right?
"Once I crossed the line it was such an emotional win for me, for us all, such 72 a special feeling. I didn't 2 have a drive for the rest of the season but we'd won the Indy 500. It was the first time we'd led the race all day, but we played the fuel strategy perfectly and I got everything I could out of the car, adjusting the balance and brakes, in the last few laps."
An acknowledged ace on oval tracks, Wheldon should surely have been in his element on the road courses, having learnt his craft in Europe?
"My strength on ovals may have been true when I was with Ganassi," he responds, "but at Panther I was good on the road courses. You need totally different things from the car on ovals and road courses, a different driving technique. At Panther I did well in the road races, especially if you compare the results to the driver who came after me. It's so much about what you can do with the car — at Ganassi we were great on the ovals, but we did begin to get a handle on the road races. Remember, wherever you go, whatever team, you always have to compare your performance with Penske and Ganassi. That's how it is."
Wheldon made history in 2011, winning Indy after leading just the final few yards, but the future is still uncertain. This hurts for such a competitive and confident individual. Racing in America, however, remains his long-term goal.
"It does, yes, unless you know that Red Bull is going to offer me a drive. We have been offered Indycar drives, before and after the 500, but we've turned them down. People say it's because they didn't offer me enough money but that isn't the case. For me, it's about being competitive and happy in the team, and right now I plan to stay with Bryan Herta. We have the Honda engine testing contract for the 2012 Dallara and people are talking about me again because we did a very good job in the run-up to Indy and in the race itself.
"Sure, we [the management we] are looking around, but let's see what happens. I'd love to do the Las Vegas race for [Indycar CEO] Randy Bernard, that's for the five million dollars, and I reckon we'd create a buzz by doing that. For now I'm busy with the testing programme, Honda respects me in that role, and I'm doing some TV commentary. I'm busy enough. I believe in myself, you have to, but it wasn't always like that. At times you doubt yourself — 2009 and 2010 were not great — but I just want the chance to prove I can still do it."
Before I met Wheldon colleagues had told me he could be difficult, a bit edgy with journalists. I did not find this to be so. Confident, yes, a little diffident on occasion, and most certainly a racer, a man desperate to be in a car, to win races.
"Difficult? Really? I can be very particular," he says, slightly defensively. "I can see why people might have said this, but a team can easily change their drivers, and people who've worked closely with me will tell you I'm not difficult. But at the track I am focused. I stay within the circle of people I trust, and maybe I appear a bit introverted. But I'm not — I'm doing my job. I've been blessed with a talent and I work hard to use it. Returning to England to do the Goodwood Festival of Speed I was a bit nervous about the reception I'd get, but people do remember, and it was fantastic at Goodwood. The crowd was amazing. I jumped in a Penske, something I'd always wanted to do, but Emerson [Fittipaldi] told me I'd have to ask Roger before I could drive it. And that wasn't going to happen."
This has been the abridged story of a turbulent career that started with immediate success, diverted across the Atlantic, led to an offer of F1, surged again, stalled and dramatically rose once more in May. Happiest behind the wheel of a winning car, Dan Wheldon has been given another chance and he fully intends to maximise — as he would say — every opportunity to show that he's as fast as he knows he is.