Justin Wilson and I have a great deal in common. We're both a little over 6-ft 3-in. tall, wear size 12s and hail from the Steel City of Sheffield in the north of England. Our vowels are harsh, our postures are gangly and we're attracted to tall women. We also both grew up wanting to be Formula One drivers, but this is where our lives diverge. While Wilson has just been signed to drive for the Jaguar team, I've scarcely progressed beyond the Playstation.
Our balance sheets also differ. Wilson now sits on the board of Justin Wilson PLC, the company founded to fund his drive with the Minardi team. Over 900 punters invested at least 500 ($800) in a sale that valued his talent at 1.2M ($1.9M). I own all the shares in my talent, but a quick chat with my accountant confirmed that they're worth precisely nothing.
It's a depressing picture but one that begs an obvious question. If, a decade ago, I'd stopped moaning about my height, stuffed myself into a racing car and shown Wilson's focus and commitment, would I now be driving a Formula One car and selling my body for hundreds of dollars? Or, in other words, is a grand prix driver's talent genuinely special?
There was only one way to settle it. A duel would have to be held, and the Bedford Aerodrome in the UK was the most obvious location. Owned by Wilson's manager and ex-F1 driver, Jonathan Palmer, the Aerodrome is where Wilson developed his skills in a Formula Palmer Audi and where he's spent hours teaching the value of a racing line to Mr J Public. It's an excellent proving ground and, importantly for Wilson's investors, there's nothing to hit
We could have lined up in single-seater racing cars, but my knowledge of such machines is so limited as to make the comparison irrelevant. Instead, we chose a Vauxhall VX220 Turbo, with which we were both familiar. This Lotus-developed roadster-known as the Opel Speedster in mainland Europe-boasts a 200-bhp, 2.0-liter turbocharged engine mounted midships and driving the rear wheels. It's a track-day favorite and was an ideal choice.
Before we go any further, I should declare some experience. I've spent the last 5 years working as a motoring journalist and have had the privilege of pedaling some of the world's most exotic motors. I've also competed in five races-I even won a couple in Canada-but I cannot, except when drunk, profess to be a racing driver.
At the time of our contest, Wilson was still a Minardi driver and came dressed in a black shirt, decorated with the logos of the multifarious sponsors that contribute to the team's meager budget. He's not charismatic like Jenson Button or Juan Pablo Montoya, but his normality is one of his strengths. Even if the terms of the PLC didn't limit his salary to just 50,000 ($80,000) this year-a pittance in F1 terms-it seems unlikely that he would become distracted by boats and bimbos.
While Wilson talked shop with Palmer, I spent an hour reacclimatizing myself with the car, then did three laps to learn the circuit we'd be using for the shoot-out. In order to gain an insight into our relative progress, we wired the Vauxhall with a GPS-based telemetry system, which would record our speed relative to distance and time. We would share the same car and the contest would mimic an F1 qualifying session-we would both have just one flying lap in which to set a comparative time