McLaren renewed its sponsorship cope with Coca-Cola just lately. Did you discover? The mushy drinks big, essentially the most ubiquitous on this planet and in a special league to Crimson Bull, has supported the workforce since 2018, apparently. There’s even a sticker on the automobile, simply behind the cockpit on the engine cowl – however in a sea of papaya it certain is simple to overlook.
For a corporation of its measurement, it’s mildly stunning Coca-Cola has solely a sketchy and irregular affiliation with motor sport. Bob Akin’s IMSA Porsche 935 and 962 campaigners all the time appeared terrific in Coke livery, however as nice as they have been McLaren’s deal renewal final week triggered one other reminiscence for me, one thing extra private: of a beanpole racer who carried these well-known colors as he grew to become Britain’s first and solely Formulation 3000 champion. Then it happens that was 20 years in the past. Absolutely not, can’t be. Who is aware of the place the time goes?
The truth was Justin Wilson had zero connection to Coca-Cola, regardless of the well-known logos that have been brandished on his Nordic Racing Lola within the 2001 FIA Worldwide F3000 Championship. The deal got here to the Thetford-based workforce, run by former Lotus mechanic Derek Mower and his engineer son Chris, by means of a European regional workplace relatively than from some multi-million greenback blessing linked to US headquarters. Nonetheless, that didn’t cease Formulation 1 groups jealously coveting Nordic’s odd little coup. This was an honest, well-run household workforce, but it surely was hardly thought-about a serious power within the Formulation 1 help sequence, on condition that it had however a single win to its title, earned by Marc Goossens at Hockenheim again in 1995. That modified in 2001, nonetheless, throughout a season that might show unforgettable for Wilson and anybody else who witnessed it first-hand – together with this author.
It was onerous to know what to make of Justin again then. He’d been racing automobiles since he was 16, the primary of such an age to be allowed, and was clearly proficient. However in Formulation Vauxhall in 1997 Paul Stewart Racing team-mate Luciano Burti had overwhelmed him with out an excessive amount of sweat and Jackie Stewart had even advised publicly he’d “make a very good touring automobile driver”. That stung. However when Jonathan Palmer launched his bold Formulation Palmer Audi one-make sequence in 1998, Wilson was amongst a lot of respectable however equally directionless drivers to enroll. I noticed him win the primary (non-points) race at Oulton Park and he went on to develop into a convincing champion.
Palmer, hardly a person to be simply impressed, was fully offered on Wilson early on that yr and never solely honoured his promise of a prize-drive in F3000, but additionally grew to become his supervisor. He directed Justin right into a seat on the Belgian Astromega workforce for ’99, throughout which he was one in every of solely seven drivers to qualify for all 10 rounds – no imply feat within the common scramble to financial institution an honest lap in F3000’s quick qualifying classes.
Wilson switched to Nordic in 2000 and made clear progress, scoring a few podiums and ending up fifth within the factors. However a 3rd season in a sequence too typically missed by each F1 groups and upcoming drivers reminiscent of Jenson Button and Kimi Räikkönen didn’t bode properly that Justin actually was going anyplace significant. The factor is, the Sheffield lad – and he nonetheless was again then, aged simply 21 – was so damned likeable you couldn’t assist however want him properly. Quiet, well mannered, practically all the time cheerful, and clearly working onerous to beat a pure shyness, Wilson was merely one of many good guys.
Twenty years later, what actually strikes me about F3000 in that season was the Sheffield metal on the core of Wilson’s lanky six-foot four-inch body. That yr, he confronted Mark Webber and the distinction – regardless of an retro, impractical similarity in top – couldn’t have been extra stark. The Australian was assured, eloquent, sharp, humorous and already profiting from a significant foothold in F1 by means of his Benetton/Renault check deal that stored him very busy between F3000 races. And but it was Webber who faltered. The F1 testing contributed to Mark’s undoing in F3000, as he was compelled to adapt again to his Tremendous Nova Lola each time he returned to it after pounding round European circuits within the Benetton. He made a whole lot of uncharacteristic errors, though with hindsight, it made little distinction to his trajectory that might finally result in these 9 grand prix wins with Crimson Bull and an in depth name on the 2010 world title.
Wilson confronted different abilities in 2001, together with his equally likeable team-mate Tomas Enge. The Czech, who would go on to get pleasure from a profitable endurance racing profession, had an apparent edge over Wilson within the truth he had finances. A contented-go-lucky character, he helped make Nordic a cheerful workforce to go to that season, particularly given the outcomes each drivers have been scooping up.
Elsewhere, future four-time Champ Automobile title winner Sébastien Bourdais was toiling away at DAMS – and claimed an honest win at Silverstone. The specs he wore left him type-cast as ‘bookish’, however Bourdais had an unmistakable fireplace of depth about him that might carry him to his important successes within the US, sports activities automobile racing and right into a deserved, if short-lived, F1 profession at Toro Rosso in 2008. A disgrace he got here up towards the power of nature that was Sebastian Vettel again then.
There have been others: Amazonian British F3 champion Antonio Pizzonia, who would make it to F1 through Jaguar and Williams; Italian Giorgio Pantano, who by no means fairly delivered on his fearsome fame in karts; fast however barely mad Belgian David Saelens; and one other likeable Yorkshireman Darren Manning, who unusually unravelled that season at Christian Horner’s Arden workforce and scored simply 9 factors.