Big-name British drivers on both sides of the Atlantic are facing a season on the sidelines as the global economic downturn sends teams out of business and forces the survivors to hire ride-buyers.
The struggle of Formula One drivers Jenson Button and Anthony Davidson to find work for next year is well documented, but they are being joined in the unemployment queue by almost every Brit who competed in America’s IndyCar Racing League last season.
Last year five British drivers lined up for all or some of the IRL season, ranging from Dan Wheldon and Justin Wilson at top teams Ganassi and Newman/Haas/Lanigan, to Darren Manning at one-car team Foyt Racing and part-timers Alex Lloyd and Jay Howard.
Of them, only Wheldon is sure of driving next year after stepping down to Panther Racing. His seat at Ganassi has been taken by Scotland’s Dario Franchitti, returning from a year in NASCAR. For the other four Brits, there is very little hope.
The lastest to fall by the wayside is Wilson, after the announcement by Team Penske that Australian Will Power is to be their stand-in if Helio Castroneves, who faces tax evasion charges and possible jail, misses the season.
Wilson, Power and talented Texan Ryan Hunter-Reay were all thought potential candidates for the drive, as each have lost their rides due to sponsorship problems at their teams.
Along with Manning, Oriol Servia, Paul Tracey, Bruno Junquiera and perhaps even Sebastien Bourdais, they represent a rich pool of out-of-work talent for any team with top-10 ambitions that does manage to scrape together the funding to field a car.
Wilson parted from N/H/L when the team – one of the traditional powerhouses of North American open wheel racing – admitted it couldn’t find the sponsorship to run two cars and advised him to look elsewhere.
Highly regarded across the whole IRL grid, the Sheffield racer is nevertheless finding that – not for the first time in his career – money is everything.
Veteran American journalists Gordon Kirby and Robin Miller are among those singing his praises. Writing in Motor Sport Magazine, Kirby says: “Justin is an excellent driver. He’s a fluid stylist who’s very sharp technically and a natural team leader. He’s also a true racer and it will be sad for both Wilson and the sport if he’s left on the sidelines this year or compelled to drive for a second or even third-rate team. Here’s hoping some good luck shines its light on Justin. Nobody is more deserving.”
Miller added on speedtv.com: “Wilson is rated highly by everyone and for good reason. He’s smart, smooth and knows how to win. He’s also the consummate team player, plus a delightful human being with fans, sponsors and media. Cut loose by Newman/Haas/Lanigan because it had no sponsorship, JWill is atop the free agent list.”
Except he isn’t. It looks increasingly likely that ex-F1 and ex-Champ Car driver Robert Doornbos – head and shoulders above all-comers as the best driver stranded outside top-flight open wheel racing last season – has secured a major sponsorship package.
Big enough, reports suggest, to take a seat at Power’s and Servia’s old team KV Racing – but possibly also big enough to sail into Wilson’s old seat at N/H/L.
Few people will begrudge the likeable Dutchman the opportunity to showcase his talent with one of the top teams.
But if he does line up for the IRL season opener on the Streets of St. Petersburg, quite a few pairs of eyes – many of them British – will be boring into him and his rivals, thinking ‘that should have been me out there’.
Brits on the dole – where it went wrong
- Jenson Button
- His team, Honda, collapsed under him – it may yet be bought and he may run in 2009. But it’s looking less and less likely.
- Justin Wilson
- It’s a sign of how deep the financial crisis is biting that a team of Newman/Haas/Lanigan’s stature can’t afford to run two cars. But they can’t without sponsorship and Wilson, who has none, is out.
- Anthony Davidson
- Since Super Aguri went under, he’s looked for open wheel race work on both sides of the Atlantic, without luck.
- Darren Manning
- Out from AJ Foyt’s team at the end of last season, he has been mentioned as a possible second driver at Sarah Fisher Racing, tackling the street courses while his boss drove the ovals. But Fisher’s sponsor Dollar General can only afford a limited schedule, so that’s that for the likeable Yorkshireman.
- Mike Conway
- Showed flashes of great skill in GP2 last year – but so far there’s little to suggest he’ll get the chance to do so again next season.
- Jay Howard
- The promised full-season drive at back-markers Roth Racing sputtered to a halt quite early last season, and the spiky-haired one will have been among the least surprised when Canadian millionaire Roth shut up shop altogether late last year.
- Alex Lloyd
- Like Howard, he won the Indy Lights feeder championship, and that earned him a contract with Ganassi and a drive in the Indy 500 with Rahal Letterman. There were hopes it would turn into something more for this year – but it’s not looking so good now.