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The great what-ifs

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Tom Kristensen testing the distinctive but slow 1997 Minardi at Catalunya. Images uploaded in the spirit of fair use

I’ve been re-reading Autosport’s Top 50 Drivers Who Never Raced In F1, which they published in July. For me, it’s the best thing they’ve published in years – genuine insight into some of the greatest talents who never quite reached the top level for one reason or another. Some never made it due to finance, others due to injury or death, and some just due to circumstance.

However, there’s a clear divide there between those that were almost certainly going to race in F1 but for circumstantial issues, such as Gary Hocking, Jean-Luc Salomon, Christophe Bouchut and Sebastien Loeb, and those that were on the periphery but never quite made it, such as Dario Franchitti, Laurent Aiello and Tom Kristensen, who heads the list. I do wonder about some of the latter in particular – many drivers get rated as “lost talents”, but often there are reasons why they didn’t make it. If a driver like Kristensen, who I greatly admire and is clearly one of the greatest sportscar and touring car drivers of all time, didn’t make it, is it genuinely because of money/circumstance? Because ultimately if he was a brilliant driver who could have won F1 grands prix and championships, would he have slipped through the net?

That’s probably the only way in which the list fails. Yes, it’s nice to think there are drivers out there who were robbed of a good chance to succeed in F1 just by a set of coincidences, but do we really see Kristensen, Franchitti and Gary Paffett as potential F1 champions in an era dominated by Michael Schumacher, Mika Hakkinen, Fernando Alonso and numerous other talented drivers? These guys probably achieved far more in their respective fields than they would have in F1, where it’s more likely that they would have ended up tooling around in the midfield for two or three years before ending up exactly where they came from.

———-

However, there are some interesting cases where things might have been different. Gerry Birrell is the obvious candidate here, because he was lined up for a genuine front-running drive for the 1974 season – in place of Jackie Stewart at Tyrrell, alongside Francois Cevert. However, both prospective drivers were killed in 1973 (in frighteningly similar accidents), giving Jody Scheckter and Patrick Depailler second chances in F1, which ultimately led them to successful careers.


Milngavie’s Gerry Birrell

It’s difficult to pick apart where exactly a Cevert/Birrell partnership would have led Tyrrell, as certainly they would have spent the real 1974 regrouping after the loss of both of their drivers. Cevert in particular was a talented driver and would undoubtedly have won more races had he lived. Scheckter was able to jump in the 1974 Tyrrell and challenge for the title despite less F1 experience than Cevert, so it’s conceivable that the Frenchman could have been champion that year, ahead of Fittipaldi and Regazzoni.

Birrell is more difficult to fathom: his record in the lower formulae wasn’t fantastic but he was improving, the people who knew him or remember him racing speak highly of his abilities. Depailler was incredibly talented but wild and erratic. If Birrell was a bit steadier, perhaps that wouldn’t necessarily have been a bad thing. He was 28 at the time of his death, and would have been 29 at the start of the 1974 season, but breaking through at that age wasn’t as rare as it is today: Carlos Reutemann made his debut in 1972 when he was nearly 30 and yet still raced in F1 for ten years.

Had Tyrrell won the championship again in 1974, maybe they would have had a much more stable decade instead of the decline they actually faced. That said, the innovations of the late 1970s, particularly ground effect which Tyrrell were slow to master, are probably what ultimately sent them into a tailspin into the 1980s which ended with their demise in 1998.

As for Scheckter and Depailler, who knows – maybe they would be the subject of “what-if” articles like this…

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Jamie Green is another interesting case from a more recent time. When I first began to watch him race, he was making progress in the DTM in 2006 but unable to eke out a maiden win. “Oh, he must be another of those British bottlers then,” I thought. He did eventually win races in the DTM but has never quite translated this to a consistent season, which has hardly erased that perception.

However, looking at his results before then, I’m feeling a bit sorry for ever thinking that. In 2004, he won the Formula Three Euroseries by a massive 52 points while driving for ASM, with seven wins and six further podium finishes. Yes, he was driving for the dominant team and had Mercedes backing, and it’s still not quite the level of domination Lewis Hamilton achieved the following year (when he beat allcomers by 78 points, having won 15 out of the 20 races) but that’s still very impressive.

Green had been marked out before then as a future star, having won the McLaren Autosport BRDC Award for young drivers back in 2002 (beating Adam Carroll in the process) and thus earning himself a test with McLaren. In 2003 he finished runner-up in British Formula Three behind current F1 medical car driver Alan van der Merwe, before moving on to the DTM-supporting Euroseries in 2004.

As the Autosport article explains, ASM were keen to sign him up for their new ART Grand Prix operation for the first season of GP2 in 2005. However, Green’s backers were unsure of the new formula and decided to place him in DTM instead, thus consigning him to a career in touring cars. It’s difficult to escape from there: only Paul di Resta has jumped from the DTM to F1 in recent years, and even he had to perform miracles to do that. Di Resta was probably one of the reasons why Green didn’t get out of there: not only did the Scot suddenly become Mercedes’ favoured Brit, but his feats only made Green’s lack of wins in his first two seasons look disappointing.


Jamie Green’s only F1 test came at Silverstone for McLaren in 2004, alongside Alex Lloyd and Lewis Hamilton

The F1 what-if becomes intriguing if you know what happened next in GP2, though: ART hired Nico Rosberg and Alexandre Premat, whom Green had beaten comfortably in F3, and Rosberg went on to win the championship, earning himself a Williams drive and a successful F1 career. Had Green’s backers been braver with the new series, it’s conceivable that he could have earned himself an F1 drive. Even if it’s not the Williams drive, there are scenarios where he could do well, such as testing for McLaren for a year in 2006 before taking the seat destined for Lewis Hamilton in 2007.

