What might have been: The F3000 champion whose Champ Automobile transfer turned bitter - Motor Informed
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What might have been: The F3000 champion whose Champ Automobile transfer turned bitter

The success of Components 3000 champions Juan Pablo Montoya, Bruno Junqueira and Sebastien Bourdais in Champ Automobile meant there was nice expectation on the shoulders of 2003 king Bjorn Wirdheim when he headed Stateside in 2005. A cash shortfall at his HVM squad, which couldn’t afford to go testing, and the dearth of an skilled team-mate to study from meant Wirdheim was successfully on a hiding to nothing. However a season he regards as “essentially the most tough 12 months in my profession” might have panned out very otherwise had it not been for a returning champion pushing him out of his most well-liked seat.

As a part of his prize for successful the 2003 title, with two rounds to spare, F3000 chassis provider Lola had organized a post-season Champ Automobile check for Wirdheim with Patrick Racing. In his two-day outing on the Arizona Motorsport Park monitor close to Phoenix, the UK-domiciled Swede broke the unofficial lap report and impressed veteran workforce supervisor Jim McGee.

“I completely beloved driving that automobile, it was unbelievable,” remembers Wirdheim, who referred to as time on his racing profession on the finish of 2017 following an 11-year stint in Japan. “It was not that dissimilar from the F3000 automobile in the best way it was dealing with, so it sort of suited me.

“There was a agency contract provide on the desk and I actually needed to signal. I’ve nonetheless bought it in a folder someplace in the home! However I’d been preventing to get into Components 1 for such a very long time, and there have been at the very least two alternatives for me to do one thing in F1 the next 12 months.”

Wirdheim finally turned Patrick’s provide right down to signal a three-year take care of Jaguar Racing – beginning because the third driver working each Friday on Grand Prix weekends, with an choice to race in 2005. Patrick finally give up Champ Automobile for the all-oval Indy Racing League, the place it ran a number of drivers throughout 2004 together with Al Unser Jr, Jacques Lazier and Wirdheim’s former F3000 team-mate Tomas Enge earlier than folding at season’s finish.

Wirdheim remembers his 2004 season at Jaguar with fondness – “the mileage I had in F1 was completely excellent in comparison with what they get today,” he says – though he grew to overlook the racing. However the writing was on the wall for his F1 profession when Ford offered the workforce to Crimson Bull.

“I knew just about immediately that I used to be out of the image,” he says. “The one different choice actually was Minardi and I didn’t even need to have a dialogue with them. My view at that time was that if you find yourself paying for a drive with Minardi, you’re all the time going to be paying on your drives sooner or later.”

Wirdheim enjoyed his time testing with Jaguar on Fridays, but it didn't lead to a race drive as Red Bull bought the team

Wirdheim loved his time testing with Jaguar on Fridays, but it surely did not result in a race drive as Crimson Bull purchased the workforce

Photograph by: Rainer W. Schlegelmilch / Motorsport Images

McGee, now on the PKV Racing squad co-owned by 1996 CART Indycar champion Jimmy Vasser and Champ Automobile sequence stakeholder Kevin Kalkhoven, promptly invited Wirdheim for a check at Barber Motorsports Park.

“All the pieces was on-track, that was the workforce I used to be anticipating to signal for,” he says. “I went to the manufacturing facility and I stayed with Jim as properly within the low season to arrange all the things. Then all of that went into the drain…”

Vasser had swooped to signal Cristiano Da Matta – the 2002 champion who had been unceremoniously dumped by the Toyota F1 workforce halfway by way of 2004 – and Wirdheim was left scrambling. He examined for Dale Coyne Racing at Sebring earlier than Kalkhoven – “perhaps he felt dangerous or no matter for signing Cristiano as an alternative” – helped to dealer a drive with HVM’s Keith Wiggins.

“The issue was the dearth of cash, there was completely nothing. I don’t suppose we did any testing in any respect all through that season. I turned up on the first race weekend at Lengthy Seaside, a monitor that I’d by no means pushed earlier than, with a workforce that I’d by no means met earlier than” Bjorn Wirdheim

The previous Pacific F1 boss had taken over Bettenhausen Racing following the airplane crash which claimed workforce founder Tony Bettenhausen in 2000, and turned it right into a successful outfit below the Herdez Competitors banner. If Mario Dominguez was lucky to prevail at a sodden Surfers Paradise in 2002, he was an everyday podium-finisher the next 12 months and led Roberto Moreno in a workforce 1-2 at Miami, earlier than Ryan Hunter-Reay dominated at Milwaukee in 2004.

On paper, the newly-renamed workforce (generally known as Hola Viva Mexico in an effort to retain curiosity south of the border following the withdrawal of Herdez) due to this fact appeared a powerful prospect for Wirdheim to make an impression. However on the eve of the 2005 season Dominguez departed for Forsythe, and HVM as an alternative ended up with two Scandinavian rookies – Wirdheim joined by Toyota Atlantic graduate Ronnie Bremer from Denmark.

“They have been undoubtedly very organised and all the things,” Wirdheim remembers. “The issue was the dearth of cash, there was completely nothing. I don’t suppose we did any testing in any respect all through that season. I turned up on the first race weekend at Lengthy Seaside, a monitor that I’d by no means pushed earlier than, with a workforce that I’d by no means met earlier than.”

