JULIE WILKINSON MOTORSPORT JOURNALISM AWARD - presented by Bridgestone/Firestone
Entry Number 2: "New/Old" Formula One Test Driver
(Originally appeared in The Toronto Star Wheels section)
Spain - “Lucie, get me Frank Williams of BMW-Williams Formula One Racing Team
on the line, will you? Thanks - I’ll wait...’‘
Willi Weber here. No no, don’t fall out of your chair, Frank - I’m not
calling to demand you renegotiate Ralf Schumacher’s contract. I’m not like
some of those other drivers’ agents!
I’m sorry to bother you the day before Imola, but I’ve got something hot
right now and I want to give you the first opportunity at it.
you know I think your team could well win the Constructors championship this
year, and either of your drivers could be World Champion. If not this year, then
course, I think it’ll be Ralf. But even if it’s that nasty little Colombian
chap, I know you’re not going to want to re-sign him. If you didn’t keep
Piquet, Mansell, Hill or Villeneuve, you won’t keep these guys either.
I understand - it’s business. You agree with Niki Lauda, that a trained monkey
could drive these cars today - although I guess with his two spins in ten laps a
few months ago, maybe he didn’t get quite enough training...
I see your point - why pay big bucks to a reigning World Champion, when you can
get an equally-good and much cheaper unknown and pour the money you save back
into the car?
worry about me, Frank - I’ll still be able to flog Ralf to the highest bidder.
you’ll have to put somebody in the car, and I might have found just the guy.
I know you hate it when the school busses drop today’s drivers off at the
track. They are so young! You need to get a note from their Mommies before they
can travel out of the country. We have to attach their driving gloves to strings
pulled through their sleeves of their suits, sew their names onto their Nomex
I know you went through all that with Jensen Button two years ago. It all went
to his head and he’s washed up at 21.
hear what I’m saying - why keep putting young kids in the car, trying to
appeal to the younger demographic audience? Those kids already love Grand Prix
racing, and you can’t tell what the drivers look like with their helmets on
in these tough economic times, the people we really need to cater to are
sponsors. So why not get a driver who fits THAT demographic? A middle-aged, fat,
white guy with gray hair?
may have found him here at Valencia, attending a program called the Michelin
Driving Experience - yes, your tire supplier. Already a nice fit.
currently a working journalist... What’s that Frank? You say that’s a
contradiction in terms?
also a Canadian - so the continuity with Jacques Villeneuve works for you too.
brings in customers, partners, even journalists, into the same circuit where you
guys test during the winter.
they run the course in Renault Clio Trophy Touring Car racers - 250 horsepower
in a rear-mounted, transverse-engined turbocharged fully race-prepped beast.
Quite a handful!
they graduate into F3 cars - Martini chassis, Ford Zetec 2.0 litre four cylinder
twin cam 16-valve engines, about 205 horses, five-speed sequential gearbox.
if they don’t screw up too much, they get a lap in an F1 car. OK, so the 1997
Arrows with a Ford Cosworth V8 out of an F3000 car is hardly Formula One state
of the art.
they have fitted modern paddle shifters to them, and with 650 horses in about
650 kg of car, it makes a pretty potent ride for a civilian.
just one lap. Not much. But this guy - name is McKenzie, something like that -
seems like a quick learner. Says he has one year of racing experience 34 times,
in everything from old Minis to a BMW North American Touring Car.
BMW - another nice tie-in with you...
I had a tape recorder when this guy got out of the Arrows. Let me play that back
Willi here again. Yes, I guess he was a little excited...
caught up to him again later when he had taken a bit of a breather. Let me play
back for you his comments on the experience:’‘
Willi, the car is easier to drive than I feared. The instructors here kept
warning us about taking it easy, to make sure the steering wheel is straight
before dialling in the power.
I found I could get on it gently as I was unwinding out of a corner.
car was very tractable - once you got it rolling, that is. Those multi-plate
racing clutches are very touchy. I wasn’t the only guy who stalled on the
launch! (Hey - so do some of the pros...). So they push-started me - easier
frankly than using the remote starter stuck up the back end...
paddle shift is a bit different than other sequential shifters I’ve used - you
can’t keep your foot on the gas while you pull back on the right paddle to
upshift - it’s to prevent you from revving the engine too high if the gearbox
misses a shift. I gather it’s also a safety factor so you don’t get too many
revs if you’re spinning and try to pull off a shift.
for a few of the short straights on the backside of the course I was stuck in
second because it wouldn’t give me third!
I remembered to ‘lift before you shift’ before I got to that nice long front
- what a rush 650 horses gives you in a car which weighs only 650 kilos, driver,
tires, fuel and all.
are easy, though - pull the left paddle, and BAM! So fast, yet smoother than I
remember from my Ferrari 360 Modena test!
I first got in - no easy task - I wondered - how can these guys SEE anything out
of these cars? You sit SO low.
didn’t help that the “fog-off’‘ they had given me for my glasses had
pretty much wore off. It had rained very hard at lunch, and we feared they
wouldn’t let us go out in the cars. It cleared just in time, but the air was
still very humid. As soon as I closed my face shield, it fogged up completely,
so I went into Turn One more or less by memory...
I found the presence of mind to flip the shield up for a second to clear it.
lap was over ‘way too soon. I felt that with a few more laps I’d really get
the hang of it. But that’s why the Michelin people DON’T give newcomers that
extra lap - it’d be all too easy to become complacent, and when you have a
crash in one of these things, you have it at a very high, very dangerous, and
very expensive speed.
one guy actually spun the car (I’ll never tell...) and he works for Michelin,
so the honour - what there is of it - of journalists was upheld.’‘..
Frank - Willi again. So there you have it - I think we might be on to something.
not saying he’s a shoo-in for the job - in fact, he might be a
“shoe-horn’‘ in - he’ll have to lose maybe 40 pounds. Hey - Tom Hanks
did it for ‘Castaway’...
whaddya say, Frank? Can I bring this guy around to see you?
that? ‘Don’t call us, we’ll call you’? What’s that all about, Frank?
Must be a bad cell...
get me Jean Todt of Ferrari, will you? Barichello is history-in-the-making
there, so tell him I’ve got a guy named “Giacomo’‘ he just has to
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