IRL: Wheldon finds his way

IRL: Wheldon finds his way

There are only three rookies in the IndyCar Series Class of '03, and one whose actions - and affiliations - have brought him prominence thus far in the year is Briton Dan Wheldon. Dan Wheldon. Photo by Michael Kim. After winning the...

There are only three rookies in the IndyCar Series Class of '03, and one whose actions - and affiliations - have brought him prominence thus far in the year is Briton Dan Wheldon.

Dan Wheldon.
Photo by Michael Kim.
After winning the 1999 U.S. Formula Ford 2000 title and Rookie of the Year honors two consecutive seasons in Toyota Atlantic (2000) and Dayton Indy Lights (2001) it was time for Dan Wheldon to move to the big leagues.

The 25-year-old Englishman served a half-season apprenticeship with Indy Racing League titleholders Panther Racing last year, beginning in June as the team's test driver and contesting the final two races of the 2002 season, scoring one top ten.

Wheldon's been on a sharp learning curve from there, first as test driver and then as fulltime competitor on "super team" Andretti Green Racing (AGR), acknowledged as Honda's top line squad for their initial entry in League battle.

Wheldon shouldered much of the testing burden since the AGR squad was formed, intending to augment the team's three fulltime drivers at the 87th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. Then everything changed when Dario Franchitti was injured in a motorcycle shunt while at home in Scotland.

Dan was quickly pressed into driving duty at race #3 in Japan, competing in the #27 Alpine/Archipelago/Motorola Dallara/Honda in place of the injured Scot. To say that Wheldon's season has been a roller coaster ride since his arrival in Japan is an understatement.

He started fifth and finished seventh in his first drive at Twin Ring Motegi, a good result for the novice. At Indy, as one of four AGR drivers, Wheldon began the spring classic in fifth place, driving his mount for the balance of the 2003 season, the #26 Klein Tools/Jim Beam Dallara/Honda. But Wheldon ended up on his head on lap 187 after attempting a block on his former teammate, Sam Hornish and was scored in 19th place.

The round at Texas wasn't much better, as he retired after 48 laps with mechanical difficulties. Wheldon spun out at Pikes Peak for yet another DNF and bent machinery. He then went to Richmond and scored his first top ten finish (8th) in the #26 machine in that abbreviated contest. Involved in another accident at Kansas, Wheldon rebounded to take fourth place in the night race at Nashville, then suffered engine problems in Michigan two weeks ago, as many Honda pilots.

In his first IndyCar Series run at Gateway International Raceway last weekend, Wheldon finished a fine fifth for his fourth top ten and second top five classification of the season. "That was one of the more difficult weekends," Wheldon said. "We started P12 and it got better and better as the race went on.

"I've been adapting to left-foot braking, something I never needed to do in lower formulae I've run," he admitted. "With the shifting and braking you need to perform each lap at Gateway, you have to adopt that technique."

Dan Wheldon.
Photo by Michael Kim.
Wheldon credited "really, really fast stops" for his good placing at Gateway despite "still looking for that first win. There are so many very good drivers in the IndyCar Series," he acknowledged. "Starting with our team, there's Tony [Kanaan] and Bryan Herta who have a lot of experience, as do Helio [Gateway winner Castroneves], Scott Dixon, Gil de Ferran and the balance of the field.

"This isn't like lower formulae," he emphasized. "These guys have raced and won at a very, very high level. It's been more difficult than I'd like, but I'm gaining knowledge and experience at a rapid rate."

As the most inexperienced player on the AGR team, Dan Wheldon admits he's "relatively the new guy on the block, but I couldn't ask for better teammates. I've had fantastic help with my [steep] learning curve."

Brought to the team to do a lot of testing, "I'm just looking forward to building some experience in this discipline. Testing was great but these Indy cars are so different from what I've raced before. I'm trying to learn what to do in different situations and that can only come with competition experience," Wheldon said.

Laughingly comparing his resume with those of team co-owner Michael Andretti and Dario Franchitti, "They've been around and done well for a long, long time. As I get more experience, I'll be better able to judge situations on the track but these guys have certainly accelerated my learning curve.

"The toughest part is knowing what you need for, say, 200 laps at a tough track like Gateway, where you have to shift and brake each lap. I need to learn how much downforce to start a race with and I'm dependent on the team for that kind of input."

Making the car "more to my liking" requires knowledge in the competition arena, which is so different from testing. "The cars change a lot during a race. I'm learning how to make judgments from track conditions, temperatures and the cars circulating around me. I'm finding that I can start with a car that "pushes", as you Americans say, and still run relatively fast."

Dan Wheldon.
Photo by Michael Kim.
When he began his first contests with a neutral car, it had more of a tendency to go to oversteer and "you can't have a car go loose on you because you lose too much time." So Dan Wheldon is learning how to get the most out of his #26 Klein Tools/Jim Beam Dallara/Honda as the IndyCar Series season winds to a conclusion. Only five races remain in a 16-event campaign.

"The fields for our races are so tight in qualifying but it all changes in the race. We have to do whatever it takes to get the most out of the car. I'm learning from my mistakes," he said. "I've got great confidence in my abilities and I'm hoping our good test at Kentucky Speedway will translate into a good race this weekend" in the Belterra Casino Indy 300.

With a dual phase season like this one, it's tough to set goals, but Wheldon believed the best goals were to "do the best I could each weekend and learn from everything. I just needed to learn as much as I could this season and I'm learning a lot. The competition is very, very tough right now in the IndyCar Series and you have to have the right package to win.

"I feel I'm able to compete with these guys and I think the wins will come," Dan Wheldon proclaims. "I'm definitely enjoying it."

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Gil de Ferran , Dario Franchitti , Scott Dixon , Bryan Herta , Dan Wheldon , Jim Beam , Sam Hornis , Michael Kim
Teams Panther Racing