Anthony Davidson on his racing rollercoaster: ‘I wasn’t nasty enough for F1’

Sports Car News

From years on the F1 sidelines to WEC glory and the most painful Le Mans heartbreak, there's not much Anthony Davidson hasn't seen in motor sport, as he recalled to James Elson

LE MANS, FRANCE - JUNE 16: Anthony Davidson of Great Britain and Toyota Gazoo Racing is interviewed at a media session prior to qualifying for the Le Mans 24 Hour race at the Circuit de la Sarthe on June 16, 2016 in Le Mans, France. (Photo by Ker Robertson/Getty Images)

Anthony Davidson: ever the team player – too nice for F1?

Ker Robertson/Getty Images

Formula 1 test driver, World Endurance Championship winner, Sky F1 channel expert analyst – Anthony Davidson has always been a team player.

Combined with a prodigious speed, the humble Brit who describes himself as “little old me from Hemel Hempstead” scaled the heights of F1 and sports cars, winning some of motor sport’s biggest prizes and garnering a reputation for being one of the finest drivers in the business.

He won the 2014 WEC crown and played a crucial part in Mercedes’ F1 dominance as its simulator driver. But Davidson was never victorious at Le Mans and says the race has been ruined for him after the 2016 last-lap disaster. He also missed out on top F1 drives, suggesting: “I just wasn’t nasty enough”

“I don’t want to start slipping back, I’ve always wanted to get out there to win”

Considered during the 2000s as one of Britain’s brightest racing talents, Davidson has now decided to call it a day on his 25-year top-level racing career while he’s still racing at the sharp end.

In between recalling those F1 follies and tales of Le Mans heartbreak, he told Motor Sport “I’ve always been at the front my whole career. I don’t want to start slipping back, I’ve always wanted to get out there to win.”

Davidson will now be known to many fans as one of Sky F1’s analysts, but first entered the motor sport consciousness as one of the UK’s most exciting young prospects with one of the great defensive drives at the 2000 Formula Ford Festival, winning in dry conditions whilst driving a Mygale set up for the wet.

Davidson Honda

Davidson ran roughly 15,000km a year for BAR/Honda for six years as a test driver

Grand Prix Photo

“I’d been creaming it into the run-up,” he told Motor Sport in 2017. “I expected the Van Diemens to be strong and they were. If anyone wants any tips on how to defend at Brands Hatch Indy – I’m your man! I did it from start to finish, ended up with bent wishbones from them trying to smash me off, running slicks over damp patches, it was pretty epic!”

This performance proved to be a springboard to the big-time.

“We were in contact already with BAR and basically a lot of it hinged on that success,” he says in a break from preparing for his final WEC race in Bahrain this weekend. “It led to me driving an F1 car two years later.”

“I was lucky to drive in the golden era of the V10 – they were brutal!”

Davidson found himself stepping into BAR’s 003 V12 beast as a test driver during his 2001 British F3 season – a step-up from his FFord car two seasons previous.

“It’s not quite Kimi Räikkönen coming from Formula Renault, but it was a shock to say the least!” he exclaims. “I was lucky to drive in the golden era of the V10 – they were brutal!

“But I learned so much being in the middle of a tyre war, working with experienced tyre engineers, and just being around involved in that environment for six years. I was solely a test driver, no racing, I didn’t have any other commitments.”

Not for the most part anyway – but midway through 2002 the Faenza folks came calling when pay driver Alex Yoong failed to make the 107% mark in qualifying three times on the bounce. Davidson is now unsure it was the right decision to fill in.

From the archive

Justin Wilson was lined up, but he couldn’t fit in the car, so I guess they looked at the other extreme and went for the shortest driver they could!” he says laughing. “My manager and I paid them £250,000 for two races.

“I was so underprepared: different car, different tyres, I didn’t realise that it had some very limited power steering – I just wasn’t physically prepared for it.”

Davidson was ultimately overcome by the car and ended up spinning into both the Hungaroring and Spa kitty litter mid-race, but still considers it as a valiant attempt in the circumstances.

“I felt like I had the speed,” he says. “Jumping in the car and only being 0.4sec off Mark Webber in Budapest, at one of the hardest circuits, halfway through the season, with an additional 10 kilos of fuel in the car because there was a fuel pickup problem. With experienced eyes you think: ‘You know what you did? I actually did a bloody good job!’”

Apart from a solo appearance to stand-in for the unwell Takuma Sato at Sepang ‘05, which ended when his Honda engine expired after two laps, Davidson would spend the next five years testing, racking up 15,000km per year pounding round tracks – not that he seemed to mind at the time.

