From the archives:
Estoril, September 28 1993
Jos Verstappen, Gil de Ferran and Christian Fittipaldi test for Footwork
The biggest clear-out for years starts this November as the world champion and others leave Formula 1. Anxious to fill their seats in 1994, a handful of hotshots were tested at Estoril. Not only did they strive to be quick, but also to learn about F1.
The world of Formula 1 will see something of a shake-up this winter. A number of the old guard are to make way for new talent which is banging hard on the usually-closed grand prix door. More than half the battle of becoming a successful grand prix driver is getting a seat in the first place. Any number of the new wave will slot quite happily into the big league - if only they get the chance.
So how do you prove your talent is worthy of a coveted F1 drive? At Estoril last week, two young drivers - each deserving of a full-time F1 seat - were given try-outs with Footwork: 1992 British F3 champion Gil de Ferran and newly-crowned German F3 champion Jos Verstappen. Both are desperately keen to get their foot in the door of F1. For them, this test was hugely important.
Much has been written about Verstappen. The 21-year-old Dutchman's car racing career spans just 24 months. From an FF1600 test at Zandvoort in October 1991, through a Vauxhall Lotus series (1992 Benelux champion), to a winter in New Zealand in Formula Atlantic (fourth overall) and this year's successes in Germany, Jos has built a reputation for climbing into a car and stunning onlookers with his immediate pace.
Would he do the same in his first taste of F1? Few thought so, for having never driven Formula 3000, this leap from 175bhp F3 cars to a 750bhp F1 car with traction control, active suspension, semi-automatic gearbox and carbon brakes would surely take him some time to get used to.
Jos climbed aboard the Footwork-Mugen early on Tuesday morning. The sun was bright, the circuit dry and he appeared relaxed. In fact, he looked anything but a nervous newcomer, about to sample the star-studded world of F1 for the very first time. Even the presence of a Dutch TV crew, shadowing his every step, was dealt with like a seasoned F1 champion. The instructions from the team were clear and simple. Take your time, make sure you are comfortable and find your limit.
The Footwork fired up and Jos drove out of the garage. Fifteen minutes later he was back. His audience couldn't quite believe what they'd just seen. His fourth lap had been a 1m16.8s, which would have qualified him 24th for the previous Sunday's Grand Prix.
Aguri Suzuki in the Footwork FA14 Mugen-Honda © LAT
Still, they say getting within two seconds of a decent time is easy; it's the final tenths that are difficult. Within five more laps, Jos was down to 1m15.6s, just 0.1s shy of the qualifying time of the car's regular driver, Aguri Suzuki. By lunchtime, he had done 41 laps and had trimmed his time to 1m15.43s. Obviously, he felt comfortable with the Footwork, and F1.
"I must say I thought it would be quite difficult, the jump from F3 to F1," he said. "I was thinking about the power, the brakes, the fast corners. But really, it was not so difficult."
What about the massive increase in power under his right foot?
"Yes, that was incredible," he smiles. "On the first lap I thought 'shit!' I never thought it would be so fast. But by the third lap I was really enjoying it, it was fantastic. After 10-15 laps it feels normal and you find yourself wanting more. Still, it's very fast."
In the afternoon, Jos's times tumbled further. At the end of 65 laps, he'd set a best time of 1m14.45s, good enough for 10th on the grid, and just 0.07s slower that Warwick. The pits were soon buzzing.
Estoril is quite a physical circuit - especially the long, fast corner at the end of the lap - and Jos, understandably, had an aching neck and shoulders by the end of the day.
"I had a seat made and it was very good. I feel very comfortable with the car. At the moment, though, I hurt at the top of my shoulders, but it's no real problem. At least now I know where to train! Everyone says how much it takes out of your neck, but unless you've actually driven a car, you can't build for it."
At four o'clock, de Ferran climbed in for his first run. The Brazilian had his F1 whistle whetted last November, in a brief yet impressive run in Nigel Mansell's Williams-Renault at Silverstone, as a prize for winning the 1992 British F3 title. This, at Estoril, was altogether different. A good showing here could lead to a full-time F1 drive, and Gil knew it. You had to feel sympathy for him: Verstappen would be a very hard act to follow.
As an F3000 racer (and championship contender), there was more expectation that De Ferran would go quickly. Verstappen, coming straight from F3, didn't have that pressure. But if these thoughts were in Gil's mind, he wasn't showing it. He was just concentrating on doing a good job, making the right impression and learning the intricacies of F1. He knew that he'd only get a handful of laps on Tuesday, as a prelude to a full day on Wednesday.
