Interview with Justin Wilson Part I

Following is a transcript of a telephone conference between Justin Wilson and Australian media on Thursday, December 19, 2002, organised by the Australian Grand Prix Corporation. HOST'S INTRODUCTION: Good evening to our friends in Britain, ...

Following is a transcript of a telephone conference between Justin Wilson and Australian media on Thursday, December 19, 2002, organised by the Australian Grand Prix Corporation.

HOST'S INTRODUCTION: Good evening to our friends in Britain, especially to new Formula One driver Justin Wilson, and good morning to media friends around Australia. It's great to have Minardi's new driver, Justin Wilson, on line with us and I'm sure everyone looks forward to chatting to Justin in just a moment. He's proved himself a very accomplished racing driver already, particularly in winning the International Formula 3000 Championship in 2001 ahead of Australia's Mark Webber. Of course, Mark Webber drove for Minardi this year and, with his move now to Jaguar, Justin Wilson takes up the Minardi seat and will make his debut in Melbourne at the 2003 Foster's Australian Grand Prix on March 6-9.

Justin is very tall for a racing driver, at 192 centimetres or 6 foot 3 inches, so it will be very interesting to hear how he copes with the tight cockpits of racing cars. We also have on line today Dr Jonathan Palmer, a former Grand Prix driver, a veteran of 84 Formula One starts, including three Australian Grands Prix when our race was held in Adelaide some years back. Jonathan was the former Tyrrell Formula One team's last world champion, in that he was the top driver in a normally-aspirated car one season back in the late 80s in the era of the turbocharged cars. Jonathan is Justin Wilson's manager and he will have an interesting perspective for us on Justin's climb to Formula One. We also have our regular guest, Paul Stoddart, who of course is the Australian owner of the Minardi team. As usual, all media will be invited in turn to ask questions of our guests and again we shall just ensure that the needs of our radio participants are met first up. But just before we lead off with questions, Paul Stoddart might just tell us why he chose Justin Wilson for his Formula One team and what Minardi will be doing to accommodate Justin's height.

Paul Stoddart: Good morning, everybody. Firstly, as you so kindly said in your introduction, obviously Justin having won the 2001 Formula 3000 Championship is a worthy recipient of a Formula One seat and I think he is going to do a fantastic job and follow on, hopefully, in the footsteps that we proved this year with Mark (Webber) and, who knows, maybe a good result in Melbourne as well. As for 6 foot 3 inches, yes, we did have to do quite a few modifications to the 2003 car. I think Justin will tell you in a moment that he's never truly comfortable in a car, but he's as comfortable in the Minardi as he has been in other cars he has raced in and I think he will prove on the track just how comfortable he is.

Host: Thanks, Paul. Now to questions.

Q: Congratulations, Justin, and perhaps you can tell us how you adjust with your height to sitting in the cockpit?

A: Obviously it's something that I've always had to cope with throughout my career, starting in karts. I was always very tall. When I moved into cars it's always been an issue and I've just had to get on with it and moved into (Formula) Palmer Audi, which was able to accommodate my size much better; 3000 was difficult but possible; and then I got to Formula One, where it's been very difficult but, with the setback earlier in the year when I was unable to stand in for (Malaysian driver) Alex Yoong at Minardi (for the Hungarian and Belgian GPs), it made everybody very determined to make it happen for 2003. It's difficult but it's not impossible.

Q: It's obviously a pretty exciting time for you, moving into Formula One in the Minardi team.

A: Yeah, it's fantastic and I can't wait to get behind the wheel, and really looking forward to the challenge of the championship and just everything about it is very exciting.

Q: Minardi had a dream start at Melbourne in 2002 (with Mark Webber finishing fifth on debut). Will you be trying to emulate that in some way?

A: Yeah, they had a fantastic start last year and it would be nice to do something similar, but I'm not getting too carried away at the minute. (It's a case of) feet firmly on the ground and get on with the job that I have, trying to do the best thing possible.

Q: Obviously there are many issues and factors that go into getting a Formula One seat and we always hear about the height. How much of an inconvenience is it to you and did you ever think you would actually get to this point, that you would get a Formula One ride?

A: There was, as I said before, a time when I was trying to get in and stand in for Alex earlier in the season when I realised I wouldn't be able to fit in the car. That was a very low point and that night I sat in the hotel thinking that maybe Formula One is not going to be and I should look elsewhere, but with constant words of encouragement from Paul and the press over here in England, and the support that I gained from that was just incredible, it just made everyone more determined - Jonathan, myself and my father - to make it happen in 2003.

Q: We are harping on this height business a bit, but it is interesting. To some extent the car or the chassis had to be designed around you but, if you move up or to different teams, do you anticipate problems there. Are teams going to have to continue to have to modify their cars for you?