Davidson Minardi

Davidson admits he was not up to the physical challenge of the Minardi in 2002

Grand Prix Photo

“I absolutely loved it,” he says. “I couldn’t wait to get in car. Every time I drove it, I saw it as an audition – and I was good at it. The engineers loved my feedback and the test team was more relaxed than the race one. You knew the car like the back of your hand.”

Many felt that Davidson’s considerable talents were wasted in a test team though, and his career course almost changed with a visit to Williams’s Grove base in late 2004 – with the team intent on signing him for 2005.

“I even went to the factory and they made a seat,” he says. “But BAR suddenly got cold feet and thought ‘We don’t want to lose him.’ So they offered me a longer-term deal on better money. I took that decision to stay with the hope one day I’d get a drive there. It’s hard to know when you’re young trying to know where to place yourself. Nobody’s got a crystal ball.”

That race seat did finally come about, in a manner of speaking…

It had been back to testing until the fallout of the Jenson Button tug-of-war between Williams and Honda (who had taken over BAR) resulted in the creation of the latter’s junior team Super Aguri to house Takuma Sato. Yuji Ide (infamously), Franck Montagny and Sakon Yamamoto hadn’t worked out as his team-mates, so for 2007 the Leafield team brought in someone who really knew Honda machinery – Davidson.

“Thank the Lord” exclaimed Autosport, as Britain’s greatest shunned racing talent finally had a permanent race seat.

Whilst being an instant steady hand behind the wheel, Davidson didn’t immediately have the measure of his old Carlin F3 team-mate Sato in races, despite beating him 10-7 in qualifying.

“It took a while to shake off the cobwebs off in terms of my racecraft,” he says. “I had been solidly testing for almost five years beforehand – a decision I would later understand was wrong. It’s the only real regret I have in all my years as a driver.”

’07/’08 was Honda’s nadir of course, and its disastrous cars that year allowed Super Aguri to steal a march using Honda’s old ‘06 machines.

“To be the fastest Honda powered car makes me very proud of the job I did looking back at it now,” he tells us.

“I really did enjoy my time there. In many ways it feels like it was the peak of my career. It’s every driver’s dream to get to F1 and it was the perfect team to begin with, they had a good fighting spirit.

“I really felt I was developing well at the end of ‘07 and beginning of the ‘08 season – then the team folded.”

Davidson Super Aguri

Chance with Super Aguri finally came in 2007

The plucky back–markers had run into a financial wall. Davidson describes it as one of the lowest points in his career – he had to face the end of his dream.

“I felt like I had nothing left,” he says. “F1 had crumbled with Super Aguri pulling out, there was nothing [on offer] at the end of 2008.

From the archive

“I wanted F1 so badly, and it didn’t materialise, so I had about another year of testing.”

Just when it seemed like all was lost for his racing career, there was suddenly light at the end of the tunnel.

“I had driven the Peugeot 908 LMP1 car at Paul Ricard in 2008 and loved it,” he says.

“I knew from that moment, that’s what I wanted to do. It suited my style and was a great team with manufacturer support. I just felt like that was the closest thing to an F1 car I had driven.

Sébastien Loeb had decided that he wasn’t ultimately going to do sports cars, so I’d then had a meeting with Peugeot, but thought there must be loads of drivers who want that seat.

“Then on my way back home from the test, they called me and said they wanted to take me on.

Davidson Sebring

From F1 ashes, Davidson leapt in Peugeot’s LMP1 car to win Sebring 2010


“So from one of my lowest moments, to get that phone call – I was so excited! It was an absolute revelation, a big turning point in my career. The first race was in Sebring, and we won! It was awesome.”

The emotion being let out all at once, Davidson can be seen releasing a scream of sheer joy as Alex Wurz sails over the line in footage of the 2010 12 Hours of Sebring. Finally a top-line drive, finally a winner again.

His new target was a Le Mans victory, but the first of several heartbreaks would arrive immediately, as his LMP1 machine broke down whilst leading in 2010.

“I was grieving – every time I go to Le Mans now, it hurts”

He exited the race in even more dramatic fashion two years later. During his first season with Toyota, Davidson tripped up over a GT car, flipped his car and crashed heavily into the tyre barrier at Mulsanne Corner, breaking two vertebrae.

But he was back again in 2013, chalking up a runner-up place at La Sarthe before arguably his career’s greatest achievement – winning the 2014 World Endurance Championship.

Partnered with Sébastien Buemi, the pair dominated the season, winning four out of eight races and taking another two podiums.

