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
With Palmer looking on, Wilson went first. The familiar, multi-branded helmet was slotted into place as he slid gracefully into the car. Formula One drivers, or at least the good ones, always give the impression of effortless ease. Wilson's progress seemed almost sedate. There were no sideways histrionics, just precise, fluid progress. And when he returned to the pits, the two-million-dollar man looked thoroughly unflustered.
Your host, by contrast, had an aching bladder and an adrenaline-fueled heart. Here was a unique opportunity to convince talent-spotter Palmer that two lanky Englishmen are worthy of his attention. I wrestled with self-imposed pressure, and my anxiety was reflected in my driving style. The measured inputs of my practice laps gave place to clumsy aggression. But if I was overdriving in front of half a dozen people, how would I perform in front of 100m TV viewers and a belligerent team principal?
I returned to the pits, and a laptop revealed my fate. At first glance, the telemetry traces seemed remarkably similar, but the summary at the bottom of the page told a different story. Over a 2.76-mile lap, I was 5.54 sec. off the pace. Not since a lady driving test examiner told me that I "simply wasn't up to scratch," have I felt so deflated.
Wilson and Palmer arrived to darken my mood. The quickest corner on the circuit is the most revealing. Wilson didn't bother to brake and turned in at 89.0 mph, whereas I had reduced my speed to 70.5 mph. Although our exit speeds were almost identical, he gained 1.7 sec. by carrying more speed through the corner
"But," I protested, "I was definitely on the limit through the corner; I can remember a big slide just after the apex." Palmer nodded before offering an explanation. "In the quick corners, the sensitivity involved in caressing the controls becomes very important. By just easing off and modulating the speed through the turn, Justin didn't unsettle the car.
"A lot of people think they're near the limit because it's sliding, but in reality they've upset the car. It's a lack of perception of what's quick and what's not. You've introduced oversteer that need not be there. If you'd had the confidence to go through the corner without lifting, the car would have been better balanced and you'd have found more grip. That's where the talent lies."
There is general surprise that I braked later than Wilson at the end of the main straight. "You've got balls, there's no question about that," Palmer said with a laugh, "but you've braked for much longer."
Wilson picked up the theme. "Because you braked later, you transferred more weight to the front and it became tail happy. That's why you had to brake for longer. Late braking is a technique." I lost 0.5 sec. through the corner. Only through the tight hairpin could I claim to be have been genuinely on the pace.
How much of this, I wondered out loud, is a function of talent and how much of the time could be gained through tuition and experience? "With a bit of time, you could be taught all bar three or four tenths of that," said Wilson. Palmer was less charitable. "In a day, you could get the gap down to 2 sec., but you'd never get within 1 sec. of Justin because you wouldn't have the sensitivity. It's an iron fist in a velvet glove technique-you've got to know when to be tough and firm with the car and when to just coax it around."
He also reckoned that if we were to repeat the process in a formula car, the gap would increase dramatically: "If you're pulling 3g rather than 1g under brakes, it would feel very different. The sensitivity of bleeding off speed is quite a skill. And, of course, this doesn't take into account the race craft needed to start or overtake. Compared with any road driver, you're very quick, but you have to remember that guys like Justin are exceptional."
It was a salutary lesson. Wilson, with his physical peculiarities, has had to defy the doubters to get where he is, but the duel proved that guts and determination alone are not enough to succeed. Formula One drivers are fortunate that their talent has such a high market value, but there can be no doubt that it's a special talent. Which is why Wilson is lounging in a new Jaguar and I am writing these words.
| ||J. Wilson ||A. Weaver |
|Height ||1.92m ||1.92m |
|Weight ||78kg ||82kg |
|Age ||25 ||26 |
|Born ||Sheffield ||Sheffield |
|Resides ||Northampton ||London |
|Profession ||F1 driver ||Journalist |