US GP American engineer on Williams team

INDIANAPOLIS, Thursday, Sept. 21, 2000 -- In 1994, Mike Wilson came to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as an engineer with Dan Gurney's Toyota test program. The stands were empty, and no television cameras or reporters were around. ...

INDIANAPOLIS, Thursday, Sept. 21, 2000 -- In 1994, Mike Wilson came to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as an engineer with Dan Gurney's Toyota test program. The stands were empty, and no television cameras or reporters were around. Still, it was a thrill for Wilson. He was at Indy. On Friday, Formula One cars practice for the first time at the storied track in preparation for Sunday's inaugural SAP United States Grand Prix. And Wilson, now 37, is back at the Speedway and this time will play a key role for the BMW WilliamsF1 team and young driver Jenson Button. Wilson, who calls Los Angeles home, is one of only two Americans believed to working with an F1 team at the track this weekend. He is the engineer on the BMW engine. The other American, incidentally, is Tyler Alexander, who was involved with McLaren at Indy in the 1970s and still is part of the McLaren F1 team. "When I was a kid, I always had a vision in my head I would be standing there (at the Speedway) on Race Day, May 30th, looking at Jim Nabors (singing "Back Home Again in Indiana"), you know," Wilson said. "It was always something special to me." But as he got into racing as an engineer, he set a new goal for himself. He wanted to become a part of Formula One. Even working with Gurney, who drove in F1 in the 1960s, didn't provide an avenue to Formula One. He also worked in the IMSA sports car series for several years. "I had an opportunity to move to Europe to work with a touring car machine," he said. "I tried to go from Indy cars to work in Formula One, and that was impossible." He moved to a small town near Frankfurt, Germany, and began the next segment of his career. He called it a complete culture shock transplanting himself from L.A., but it was a move that led to a Formula One position in only two years. His Joest touring car team won the international championship, and the Le Mans team he also was involved with captured the famed 24-hour endurance race. He worked with the electronics and control systems. "I was hired by Sauber," he said. "I was hired by Usamo Goto, who used to head up Ferrari's Formula One program, the engine side, and also the Honda Formula One program back when Honda was doing F1 a few years ago. I was hired by him to go to work as an engine engineer. That was my previous experience." Wilson spent two years with Sauber. Then he became aware of an opportunity at BMW, which was starting up an engine program for Williams' F1 team. He got the job, moved to Munich and spent 1999 track testing as the team prepared for its 2000 debut. But before the team's first season began, a new equation was added. Jenson Button, a soon-to-be 20-year-old Englishman, was named as teammate to Ralf Schumacher, Michael Schumacher's younger brother. Button's age and inexperience brought some skepticism from within the racing ranks, but he has proven to be a budding star of the future, gaining points in five races for 10 total and eighth in the current standings. In fact, he has done so well he is going "on loan" to Benetton for at least two seasons. Juan Pablo Montoya, winner of last May's Indianapolis 500 driving for Chip Ganassi, will replace Button for the 2001 season. "It's been a lot of fun," Wilson said about working with Button. "Really, he's a great kid. And all the cliches are true about him. He gets better with every race. He's the most natural driver I've ever worked with. It has been a pleasure, and I've really been fortunate to work with him." Wilson began the weekend working closely with Button and the chassis engineers to try to tune the engine performance characteristics to the Speedway's new 2.606-mile, 13-turn circuit. It is his job to, as he puts it, make the engine more driveable and easier to handle. Also, the engine team will be in the garage office comparing the performance of one car to the second one to be certain it isn't losing power. "And then if anything were to go wrong on the mechanical side or the electronics side," Wilson said, "we have to be here to diagnose it and basically tell them what to do next. "It's been an unexpectedly good year for us." He noted that once the team went racing with the BMW engine this season, it seemed to bring everything into focus. There is a race every two weeks, and between races Wilson and his assistants work to rectify the problems encountered and have solutions in place for the next event. The team runs simulations of the next track to learn what setup will work best. "On the engine side, we've run simulations on the dyno in Munich," he said. "We run 400-kilometer simulations to best prepare them for the stresses they face." BRM brought 12 engines for the SAP United States Grand Prix. Wilson figures the top speed that will be attained at Indy on the main straightaway will be equal to or above anything attained at Hockenheim or Monza. "It would be 350 kilometers per hour, so about 220 mph," he said. "The circuit is a very interesting compromise. If we take the downforce off and just run the straightaway very quickly then we lose a little bit on the infield. Or we can add more downforce and lose time on the straightaway and make the time up in the infield." Wilson can't wait to see the cars take off from a standing start Sunday to usher in the Formula One era at Indy. "It's special, as well, coming here with F1," he said. "It's just going to be different standing on the straightaway facing the wrong direction. But I'm sure it will be quite an experience. Really looking forward to it."

-Indianapolis Motor Speedway-

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About this article
Series Formula 1
Drivers Juan Pablo Montoya
Teams Ferrari , Sauber , McLaren , Williams , Benetton