Keeping perspective



I’ve just spent 24 hours flying between the UK and Australia and, predictably, I’m feeling pretty jetlagged.

I’m in the land down under finalising my Australian V8 Supercars Enduro Cup campaign, having signed to race the Lucas Dumbrell Motorsport-prepared Holden VF Commodore in the Sandown 500, Bathurst 1000 and Gold Coast 600 alongside my buddy Nick Percat.

Nick and I raced together in last year’s Enduro Cup and, having finished eighth in the final points classification after reaching the podium in Australia’s ‘great race’ – the Bathurst 1000 on the legendary Mount Panorama circuit – we’re hopeful.

I’ve been focusing on switching tack for my Aussie V8s campaign ever since the flag fell on the United SportsCar Championship race at Virginia International Raceway and, jetlag aside, my head is in gear and I’m primed for the challenge.

Racing a V8 requires a completely different approach to what I’m used to, as the Holden is a very unique beast and there’s a very specific way of taming it, which I came to understand in 2014.

I’m coming from the Chevrolet Corvette C7.R, which has a paddle shift gearbox, traction control, pretty good aero and tyres, to a car with a sequential manual, relatively little downforce and slightly more power, and I’ll be trying to use muscle memory from last year’s visits to Sandown, Mount Panorama and Surfers Paradise to rediscover that rhythm I found.

Mercifully, all of this preparation means I haven’t had time to dwell on the fact that the latest instalment of the United SportsCar Championship – the Oak Tree Grand Prix – produced yet more disappointment for me and my Corvette Racing team.

The way the weekend panned out was all too familiar. As in previous rounds, it was evident from the outset of free practice that the Corvette would be no match for the likes of Porsche and Ferrari, once again because of an apparent disparity in the championship’s balance of performance.

But with Pratt & Miller’s never-say-die attitude, the team continued experimenting with aero configurations in a futile damage limitation exercise, the #3 car driven by Jan Magnussen and Antonio García testing a low-drag setup that proved to be the best compromise over an entire lap.

I took the start from seventh on the GTLM grid and spent the most part trading places with the #25 Team RLL BMW Z4 – Corvette Racing’s chief title rival – of Bill Auberlen in a physical yet fair fight over sixth position.

There was a lot of chopping and changing and a bit of rubbing, but Bill eventually overcooked a lunge at turn one to spin out in front of me (for the second time this season).

Thankfully I missed him and I basically saw out the rest of my stint behind Jan, mindful of the fact that we were tight on fuel and had to eke out each stint.

Tommy [Milner] then took over the #4 car and some committed driving saw him climb as high as fourth, but that was neither here nor there in the end, because we hadn’t done enough fuel saving throughout the 2hr 40min race and finished eighth after making a third splash-and-dash with one lap to go.

It’s very frustrating for everybody at Corvette Racing. Everything seems stacked against us and, no matter how hard we try, sixth or seventh is the best we can hope for at the moment. However, our strife pales into insignificance when you consider the events of the last week, with the passing of Justin Wilson.

Motor sport can be particularly cruel sometimes and the incident that ultimately claimed Justin’s life is enough to send your blood cold.

I’ve known Justin for many years and I remember it was the mid-to-late ‘90s that I first heard of this super-talented youngster rising through the single-seater ranks.

I was in the midst of a dry spell in my career following a season in International Touring Cars and I had just begun working for Palmer Sport, while also driving the Formula 1 safety car and sporadically contesting races in F3000 and the Porsche Supercup.

It was then that I got to know Palmer Sport’s chief instructor Phil Ellis and he tipped this quick young driver named Justin Wilson as a future star only a year prior to his F3000 debut in 1999 – as my competitor.

For me, everything Justin did was remarkable, because here was a guy who was making a single-seater career work, despite being taller than me!

I watched on bemused, wondering how he did it. He went on to be crowned the 2001 FIA International F3000 Champion following a great season-long battle with Mark Webber. The young man from Sheffield duly got his break in F1 at a time when I was still on the scene and absolutely desperate to join him on the grid.

Olly testing a Renault in 2002

People would tell me that I wouldn’t be taken seriously in F1 because of my height and I had realised they were making cars for smaller guys when testing for Benetton and Renault, but, extraordinarily, Justin was making it happen and his stunning qualifying lap for the 2003 German Grand Prix at Hockenheim, where he beat the Ferraris of Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello, was a real standout moment.

Of course, he then hopped across the pond to IndyCar. We would see one another at Sebring and Le Mans, but it was at Long Beach where I finally got an opportunity to ask how somebody who stands at 6ft 4in drives single-seaters week-in, week-out, when I’m 6ft 2in and have issues?

He demonstrated how he fits inside the cockpit and how he grips the wheel, revealing that his hands are constantly at 90 degrees to his arms and that was the reason why he would regularly sustain wrist injuries.

It was from that point that I really admired him for his dedication and persistence with single-seaters. He had all the qualities necessary to be a hero, with an innate determination, an unquenchable thirst for victory and an amazing strength of character, without being overly confident, punchy and in your face.

The sport will miss him tremendously and the outpouring of support from the motor racing community and fans has been amazing – it’s a true measure of the man.

In summation, Justin was a remarkable driver and a gentleman with a bit of Sheffield steel in him.

My thoughts go out to his family and closest friends. I know we all hope Justin – a gentle giant – rests in peace.

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