The one monitor he’d beforehand pushed was Montreal – within the Jaguar the 12 months earlier than – however even there the references have been completely completely different. The 2002-spec Lola that was by then ubiquitous after Reynard’s collapse was “not as reactive” as interval F1 equipment, a lot heavier and fewer grippy.

Montreal was the only circuit Wirdheim had driven before, and without testing the year was a constant struggle

Montreal was the one circuit Wirdheim had pushed earlier than, and with out testing the 12 months was a relentless battle

Photograph by: Dan Streck

Managing expectations due to this fact was tough. Montoya and Junqueira (F3000 champions in 1998 and 2000) had jumped in for his or her first seasons with Chip Ganassi Racing, the previous taking a sensational rookie title in 1999, whereas 2002 champion Bourdais had changed Da Matta at Newman-Haas and develop into the primary driver to take pole on debut since Nigel Mansell in 1993 earlier than successful the title the next 12 months.

In contrast, Wirdheim didn’t have a hope of emulating his predecessors proper off the bat. With out the chance to check, he needed to do all his studying on race weekends.

“It was an inconceivable process,” he says. “There was a giant distinction between the groups, Newman-Haas have been on a very completely different degree in comparison with everybody else.

“However had we simply been capable of do just a few extra check days and iron out among the points we had with the automobile [it would have been better] as a result of we saved going from race-to-race preventing the identical issues.

“Testing throughout the race weekend is all the time restricted. Typically for me and likewise for Ronnie, we might barely inform if it was making a constructive change as a result of we have been nonetheless studying the tracks and adjusting to the grip ranges as they have been rising all through the weekend.”

The monetary scenario within the workforce created extra issues too – strain to carry out to maintain his place meant he couldn’t afford to get comfy earlier than searching for out the restrict. Small errors had race-ending penalties at Milwaukee, Toronto and Edmonton.

“It was in all probability essentially the most tough 12 months in my profession as a result of I didn’t have the luxurious of figuring out that I might keep one other 12 months, in order that I might simply think about it as a studying 12 months, like I’d had in each single championship I’d executed beforehand,” he says. “It was in all probability a bit unfair to anticipate an excessive amount of, however that’s just about the way it was.

“It’s additionally the one time in my entire profession from beginning racing as a 10-year-old to stopping at 37 the place I didn’t truly end a whole season with the workforce that I used to be with. I missed the final two races that 12 months as a result of they ran out of cash.”

Wirdheim enjoyed the ovals and produced his best performance of the year at Las Vegas, his final showing

Wirdheim loved the ovals and produced his finest efficiency of the 12 months at Las Vegas, his closing displaying

Photograph by: Paul Webb, USA LAT Photographic

Wirdheim was dropped after his finest displaying of the 12 months on the Las Vegas oval, the place he completed a powerful sixth. However that solely tells a part of the story – he believes a podium would have been on the playing cards had it not been for a gradual pitstop attributable to a crew member forgetting to activate the compressed air that may elevate the automobile up on its jacks.

“They needed to it manually and I dropped means down the sphere,” he says. “I ended up having to make use of all my push-to-pass to get again up into the highest positions, I had nothing left in the direction of the top. I believe that was in all probability a podium I might have had, lastly, however due to a screw-up from the workforce it didn’t occur. That was actually exhausting to swallow.

“I additionally knew that I almost certainly wasn’t going to have the ability to end the season with the workforce, so clearly I did all the things in my energy to make it possible for they saved me on. It was simply completely irritating.”

“It’s the one time in my entire profession from beginning racing as a 10-year-old to stopping at 37 the place I didn’t truly end a whole season with the workforce that I used to be with. I missed the final two races that 12 months as a result of they ran out of cash” Bjorn Wirdheim

For reference, his alternative Fabrizio Del Monte shunted out at Surfers Paradise after which wrote off the automobile on the Mexico Metropolis finale.

There have been different frustrations too. Wirdheim led the second-most laps on solely his second begin in Monterrey, because of an offbeat pit technique, and was working fourth when he ran out of gas on the final lap. He was the innocent casualty of a first-lap crash at Cleveland instigated by Bremer – whose promised sponsorship by no means arrived, leading to his departure afterwards – and was ordered to pit in San Jose when nook employees reported his automobile leaking oil. That would not ordinarily have been an issue, besides that the wrongdoer was truly Nelson Philippe…

Regardless of the robust expertise, which left him with few alternatives Stateside for 2006 and prompted his transfer to Japan – firstly in Components Nippon and latterly in Tremendous GT – Wirdheim “completely beloved” his temporary expertise of oval racing and rated the championship extremely.

“I loved driving the Champ Automobile, I actually did, as a result of it felt like driving a correct racing automobile,” says Wirdheim, who additionally gained the European Le Mans Collection in 2015. “It didn’t have energy steering so you actually needed to work exhausting on the driving from throughout the cockpit and there’s a distinct bodily problem in that respect.

“It wasn’t as exhausting as Components 1 in terms of the g-forces, but it surely was very exhausting on your upper-body energy. The racing was additionally very good I believe, far more like F3000 the place you may go extra wheel-to-wheel and race one another exhausting.”

San Jose epitomised Wirdheim's year, being called to the pits for leaking oil - when his car wasn't the culprit

San Jose epitomised Wirdheim’s 12 months, being referred to as to the pits for leaking oil – when his automobile wasn’t the wrongdoer

Photograph by: Motorsport Images

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