Dicing with death in the twilight zone

Derick Allsop visits the underprivileged end of the pit lane and discovers that at teams like Pacific survival in Sunday's British Grand Prix will be a victory in itself
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The Independent Online
Venture down the pit lane, away from the glare of the top teams and the famous drivers, beyond the gaggle of celebs, starchy VIPs and giggling hangers-on, and you may ultimately arrive in Formula One's twilight zone.

At this end of the grand prix spectrum the philosophy is as simple as the lifestyle: "We don't think of winning - we think first of surviving."

The words come from Keith Wiggins. He is the boss of the East Anglia- based Pacific team, who are at least still winning their battle for survival. Last winter Larrousse gave up their fight, as did Lotus, and although that long-revered name features on the outfits of Pacific's personnel, it seems the clout went under with the team.

Only last month, Simtec, the other hopeful British operation launched along with Pacific at the beginning of 1994, succumbed to irresistible financial pressures, while Minardi, of Italy, are struggling frantically to keep their heads above water.

The structure of travel and equipment concessions rewards the more successful teams and, from next year, stringent qualifying requirements will squeeze still more life from the lower end of the grid. To make the race any driver will have to have a best time within seven per cent of the pole position man.

Wiggins knows there is scant concern or sympathy for the small teams' plight, but then he asks none. He accepts it is the brutal way of Formula One, even the world. The message is clear: "If you're good enough, you'll make it, if you're not, you won't, and no one is going to miss you."

Pacific clung on last season, concentrating on generating sufficient funds and a half-decent car for this year. Wiggins and two colleagues dug deep into their own pockets. They have confirmed their ambition by taking on additional staff and now have a workforce of 37 - the leading teams have more than 200. Pacific are endeavouring to raise a budget of $10m (pounds 6.5m) for the championship; leading teams have $50m or more. Benetton- Renault head the constructors' championship with 48 points; Pacific-Ford's Bertrand Gachot and Andrea Montermini go into Sunday's British Grand Prix at Silverstone with none.

Wiggins said: "We didn't come in expecting to win and it sticks in my throat when people say we underestimated Formula One. We knew what was required and we knew we didn't have the stature or the money. But we did have blind faith and determination, a lot of sheer commitment. You know it's high risk, but you believe in what you can do.

"We'd won everything there was to win in the lower formulae, but you can stay being the best of the pile or move on. There was nowhere else to go for us.

"We've got funding but not everything we need. We'd like $10m but you can do it on perhaps $6m. We did it on less last year. We've got a good group of people working in difficult circumstances. Top people wouldn't be able to exist here.

"It's hard for the team sometimes because they don't understand why we haven't got the bits we'd like and why perhaps they have to work late because bits have come late, and that's because we haven't had the cash flow at the time and we've held back.

"They understand they can't stay in the best hotels but we would never go over the top, anyway. If we had the money we'd spend it on what matters. We'd go testing regularly, for instance, like the big teams. We can't do that.

Not unnaturally, Wiggins, 37, would appreciate a more level playing field, where funding was spread wider and support was more readily available. Again, not unnaturally, given the harsh nature of the establishment, he insists he is not protesting.

Pacific might have gone under last year and the danger has not yet passed, but it may take more than a mere prolonged financial crisis to submerge the redoubtable Wiggins.

He said: "I don't think I'd ever stop unless someone physically forced me to. I know we can do better than we are adjudged to be doing and I'll keep going until someone hits me over the head to stop me. There were moments last year when I thought it was going to happen to us but I've never considered actually giving up. You learn to live with it."

It might be reasonable to assume, therefore, that Wiggins and the rest of them struggle on because of the fun they get out of their motor racing. Wrong.

"There's not a lot of enjoyment, but then I don't think I've ever really enjoyed it in the 11 years I've been doing this," he said.

"It's a challenge, yes, but the only time you enjoy it, I suppose, is when you leave the circuit and you've won a race or a championship and you feel good about it for a while, but then when you get back it's 'how can we do better?'

"That's obviously the big difference in Formula One, because it's a question of 'how do we cope with the next race?'

"I know if we stay here long term, we'll make it, and we are determined to stay here. You accept there are things around that could determine you won't. The facts are there - like Simtec - that it can happen. If we do have to stop it'll be, for whatever reason, because we failed."