Byline: Richard Rae
Justin Wilson has put the disappointment of failing to secure a F1 drive behind him to thrive in the Champ Car World Series. By Richard Rae.
THERE comes a time in every young professional athlete's career when it is no longer enough to be told how good you are. Body, soul and the bank manager crave a more practical demonstration of one's worth. Talk to Justin Wilson and it is apparent that signing a long-term contract with a top motorsport team can do more for a driver's self-belief than any amount of sports psychology.
The 26-year-old Yorkshireman is relaxed and confident, and after his first season in America's Champ Car World Series he is ready to talk in terms of championships, which is rather different to the way he felt after a season in Formula One, during which he raised Pounds 1m in public sponsorship, demonstrated huge talent in difficult cars for two teams and tried to say the right things, but still found himself out on his ear at the end of it.
Lacking sufficient sponsorship to fund a drive with Minardi, Wilson's manager, the former F1 driver Jonathan Palmer, came up with the idea of raising cash through public subscription.
Thousands of British fans who had seen Wilson dominate the International Formula 3000 championship bought shares in him and enjoyed the ride as he excelled for Paul Stoddart's team, leaving faster cars trailing before the Minardi's lack of power told. Such was his impact that Jaguar brought him in to replace the struggling Antonio Pizzonia for the final five races of the season. When it came to securing a 2004 drive, Wilson could not compete with the sponsorship package that Christian Klien, an unproven Austrian, brought to Jaguar. Disillusioned, he headed for America and the more level playing field offered by Champ Cars, where, at a price, Eric Bachelart's Conquest Racing team offered him a seat.
At times the team's inexperience was apparent, but so was Wilson's ability, never more so than in the final race of the season in Mexico City, when he qualified third and finished fourth. The result was the offer of a contract with RuSPORT, a young but competitive team that ran one of its drivers, AJAllmendinger, into sixth place in the championship.
For the first time, Wilson is being paid a decent retainer, and with the right results, he can expect to earn $500,000 (Pounds 257,505).
"They could have gone for a paying driver with financial backing, but this is a strong team saying, 'This guy's good enough to be worth paying'," explains Wilson.
"That means a lot. I can't wait to get into the car and I'm not ruling out winning the championship."
Racing in America has cleared his head. Frustrated at the lack of opportunities in F1, he is not the only young British driver to cross the Atlantic, joining more experienced racers such as Dario Franchitti in races designed to ensure that driving ability is a much bigger factor than in F1.
"If a driver is 5-10% of the equation in F1, in Champ Cars it's nearer 40%," says Wilson. "Engineering is 30% and budget/development about the same, so if you have a good driver and engineering team, you have a chance of not getting blown away by wealthier teams."
His thousands of share-holders have remained so loyal that Palmer is organising a trip to watch their man compete in the States next year. Wilson is all for it: "It's like having a very involved fan club. I don't feel under financial pressure, because I know what's good for my career is in the long term good for them, too.
Whether I'll drive in F1 again, who knows, but things are changing for the better.
They need to."
Copyright (C) The Sunday Times, 2004