Wilson sets 'awesome' time on Jaguar debut

Formula One: British driver recovers from heartbreak of Minardi experience to put world champion Schumacher in shade during qualifying
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The Independent Online

By contrast to what he had to go through just to get into a Formula One car, yesterday's effort to match Jaguar team-mate Mark Webber's performance was a doddle for Justin Wilson.

A year ago, Britain's only Formula 3000 champion could have kick-started his F1 career with the Minardi team in the races that Malaysian pay-driver Alex Yoong was due to miss. But he was too tall. "I will never forget that day when I went to the Minardi factory to see if I could fit into the car, and found that I couldn't," said the 25 year-old.

It was 5 August last year when he discovered that his 6ft 4in frame was too large, and instead the drive went to diminutive fellow countryman Anthony Davidson.

"I was shattered," Wilson admits. "I just thought, 'Is this it?' I went back to the Cavallino Hotel in Faenza and sat alone in the restaurant. I felt incredibly lonely. The only thing I could think of was that maybe the Formula One thing just wasn't meant to happen for me after all."

That night, Wilson called his girlfriend, Esther le Dieu, his hyper-supportive father Keith, and his manager, former F1 racer Jonathan Palmer. The latter was on holiday on the Isle of Wight, and remembers the bad news. "I asked him how it was going, and he said: 'Not very well, I can't get in the car, it's not going to work'. It was the lowest I've ever heard him."

This time, after a clandestine visit to Jaguar's factory in the week before the British Grand Prix, there was to be no heartbreak. The Jaguar could have been made for his frame. "Before things went too far they obviously wanted to see if I could fit the car," Wilson said yesterday. "I didn't know why they wanted me to try it, whether it was for 2004 or what. I went to factory late in the evening and everything was okay. The relief was immense. But after that I just had to ignore whatever the reason was for them wanting me to try the car, and get on with my British Grand Prix for Minardi." After that, he received the call to replace Brazilian driver Antonio Pizzonia.

Yesterday afternoon the test that Wilson faced seemed so much easier in comparison, though he admitted that Webber's speed was unnerving. The Australian's lap of 1min 15.030sec put him an impressive fourth in the preliminary qualifying line-up.

"It's been a steep learning curve, getting used to the car, the circuit and the team, and I've been learning more every time I've gone out as I have figured out what the car can do," Wilson said. "This weekend my target was to qualify within a second of Mark, because I know how quick he can be. Then I saw his lap time. It was great for the team, but of course it put me under a lot of pressure. I was thinking about his lap time while I was in the car. At the end of my own qualifying lap I knew it had been reasonable, but it was a pleasant surprise to be so close. Actually, it was awesome."

Wilson lapped in 1min 15.373sec, seventh fastest overall, which put him ahead of both Ferraris and fellow Britons David Coulthard (11th after a few mistakes) and Jenson Button (12th).

In temperatures that climbed to 43C, Michelin-shod cars and BMW Williams team-mates Ralf Schumacher and Juan Pablo Montoya dominated on the truncated Hockenheimring. The former described his car as, "perfect, just brilliant," and the latter believed only a touch of early braking for the hairpin prevented him from being fastest.

In their wake, Webber split the Renaults of Jarno Trulli and Fernando Alonso, and Wilson pushed right up behind championship contender Kimi Raikkonen as the Ferraris were only eighth and ninth.

"We are not usually eighth and ninth," admitted Ferrari's sporting director Jean Todt. "Our competition seems to be strong over a flying lap. But we don't think this result is a true reflection of what will happen over the whole weekend."

The world champion, Michael Schumacher, who was ninth, admitted. "It doesn't look too encouraging for us, but we are very consistent in race trim."

It is still an early stage in the weekend and, with rain forecast for tomorrow, anything could happen. It would be remarkable if the Jaguars were still ahead of the Ferraris after qualifying today.

For Wilson it was a day to savour, a job well done, a point made. "Sure, the big test is tomorrow's qualifying session," he said. "But suffice it to say I am surprised how my first weekend with Jaguar has begun."

Meanwhile, Eddie Jordan faces an unwelcome legal bill after dropping his High Court action against Vodafone yesterday and offering to pay their costs. Jordan, whose team has struggled to continue in Formula One due to cash-flow concerns, had sued the telecommunications company, claiming they reneged on a £100m sponsorship deal.

He claimed Vodafone agreed to sponsor Jordan before making a last-ditch switch to Ferrari and launched a £150m action, which had hung on the meaning of: "You've got the deal".

At the start of a the Commercial Court hearing in June, Mr Justice Langley heard claims that David Haines, Vodafone's global branding director, said that to Jordan on the phone on 22 March, 2001. Vodafonesaid Jordan's case was "wholly without merit".

German Grand Prix (Hockenheim) First qualifying: 1 R Schumacher (Ger) Williams-BMW 1min 14.427sec; 2 J P Montoya (Col) Williams-BMW 1:14.673; 3 J Trulli (It) Renault 1:15.004; 4 M Webber (Aus) Jaguar 1:15.030; 5 F Alonso (Sp) Renault 1:15.214; 6 K Raikkonen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 1:15.276; 7 J Wilson (GB) Jaguar 1:15.373; 8 R Barrichello (Br) Ferrari 1:15.399; 9 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1:15.456; 10 O Panis (Fr) Toyota 1:15.471; 11 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 1:15.557; 12 J Button (GB) BAR-Honda 1:15.754; 13 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Sauber-Petronas 1:15.968; 14 N Heidfeld (Ger) Sauber-Petronas 1:15.985; 15 C da Matta (Br) Toyota 1:16.450; 16 R Firman (GB) Jordan-Ford 1:17.044; 17 G Fisichella (It) Jordan-Ford 1:17.111; 18 J Verstappen (Neth) Minardi-Ford 1:17.702; 19 J Villeneuve (Can) BAR-Honda no time; 20 N Kiesa (Den) Minardi-Ford no time.