A: That is an interesting question and I'm sure Jonathan will say a bit on that later as well, but there is talk about them maybe modifying the rules in the next couple of years to help taller drivers. It seems to be a general trend that people get slightly taller over here, and it is a problem, but we feel that we will tackle that when we get there and we are confident that it's going to work out, otherwise we wouldn't take such a risk.

Q: Paul has alluded to the success that Mark had in the car in the 2002 Foster's Australian Grand Prix. When you get here next year you will realise what a big deal the Minardi team is for the Australian public. Given Mark Webber's achievement in getting in the points in 2002, does that put extra pressure on you in your debut in a home-town team to get a result?

A: It will be a bit of pressure, yes. I know Mark did a fantastic job back then at his home Grand Prix, and I think maybe he was able to do something really good because it was his home Grand Prix, and I won't have the pressure, although I know it's Paul's (home GP), it's not my (home) Grand Prix, so for me it's just getting my head down and getting on with the job and trying to do whatever I can. If I'm quick enough to get into the points then it's fantastic. If not, we've got to keep working away and try to improve myself and the car.

Q: What goals do you have for your first season?

A: The goals, I've been saying to the press over here, is the car has improved since Mark drove it, we've got a new engine, a Cosworth engine, which is a much better package, I believe, and I think Paul believes as well. With the way the points system is working now, the points going down to eighth, I feel that it should be looking to get into the points on a bit more of a regular basis than what Mark was given the opportunity to do last season. I know he has finished seventh a few times and this year that's going to count, so we are both just hoping that we can score a few points and just make a real impact and, hopefully, you never know what can happen.

Q: Maybe later Jonathan might comment on having a tall driver as teammate because he used to drive with (Frenchman) Philippe Streiff (as Tyrrell teammates in 1987). Justin, one of the things that will happen to you when you come to Melbourne is that you will be pitched into a new one-lap qualifying system, as if there wasn't enough pressure on getting a place on the grid. How hard do you think this will be?

A: I think it's going to be quite intense. There's going to be a lot of pressure on that one lap to get it right. And there's going to be situations when it doesn't go right. And there might be situations where, when we get to some of the European tracks, the weather could change throughout qualifying and really mix up the grid. I'm personally looking forward to the challenge. It reminds me of racing karts over here in England. When you reach the top level you have the single-lap qualifying. It's quite a challenge and it's good fun for the drivers and I'm looking forward to that.

Q: There have been all sorts of drivers linked to the second seat at Minardi, ranging from more experienced drivers to numerous paying drivers. Have you got any preference? Would you like somebody in the team with you who has got a few races under his belt and can share the load or are you not really bothered?

A: I personally don't mind. I'm looking forward to seeing who is going to be the other driver, but in the past I've got along with all the teammates I have had and it's just a case of doing my own job, and hopefully it's somebody I can work with again and make a full team of the environment.

Host: Perhaps it's an opportune time for Jonathan Palmer to tell us of his involvement and perhaps his perspective on Justin and his prospects in Formula One.

Johnathon Palmer: Thank you. Yes, it's very, very exciting indeed for me now. Justin Wilson was my Formula Palmer Audi champion in 1998, that was my first year, and this is a series that I set out, or I should say set up, to provide aspiring Formula One stars with a much, much cheaper, much fairer, level playing field formula than the Formula Three system provided. And it was fantastic in that year in 1998 just watching 26 drivers all trying to prove who was the best and in the end Justin did. He won nine of the 16 races and he was a very dominant champion and he won the prize of a fully-funded season in Formula 3000 from me and he really went on to do tremendous justice to that - going on to win the championship, of course, in (Formula) 3000 in 2001. So to actually now get finally into that top league of Formula One is a tremendous achievement for Justin and quite a justification, I think, for Formula Palmer Audi and I shall look forward to following Justin's progress very, very closely of course as his manager.

Host: Jonathan, F1 is obviously a very exclusive club, particularly now as there are 10 teams, so only 20 seats. How hard has it been to get Justin into Formula One, and particularly in view of his height - which is obviously an unusual factor?