Gil acclimatised in 15 laps before the end of the day. Afterwards he discussed his first impressions with David Coulthard, himself down in Portugal to test for Williams once Alain Prost had gone home. The conversation was a fascinating insight into what drivers experience during and after their first laps in F1.
David had spent the afternoon watching out on the circuit and Gil was keen to know how he compared during his few sample laps. Turn Five, the third gear left-hander at the end of the straight behind the paddock, requires heavy braking.
"There, you looked like you were slowing down for the corner - obviously feeling your way into it," said David.
Jackie Stewart and Gil de Ferran © LAT
"Am I slowing down a lot more than the others into that corner?" wondered Gil.
"Yes, but everyone else is braking a lot later, and harder. They're, like, stamp on the brakes, turn, then hard on the power. Your line in the corner was the same," David continued before breaking into a smile, "and going out you sounded very good..." He followed his last remark with a passable impression of the Footwork's traction control, before returning to his observations.
"You were smooth into the corner, almost coasting in comparison with the others. That was the same as me when I first drove an F1 car. You find yourself braking, then having to get back on the power to reach the apex. Because you naturally brake too early."
So how difficult is it for a driver to adapt to traction control?
"It's not really a problem," answers Gil. "The only difficulty is getting used to how much throttle you can use. I'm used to pushing the throttle, having the back step out and then easing it again. With this it's all a matter of confidence really. It comes in, and you are away.
"Something else to get used to is the steering. It's a lot lighter than in F3000, so in the fast stuff I'm wandering a bit. In F3000, it's very heavy, whereas F1 is more like F3 steering."
But there is still a substantial physical effort required. "I have no problems," says Gil, "but then I've only done 15 laps and I haven't been pushing yet. Tomorrow I will push harder, it'll be a longer day. We'll start first thing in the morning, if it doesn't rain."
It did, heavily, and Gil wasn't to get back in the car until past two on Wednesday afternoon.
Circumstance, like luck, is another huge factor in getting an F1 drive. De Ferran was not having a good day: the rain put paid to his morning session and now he was faced with just two hours of running. "It's very frustrating," he said, "because I wanted to learn the car, understand it, and feel how it works and handles before going really quickly."
Two more runs (of 15 laps) later and Gil felt ready to alter the car: "We've changed some things on the active suspension and then I'll try some new tyres."
As the team made the modifications, they advised Gil to take the chance to get out of the car, take a stretch and have a drink. He reappeared in the garage with blood gushing from his head and all over his brand new Footwork overalls, having inadvertently walked into an open cupboard door in the transporter. The wound required two stitches, and his test was over.
Naturally Gil was bitterly upset. "I was down to 1m16.0s," he said, "and with the changes there was plenty more to come."
In the next garage, Christian Fittipaldi - on loan from Minardi - was continuing work on the passive Footwork. Here was another example of circumstance's effect. With Derek Warwick unavailable and Suzuki working hard in Japan in the run-up to his home grand prix, Footwork had no one to continue its development programme. Enter Fittipaldi.
Christian Fittipaldi in the Minardi M193 Ford © LAT
"This car has enormous potential," he said. "I'm really happy to get the chance to run in a different car like this. I'm pleased team supremo Jackie [Oliver] offered me the chance to test and Minardi freed me from my contract so that I could. Everything matched perfectly and at the right time. It's nice to have the chance to open some doors.
Especially now - everything is developing. With Ayrton [Senna] going to Williams, the whole of F1 is in confusion; Footwork is testing Jos and Gil; it's an exciting time in F1."
Verstappen had another run on Thursday, suffering a stiff neck and shoulders from his exertions on the Tuesday. Again he was bang up to speed immediately; his fifth lap of 1m14.4s was already as quick as he'd been on Tuesday.
But then he crashed at the fast right flick before the last corner. The Footwork spun into the barrier, damaging two corners and the nose. The team packed up and Jos headed for a live TV interview.
In the space of three days, team manager John Wickham had seen three young, talented and different drivers in his cars. What did he make of them?
"Christian was very interesting for us. We needed someone with experience and there are few available without contracts. He gave us very good feedback and we have learned a lot."
And what of the new guys? "Verstappen was very confident," he continued. "He fitted the car well and had three good sessions. He didn't ask for much on the car, but he sensed understeer and oversteer. He has amazing natural feel.
"Gil had an unsettled first day, with 15 laps. He was just settling in when he injured his head. His helmet and glasses were both in the transporter and if he'd had either on he would have been ok! Seriously, I'd be interested in running both Gil and Jos again."
F1 is a fickle world, where first impressions count for everything. Who would want to be a budding F1 driver - a grand prix wannabe - on the verge of his big break? Racing must seem like a doddle after that.
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