Focus - is Wilson the next Webber? 20 Nov 2003
In 2001 Justin Wilson won the International Formula 3000 championship, beating future team mate Mark Webber in the process. But while Webber progressed to Formula One the following season, Wilson had to wait another year before breaking into the Grand Prix 'big time'.
Like Webber, Wilson's move into Formula One came courtesy of Minardi boss Paul Stoddart. Wilson's demon starts (he sometimes picked up half a dozen places in the first few laps of a race) soon got him noticed and when Jaguar lost patience with Antonio Pizzonia in July, they offered Wilson the chance to do the last five races of the season.
That's when he came up against Webber. The Australian had done a whole winter of testing in the Jaguar and three quarters of a season of racing it. Wilson would be coming in at an odd time, with five races to go and only one test session planned. He would be pitting himself against one of the rising stars of the sport and he would have to start cold.
He began brilliantly with seventh place in his first qualifying session at Hockenheim, but then reality set in. The Jaguar proved to be a very different car to the Minardi and Wilson hadn't anticipated the change in driving style that would be required. He initially struggled to match Webber's pace and a string of reliablilty problems didn't help. But he plugged away and by the end of the season was consistently within three or four tenths of a second per lap of Webber.
But with so many factors contributing to his performances (parity of equipment, reliability, team procedures etc), it is very hard for people outside the team, and especially the public, to form an accurate judgement of how well Wilson is doing. Inevitably though, with so much common ground between team mates, comparisons with Webber will be drawn. How does Wilson himself feel he stacked up against his long-time rival?
"At some point in every driver's career you say, 'Well I beat so and so in this car or in that series,' but the truth is that you are only as good as your last season. Mark did a fantastic job last season, he really got the most out of the car. But I believe that I can do that too, it's simply just a question of adjusting my driving style to this car. The thing is, it's easier said than done."
Minardi sporting director John Walton thinks his team's two former drivers have similar abilities: "Mark and Justin are very evenly matched. Mark may perhaps be a little stronger mentally. But given the opportunity, Justin could be as good as Webber - maybe even better." And it seems Jaguar also have faith in the Englishman. "He's personable and has done a similar job to Mark Webber, really, and I'm really pleased with the way the team has gelled around him," said Jaguar Racing's managing director David Pitchforth.
Indeed, you get the sense that everyone at Jaguar genuinely wants Wilson to do well. Clearly they feel that with the awkward timing, the lack of testing and reliability issues, they didn't give him a fair chance to prove himself during their five races together. Winter testing begins in late November. That's when Justin Wilson will get his third chance - and possibly his last - to show he's got what it takes to live with Webber, and to be a Formula One star.
(The above is an edited extract from a much longer feature on Justin Wilson, available exclusively in the December issue of Formula 1 Magazine.)