A: Well, it has been difficult. I think if Justin was 5' foot 9" - and whatever that is in metres and centimetres - he probably would have been a Williams or McLaren test driver this year, having won the (Formula) 3000 championship last year. But the problem is, with his height, it is not easy to just drop Justin into another Formula One car. Actually it's quite ironical that Justin has managed to fit into Formula Vauxhall, Formula Palmer Audi, Formula Three cars, Formula 3000 cars. In each of these cars to go well enough to win or be right on the pace, and yet at the very top level - when you think, with the most horsepower, 700 or 800 horsepower - you would have thought size would be less of an issue than it is lower down. But, of course, what happens is that, whilst the FIA (Federation Internationale de l'Automobile, world governing body of motor sport) make the regulations for the size of the cars, and indeed the cockpit regulation for Formula One is the same as (Formula) 3000, but of course the teams themselves are always using huge amounts of expertise to optimise the regulations and a part of doing that means that many of the cars, in fact all of them, end up slightly smaller than Formula 3000 cars. But we should be clear here, that the problem is not just one that afflicts Justin. We saw this when Heinz-Harald Frentzen tried to have his first run (in 2002) in a Sauber car, which he is going to be driving next year, and he didn't fit. And Frentzen is not 6' 3". He might be 5' 11". So clearly the team's opportunity to interpret the regulations and build cars give them a lot of scope to make them quite a bit of smaller than what was originally intended. (FIA president) Max Mosley has always said that he wanted drivers of certainly up to 190cm and virtually Justin's size to be comfortable in Formula One cars, and he is going to be looking carefully I think at that regulation, particularly now as we have had a few things that have intruded in it. We now have the seat liner, and that has taken away a bit of precious space; there's the HANS system too - the safety system for the head and neck, and that takes up a little bit more space - so there has been an erosion also of the cockpit size, so that life has got harder. But, as I say, it's not just about Justin.

Host: Paul Stoddart, perhaps you could just enlighten us on the time frame for the other Minardi driver. We have seen some mention this morning that he might even be named before Christmas.

PS: Hopefully. We have had a lot of speculation over here that the identity may be Dutch, but there has equally been confusion over which Dutch driver that may be (Christijan Albers or Jos Verstappen). Justin pointed out before that he has got on with every teammate he has ever had, and I'm quite sure he is going to get on with whichever one he has in 2003. I am hoping to announce it before Christmas, but it's obviously subject to some commercial negotiations and we're getting pretty close to the silly season now where everything is going to shut down, so it may well go into January.

Q: Paul, a general question about sponsorship and ability. Obviously new drivers have to bring a sizeable amount of money - that's fairly well accepted. What sort of percentage is there with ability and money? Obviously you have to drive to get a run but, if you're slightly off the pace, does a lot of money swing it for you?

A: Each one has its own circumstances. Take the case of Justin. Never let it be said Justin is a pay driver. His record and his career to date shows that he is nothing of what might have been described in the past as a pay driver. He is so, so superior to that. But, yes, in times like this, the teams do look towards sponsorship. We are certainly no exception, and we are setting different levels for different levels of talent, and it is fair to say that Justin's was minimum because we think the guy is going to do a fantastic job for the team and for himself. And I think he is going to go on to continue in our little tradition of first Alonso and then Webber, as being not only probably rookies of the year but really race winners of the future, so there is an entry level for someone with Justin's undeniable talent that perhaps may be raised for a driver that may have the talent but it may not have come to the surface in anything he has done to date, so therefore from the team's point of view it's a slightly bigger risk.

Q: You just mentioned Fernando Alonso and Mark Webber and now Justin Wilson. Are you becoming Formula One's de facto junior development squad?

A: Our track record to date is not bad, is it? I said to Justin at the launch (at London's Heathrow airport yesterday), we've really had a (star rookie) driver a year. And I do genuinely believe Justin will continue in that mould. And I really do believe the guy is capable of doing in Formula One what he has shown he can do in every other formula, which is go on to much bigger and better things. A lot has been made about the size, but you have got to look at the man behind the size. In Justin, you've got an undeniable talent. You have got a guy who is really capable of doing a good job for himself, for the team, and I think he will do his talking on the track and I think you will be well pleased when you see him in Melbourne.

Q: A question for Jonathan. Do you think that given the height factor, and that it is a bit more difficult and the existing problems with that, will it mean that Justin will need to perform better than most to be elevated through the ranks?

