At the venerable age of 32, Allan McNish is hardly a new face in motor racing, or even in some Formula One circles. He first drove a Grand Prix car 12 years ago.
However, his career was forced to take a series of detours after that early test opportunity with McLaren, and only now has he finally managed to steer his way to a racing job in the sport's premier category. He is due to make his debut with the similarly untried Toyota team at the Australian Grand Prix on 3 March.
The story of McNish's convoluted journey to Formula One is all the more remarkable and inspiring in an era when teams are increasingly obsessed with the quest for the next wonder boy. Jenson Button, Kimi Raikkonen, Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa typify modern recruitment policy.
McNish was the Button of his time: young, gifted and on track. Many respected observers believed he was a more natural talent and better prospect than his fellow Scotsman, David Coulthard.
Six times Scottish junior kart champion, British junior kart champion and British senior kart champion, McNish was already attracting the attention of the racing community before he graduated to cars in 1987. The following year he won the British Vauxhall Lotus Championship.
Although he was beaten into second place in the 1989 British Formula Three Championship, he appeared to be assured his passage to Formula One. He had the backing of Marlboro, a test contract with McLaren and a racing programme with the French team, DAMS, in the International Formula 3000 Championship.
Then fate intervened. A tragic incident and a number of wrong turns deflected McNish off course and he reached the point where Formula One was no longer a realistic objective. On 22 April 1990, McNish raced at Donington Park. He was involved in a collision with another car and a spectator was killed by wreckage. At his next race, three weeks later, he took pole position, the fastest lap and victory. It seemed he had the mental strength as well as the driving ability to make it in this daunting business.
However, the psychological fall-out had a delayed impact on the young McNish and when, the following year, he found himself in a less competitive car, the doubts and concerns gnawed away at his confidence.
"Mentally, I think it took me quite a long time [after the accident] just to settle it all down,'' McNish said in a recently published book*. "The curious aspect was that, if other factors had not followed on the back of it, this would not necessarily have been an issue.''
McNish had another victory that season and finished fourth in the championship but felt he was not ready for Formula One. On the advice of senior personnel at McLaren, he elected to stay at DAMS the following year. To his dismay, he was suddenly heading up a cul-de-sac. DAMS and their Lola could not keep pace with the faster challengers and at the end of the year Marlboro cut off the supply of sponsorship money.
He managed to secure a car for 1992, but again he was among the also-rans and a debilitating virus further undermined his potential. "The momentum had gone and once the momentum goes it is very difficult,'' he says. For the first time, people were beginning to question that potential.
There had been interest from some Formula One teams, the smaller teams who expect to be paid for a seat, and the kid from Dumfries did not have a £2m cheque to wave in their faces. He settled for another test drive, this time with Benetton, and helped pave the way for Michael Schumacher's first World Championship success, in 1994.
McNish returned to the Formula 3000 championship in 1995, only to revert to the test role at Benetton the following year. A slight, fragile looking figure, he was like a moth battering against the window, trying to get into the dazzling inner sanctum of Formula One. Weary and disillusioned, he sought solace elsewhere and so stepped out on an unlikely route to Formula One. He joined the nearly-men and the never-remotely-near-men of sportscars.
"By 1997 I felt I had to do something different and when I went to Porsche I really felt that was the end of Formula One for me," McNish said. "But I was happy with the deal and I had the chance to win races again. That was what I needed above all.''
He won three races for Porsche in North America and was invited to drive for their factory team in the 1998 FIA GT Championship. Victory at Le Mans capped a consistently impressive season.
"The timing for me was good, very good,'' McNish says. "I was enjoying my racing again and people could see that I'd not lost my ability after all. It was a very important period for me.''
Among those impressed onlookers were Toyota, who signed him for their Le Mans 24-hour race venture in 1999. McNish set a lap record before one of his partners was caught up in an accident.
In 2000 McNish joined Audi, winning the ALMS series and finishing second at Le Mans after taking pole position. However, he had not severed his links with Toyota, who engaged him as development driver for their Formula One project. The arrangement held out the tantalising possibility of a belated entry to the inner sanctum.
Mika Salo, the Finn with seven years experience in Formula One, became the Cologne based team's first race driver and McNish was kept on tenterhooks through much of 2001 until being confirmed as Toyota's other driver for their maiden season, 2002.
"It is obviously a bit of a dream come true,'' McNish said. "Especially as 12 years have passed since people first told me that I was going to be a Formula One driver.
"Looking back now I know I was not strong enough to stand up for myself in those early years and one wrong decision seemed to follow another. But then taking the knocks and going through the mill actually helped me. I had to be strong and learn to look after myself.
"I know I am a much better driver now than I was 12 years ago, when I was, if you like, the Jenson Button of the day. I am stronger physically and mentally, and that comes from experience. At the same time I have the hunger because I have never had the chance to compete in Formula One. I'm as excited about my debut as any young driver might be. But I think I'm better prepared for it.
"Damon Hill came into Formula One at about the same age and won the World Championship when he was 36. Nigel Mansell became World Champion at the age of 39. Age isn't the issue. Experience is.''
So is the expertise of the team and the competitiveness of the car. McNish acknowledges: "This is not going to be easy and we don't expect to be racing near the front in our first season. Everyone at Toyota is very realistic about that. Even scoring points this year will be very difficult when you consider Ferrari, McLaren and Williams can expect to fill those first six places in any given Grand Prix.
"Our first job is to qualify for the races and then finish races in respectable positions. But I wouldn't have got involved with Toyota in the first place unless: A: I believed I could convince them I was good enough to race in Formula One, and, B: I was convinced they had the commitment, resources and potential to make a success of this.''
McNish added: "You have to take your chances in life. Mine has been a long time coming but now I have it I intend to grab it with both hands and make the most of it.''
Inside The Mind of the Grand Prix Driver by Christopher Hilton (Haynes Publishing).
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