Justin Wilson was today announced as one of the race drivers for the Minardi team for the 2003 season. The Heathrow Hilton, Suite 1, was the venue for the British driver's rise to the highest level of motorsport where, shortly after 11am, he was presented to a gathering of the world's media at a hastily arranged press conference in London, England.
As a team spokesman introduced "the second Englishman, the third Briton, and undoubtedly the tallest driver in Formula One in 2003", a clearly delighted Wilson boldly entered the room and firmly shook hands with team principal Paul Stoddart while posing for photographs. Both men then took to the stage for a question and answer session in what was an extremely media-friendly event.
Wilson expressed his excitement at being a race driver but was also quick to thank Stoddart for giving him the opportunity as well as the other people who have helped him on the long journey to Formula One. He then went on to describe how the 2003 had been built to accommodate his large frame and that he had successfully fitted in the car during a recent visit to Faenza.
During the informal questions from the media after the main presentation Wilson went into quite some detail about the various aspects of the work involved in finally realizing his dream. One noticeable obstacle, which prevented him from taking an opportunity at Jordan in 2001 and a seat at Minardi in 2002, was his 6ft 3in (1.9m) frame: "Obviously for a lot of teams my height is an issue. Now I've got the opportunity where I can fit in the car I just want to go and prove my height is not an issue. I've fitted in every car I've driven in before now. Formula One is supposed to be the pinnacle and it has been the hardest work. It just made us more determined. There's myself, my father, Jonathan my manager, were determined that we were going to make it happen. They've always been very supportive so it's great that it has finally come off."
He described the events of 2002, where he came close to replacing Alex Yoong for two races at Minardi, only to be denied by the fact that he was unable to fit in the car within the regulations:" It was before Hungary. That's when I was trying to get the two-race deal with them to stand in for Alex. Obviously that didn't happen. We went a long way down the line for it to happen. The only thing that stood in the way was me not fitting in the car. That I found out one morning when I went in and tried to get in the car and this wasn't within the regulations. It got to the point where 'this is not going to happen'. It was definitely one of the lowest points of my career. From there to be close in every aspect as well as having the deal reading, it was only a few millimeters here and there in the car."
Despite the hype of yet another British driver racing wheel-to-wheel with Michael Schumacher and Juan Pablo Montoya, Wilson remained calm and sensible: "I don't want to get too carried away at the moment as I think are going to be very dominant again next year as they were this year. I feel I'm now at a level to be there. I feel I've proved everything to be in Formula One and now I just need to prove that I can stay there."
Paul Stoddart, the team principle of Minardi, was also on hand to answer questions. He described the months leading up to today's announcement: "We've been discussing with Justin's management to have him in the car for 2003 even before the situation happened where that two race-weekend plan failed, and it was obvious then at that moment in time to try Justin and we were really sad that we could not get him into the 2002 chassis. But the plans have been going all year to get the sponsorship so that he could actually achieve a race drive in 2003 but of course we had to make sure he fitted the car. And that was what the most important test was, as Justin said at the start of the press conference - we went down to Faenza, we had him in the car, and we had to make absolutely certain he was going to fit, and not just fit but he would have to be comfortable. He had to be able to do race distance after race distance without suffering and, okay he's never going to be totally comfortable because of his physical size, but he tells us and I believe him that he is as comfortable if not more so than he has been in anything else he has driven."
The topic of Wilson following in the footsteps of Alonso and Webber at Minardi was raised by many people and Stoddart was careful to put Wilson's performance so far in to context: "He beat both of them in 3000 - now that's nothing as Fernando and Mark are greatest of mates so that's not a criticism, it's just a statement of fact. Justin beat Mark in the 2001 championship and he beat Fernando. Really what we are hoping here is to continue that tradition of producing at least future race winner and I would definitely categorize Fernando and Mark as future race winners. I think Justin will not only continue that, but I think he's going to get a lot of support...I think he's going to be an incredible popular choice and he's going to do a good job for us."
Motorsport.com's Mark Gledhill one-on-one interview with Justin Wilson:
Interview with Justin Wilson