So actually, despite initially dismissing Green’s placing at number 14 in Autosport’s countdown as “pro-British/current driver bias”, an alternative history where he would be a future F1 race-winner is actually more plausible than some of the more renowned drivers placed ahead of him.

———-

I could go through each individually and talk about how Jason Watt probably would have been no more than an Alex Wurz-type figure or Al Unser Jr would have done no better in F1 than Michael Andretti, but that would take forever. I may delve deeper into them in the future. However, for now, there are a few in particular that intrigue me.

Firstly, there’s Greg Moore. You could dismiss the continual mythologising of the great lost Canadian as simply being because he died young and was heading for a top drive in 2000. There’s a case to be made that he wasn’t as good as has been made out in the years since, that the IndyCar split may have cost him in the long run, or that he was too much of a risk-taker to be successful (a similar argument has been made about another lost Canadian, Bertrand Fabi).

However, there’s no getting away from the fact that F1 teams were interested. The GrandPrix.com archive has the odd story on him being linked to a potential McLaren drive in the late 1990s in place of either Mika Hakkinen or David Coulthard, while the Autosport article suggests he had prominent admirers in F1 in the shape of Jackie Stewart and Jean Todt, both team bosses at the time. It’s easy to see the attraction: a good-looking young Canadian with natural driving ability who would satisfy both fans and corporations. I don’t think it’s a stretch to think Moore could’ve been handed a deal to drive a race-winning car around this time.


An evocative image of the late Greg Moore in the wet

Jorg Muller is another interesting case. I have the 2000 ITV F1 season preview book, and Muller is listed as the Williams driver, with his testing experience and BMW links being cited as reasons for his choice. He was also a damn good driver, though, as proven by his Formula 3000 championship success in 1996. However, winning F3000 was as much a curse as a blessing, as far as F1 was concerned, and Muller was beaten to the drive by Jenson Button; in fact, he fell behind Bruno Junqueira (who I’m surprised didn’t make Autosport’s list, by the way) in the pecking order before that too.


Jorg Muller testing the Williams-BMW test mule

Had Muller got that seat, it would have been a bit of a safe, boring choice compared to young Button, who went on to be a revelation during the 2000 season. However, there’s no reason why he wouldn’t have done a solid job. He has been a consistent performer in touring cars and sportscars for BMW in the years since. It’s doubtful that he would have been a world champion like Button was, which sort of proves Williams right (except that they didn’t hang on to him), but at least it would have given him a shot in a competitive car, and he may have gotten closer to Ralf that year than Button did, which may have given him a shot at a decent career in F1. It also raises the question of what might have happened to Button had he not got his breakthrough drive.

Incidentally, it’s good to see Marc Hynes, who beat Button to the British F3 championship in 1999, back in a competitive drive, this time in the BTCC.

There are other intriguing stories there too. Paul Warwick was very quick, and though one could question the impartiality of his brother if you really wanted to cynical, I don’t think Derek is the sort of person who would necessarily exaggerate. My gut feeling is Paul would have been successful in F1. And though they might read as excuses, the stories surrounding Laurent Aiello, James Courtney and Rickard Rydell seem plausible enough to suggest that they were also good enough to race to a reasonably high level in F1. I hadn’t heard the story behind Rydell’s British F3 campaign and I like it. Rickard’s such a nice guy off the track that it makes sense that people didn’t think he was enough of a racer, even though he later went on to prove he was as much of a racer as anyone under a tin top.


Touring car star Laurent Aiello was given a McLaren test at Estoril in 1994 due to his links with Peugeot

The IndyCar guys make for a nice story too, although I have my doubts. As I hinted earlier, I suspect Unser Jr didn’t have the focus for F1. It’s interesting to learn that Paul Tracy had potential deals for Benetton for 1995 and 1996, but the former was a seat alongside Schumacher and the latter would have been in his wake, so it’s probably better than he didn’t take them. I’m dubious as to whether Dan Wheldon would have done an awful lot in the BMW Sauber, Franchitti didn’t have a competitive ride offered to him, and there’s little evidence to show whether or not Stewart would have done well. However, the explanation in the article for Brack doesn’t cover the fact that he did a few F1 tests and was Ligier’s official test driver in 1996, but I doubt he’d have been more than a midfield runner. In fact, you could say the same about most of them: Power, Dixon, De Ferran. Of all those listed, Rick Mears strikes me as the one most likely to have been successful in F1, especially considering that it was Brabham offering him a deal.


Paul Tracy also had his only F1 test at Estoril in 1994, and was quicker than Lehto and Verstappen

Ultimately F1 is all about having the right car at the right time. Having a car to begin with helps, but there are countless cases of drivers dropping in and out of F1 because the competition for seats from the midfield back is so intense and, as Damon Hill once said, you have to keep proving yourself race after race. While I enjoyed the article, it’s an awkward subject to write about because the vast majority of extremely talented single-seater racers capable of winning the F1 championship didn’t slip through the net, usually because it’s so bleeding obvious that they’re good enough that they will attract the backing or that teams will hire them even if they didn’t have it. The cream always rises to the top. Anyone who misses out on F1 due to any reason other than death or injury almost certainly didn’t have that x-factor necessary to make a real success of F1.

So when Tom Kristensen or Dario Franchitti say they have no regrets about not racing in F1, they are telling the truth.


Dario Franchitti’s shambolic test at Silverstone for Jaguar in 2000 probably wasn’t a fair reflection of his ability, but he retires with a stack of honours

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Written by James Bennett

December 20, 2013 at 23:25

Posted in F1, F1 drivers, F1 history

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