JP: I don't think so particularly. You know, thinking back to his days in Formula Palmer Audi and back in (Formula) 3000, once he is there racing against other racers, other drivers, other teams, people don't think about his size. Nobody in (Formula) 3000 wandered around thinking, 'Well, of course, he is very tall'. All they looked at was the time sheet, the qualifying sheets, the race results and the margin, and what was happening on the track. And Justin Wilson was only ever appraised in that sort of way. It's just at this threshold stage, when he is trying to get up to the next level, when it's become an issue. The other thing is that part of the fantastic strength of Formula One is a worldwide media and public interest and that's why we are all talking about it now. In (Formula) 3000 it didn't have anything like the media exposure and therefore it was not really an issue. That's fine, that's perfectly understandable, and I think Justin's height is a real asset in fact because it does set him apart; it makes him a little bit different and when spectators and enthusiast fans follow what's going on they will label Justin out as "the tall guy" in a way that I was labelled out as "the doctor" who went motor racing, and these things aren't a bad thing to identify drivers. But what is really going to matter is what he does in the car, and I am absolutely convinced that, with the improved Minardi package in 2003 - and it really is a big hike, this Cosworth engine has got 70 horsepower more than last year; it's 20 kilos lighter - it's a very exciting time. In Formula One it all moves forward, but a lot of the teams are finding the financial climate a bit tough and I think in some ways between the middle and Minardi, which has been at the back traditionally, the gap may well close. I think Justin's superb ability - and I've seen it for five years, I wouldn't be putting my resources behind him if I didn't really believe in the guy, like Paul - and I'm absolutely sure there are going to be a number of races this year when team managers and all the experienced media people are going to be looking up from the pit wall and in the media centre in the middle of a race and saying, 'Hey, that's Wilson who has just overtaken Button in a BAR', or something. There is going to be something going on; people are going to really raise their eyebrows and, when he performs on the track, as I think he will, they are going to just find that height issue shrinking into the background. And when a team want a driver, as Ferrari do with (Michael) Schumacher or whatever anybody does with anybody, they will go to whatever length they need to to get that driver. With Paul it's been fantastic. He has had that confidence, he has seen Justin perform in (Formula) 3000 against Mark Webber. In Formula 3000 experience, he (Paul Stoddart) is in fact the only team manager that really has had a Formula 3000 hands-on involvement and that's why I think he can see the talent, and he can see that the relativity minor but various modifications required on the car are going to be, hopefully, a small price to pay for having the best new talent in Formula One.

Host: Justin, obviously your season in Formula 3000 in 2001, in winning the title, was very impressive, particularly to us looking at it from this distance and following Mark Webber's progress. You were very consistent and you may even have had a record points score for the season. Did you feel hard done by that Mark Webber got into Formula One very quickly when he had finished down the track from you, while you had to cool your heels this year in Formula Nissan for a year?

A: No, not at all. Myself and Mark always got on very well, even though we were competing against each other, and I was quite pleased that he got the opportunity because we weren't exactly going after the same drive at the same time. We both spoke to Minardi but Paul had gone much further down the line with Mark than we were together, so I didn't feel bitter in any way and I was just looking forward to seeing how Mark got on, that we were very closely matched, so for me it's just like seeing a friend go out there and prove how good he was to find out I'm at a similar level.

Host: That question was not meant so much in a personal sense but, generally, that your form in Formula 3000 was fantastic, you must have had the confidence that you could acquit yourself well in Formula One, and not just Mark Webber but there were two or three other new drivers in F1 in 2003, that it must have been disappointing to see other guys getting the breaks and one not opening up for you at that time?

A: No, not at all. I got to the point where I felt confident that if I did get the opportunity that I had the experience and I was at the right level to be in Formula One, but at no point did I expect to be in Formula One. I know how difficult it is to get there, and some people have it easier than others. But, like most things in life, if you expect something it doesn't seem to come.

Q: You talked about feeling really low when you were unable to replace Alex Yoong for those two GPs in 2002. You couldn't get into the Minardi car, but was it around that time that you also entered Champ Car tests and was it the Ganassi team? What happened there? Was that ever really a big option for you?

A: Yeah, that was a bit later on, when I got the opportunity to test on the oval with Newman Haas about a month or two ago, and that was just brought about because we were talking to them and just progressing things and it was a serious option for them to look at, being CART rather than F1, but as it came down we felt that F1 is where we have always dreamed of being and that's what we wanted to do, even though we felt that CART was going to see some great years come back again.

Q: From a physical point of view how comfortable are you in the Minardi now?

A: I feel as comfortable in the Minardi as I did in the Nissan or the 3000. As long as I'm up to the required fitness I don't see a problem at the minute. Things might change when I start driving, but I feel at the minute I'm in the same seat position with the same amount of room as the cars I've driven for the last three or four years.

Host: Justin, Paul Stoddart gave us to understand before that you have never felt entirely comfortable in any car. Obviously you have always fitted in one way or another, but is it correct that you've never felt that any car is quite right for you?

A: It's not like sitting on the sofa, put it that way. I've always been in the same situation, so for me I've been able to get into a position which I'm happy with, whether that's as comfortable as other people get it, but I'm happy, I'm not complaining. And I think I'm capable of driving the car in that situation.


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About this article
Series Formula 1
Drivers Jos Verstappen , Heinz-Harald Frentzen , Mark Webber , Justin Wilson , Fernando Alonso , Alex Yoong , Christijan Albers , Paul Stoddart , Jonathan Palmer , Philippe Streiff
Teams Ferrari , Sauber , McLaren , Williams , Minardi