Self-effacingly describing it as a “probably the highlight of my career” Davidson explains how sports car racing profoundly changed him as a driver whilst still playing into his personality strengths.

“When you come out of F1, you’re so single minded, you’re selfish, you have to be focused on your side of the garage,” he says.

“You’re trained to want to beat your team-mate, and in any way possible.

“In sports cars, you quickly learned that there’s no room for that, you have to put your ego aside.

“The challenge is for the fastest duo/trio to get the best out of each other. There were a lot of lessons to be learned, but I felt like all the testing mileage I’d done in F1 served me well, because that was a quite a selfless task – working on setup for other drivers to just jump in and drive your car that you’ve honed.

Davidson sad

Davidson has struggled to come to terms with 2016 Le Mans loss

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“I could pull on that experience to be the team player that you need to be in sports car racing.

“I felt like I was a better driver in sports cars than F1. Mainly because I’m not a selfish person. I haven’t got a massive ego and probably wasn’t a nasty enough to be successful in F1. In sports cars I fitted in because of who I am.”

“In sports cars I fitted in because of who I am”

Davidson hadn’t realised it yet, but his mental fortitude and amiable personality as a team player was about to be put to its greater test.

After an eighth-place finish at Le Mans ’15, 2016 seemed like it really could be the year for Davidson, teamed up with Kazuki Nakajima as well as Buemi.

Emotions were running high – not only was Davidson seeking the Holy Grail of endurance racing, but so was Toyota – still without a La Sarthe victory after over three decades of trying.

Davidson 2016

No5 Toyota breaks down with one lap to go at Le Mans


The Brit’s TS050 qualified 4th, but moved up the field and in the final few laps had a 70sec lead over the following Porsche – surely it was in the bag? However, in possibly the most incredible finish ever seen at Le Mans, the Toyota ground to a halt at the start-finish line with just one lap left to run. 23 hours and 57 minutes run, and it wasn’t even classified.

From the archive

For Davidson, after a lifetime of hard work moving up to this moment, it was almost too much.

“I went through grieving really,” he says, the emotion clear in his voice. “That loss, I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. I can completely empathise with the WRT [LMP2] team this year when it happened to them. It’s an awful experience for anyone, let alone when it’s the ultimate win that you’re going for. You couldn’t write it.

“As it happened, I told myself ‘You’ve got to be really kind to yourself, mentally, over the next few days’, because it was such a shock.

“And every time I go there now, it hurts. It’s the one race I really wanted. I can never love the race like I used to.”

Things were about to get worse. In 2018, Toyota announced that Fernando Alonso would be attempting the La Sarthe part of the Triple Crown with the Japanese marque – and it was Davidson, who had just signed a new three-year deal, who would get the shove.

“The way it ended wasn’t the way I wanted it to,” he says. “Although there was always respect there, it was a bit of a messy ending. I would say that for any young driver, and I think it’s more talked about these days, mental health is a big issue. It’s something that any sports person needs to be on top of. There were other factors involved, but I don’t want to go into detail about, it’s too personal.”

Davidson was of course in demand though, and a new lease of life in LMP2 on his racing swansong now sees him in contention for the WEC title with JOTA with Antonio Felix Da Costa and Roberto González this weekend, albeit as an outsider.

DAVIDSON ANTHONY (GBR), JOTA, ORECA 07 - GIBSON, PORTRAIT during the 6 Hours of Bahrain, 5th round of the 2021 FIA World Endurance Championship, FIA WEC, on the Bahrain International Circuit, from October 28 to 30, 2021 in Sakhir, Bahrain - Photo François Flamand / DPPI

Davidson now has one more shot at glory with JOTA in this year’s WEC LMP2 class


“I’ve never wanted it more badly than I do now,” he says. “It’s a bit of a long shot, but in an eight-hour race, anything can happen.

“There’d be nothing better than to walk away as champions at the end of this year.”

There’s been an outpouring of positivity for Davidson since he announced his retirement, even though part of him was hoping to do his talking on the track and slink off without notice.

“In the end, I couldn’t just stop and not say anything, which would have been very much my character, but my wife bullied me into saying something being the press officer she is!”

He’ll still carry on with the simulator work for Mercedes though – “I really do love that job” – as well remaining on our screens with Sky, but it’s his incredible racing talent, which he used solely to put himself on the box in the first place, for which he’ll be remembered by many.

“I really didn’t come from a wealthy background by any stretch of the imagination,” he says. “For little old me from Hemel Hempstead to get through to F1 without any money behind me – I’m very proud of that achievement.”