Archive: When Davidson was "too successful" to land an F1 seat

Anthony Davidson has announced that he will be retiring as a professional driver after tomorrow's Bahrain 8 Hours. In a career that yielded most success in sportscars, he also had fleeting opportunities in Formula 1 - but arguably showed his best form on Fridays driving a third BAR. In the 6 January 2005 issue of Autosport, he gave a revealing interview explaining his frustrating circumstances

Archive: When Davidson was "too successful" to land an F1 seat

The text message from Anthony Davidson comes at 8:47am: “Morning. What time are we meeting up?” It brings relief and amusement in equal measure. Relief because one Autosport hack, pressed for time, now knows his interviewee won’t arrive at BAR HQ hours before him; amusement, because it reminds once again that Davidson remains a flower among thorns. He's open, straightforward, and both cheeky and quick-witted enough to send a follow-up text moments later (when he realised we’re cutting things a bit fine): “May the force be with you!”

This kind of unaffected 'mateyness' is rare in Formula 1, rarer still among drivers, pressured as they are by continual, conflicting media, commercial and sporting demands. It’s an attribute photographer Lorenzo Bellanca remarks on, an hour into the photo shoot, after asking Davidson to strike maybe his 70th pose: “You were never going to become an arsehole, were you?” Davidson chuckles and grins, as is his wont, but then lets slip a revealing aside: “Maybe that’s why I haven’t got a job.”

It’s a window, nothing more (the moment passes in a flash), into the frustration that has come to define Davidson’s season of unfulfilled excellence as BAR-Honda’s third driver. Perhaps he’s right. Perhaps a more selfish, arrogant ‘arsehole’ would've parlayed his already enviable position into the thing he most desires: an F1 race drive.

But, in truth, could a nastier piece of work have achieved more than Davidson throughout 2004? Let’s recap: over the first 10 races of last year he was among the fastest three runners in one of the two Friday practice sessions.

He was such a fixture at, or near, the top of the timesheets that it became a surprise if he was ever adrift from the pointy end. Sure, his Honda RA004E was allowed a few hundred extra rpm, as it didn’t have to be race-reliable, and his fastest times were usually set on fresh Michelins.

But a dazzling P2 at Monaco, on his first ever visit to the circuit, wasn’t achieved without a heap of guts and skill. His speed on the streets also, incidentally, gave him the best seat in the house for watching Michael Schumacher goof up (a bit) amid the boats and beautiful people as The Great One felt his way into the track.

Davidson stunned in practice at Monaco, going second fastest despite it being his first visit to the circuit

Davidson stunned in practice at Monaco, going second fastest despite it being his first visit to the circuit

Photo by: Rainer W. Schlegelmilch / Motorsport Images

“He was making a few mistakes and it was really interesting to watch,” says Davidson. “It was good to see that he screws up as well and that no one drives the perfect lap, whatever they tell you! It’s easier to see the mistakes at Monaco too, because they happen at a relatively slower speed.”

Davidson is self-effacing about how quickly he found a groove at Monaco – still F1’s most challenging track – but the simple fact of his having the time and composure to watch and observe a seven-time world champion slip-sliding around speaks volumes about his calm confidence within Monte Carlo’s confines.

“I’d done about 15 laps, I suppose, and I was well into it,” he recalls. “I came up behind Michael when he was fresh out of the pits. He was learning the detail of the track, precisely where the grip was at each corner, and you could see him deliberately overdoing it to establish exactly what the track was like.

“He never made the same mistake twice and then, when he’d decided he knew enough about each corner, he put it all together and stuck in a quick one. That was pretty good to watch.” Get the impression that little masterclass is lodged firmly in the Davidson memory bank?

“It’s almost like I’ve been too successful. For a while it looked like it would all pay off when the team made it clear they’d have no doubts about putting me into the car if they lost Jenson. But, right now, it feels like I’ve spent the entire year testing for the one day the race opportunity would come… and it never did” Anthony Davidson

Not that Anthony needed anyone to show him the way in 2004 – not on-track, at least. But his success in a number-three role ultimately did nothing more than allow him to self-inflict a double whammy: one by being too valuable to his team for it to risk losing him; two by helping BAR to second in the constructors’ championship, and thereby preclude it from running a third car in Friday free practice next season (an option not available to the top four teams).

So ‘Ant’ has barred himself from the very showcase he has used so effectively throughout 2004. Own goal? “Sure,” he says, “it’s almost like I’ve been too successful. I’ve kind of shot myself in the foot. For a while it looked like it would all pay off when the team made it clear they’d have no doubts about putting me into the car if they lost Jenson [a reference to the mid-season ‘Button-gate’ saga, where the Briton signed with Williams amid concerns over BAR's Honda engine supply but, after a complex legal case, it was ruled that Button was still contracted to BAR]. But, right now, it feels like I’ve spent the entire year testing for the one day the race opportunity would come… and it never did.”

Williams and BAR spent much of 2004 embroiled in battles away from the track

Williams and BAR spent much of 2004 embroiled in battles away from the track

Photo by: Sutton Images

There’s not a hint of bitterness in Davidson’s tone – at every turn he’s quick to praise BAR for the opportunities granted and respect shown: “It was a brilliant opportunity, of course it was. Being expected to lead the show on Friday gave me a tremendous amount of confidence to be able to say to the engineers, ‘This is the way we need to go to make the car quick.’ It’s a buzz to see them relying on you and feeding off the information, knowing that you’re setting the path for the whole team’s weekend.”

But the Davidson racing heart beats hard and fast; it’s possible almost to taste his desire finally to prove he’s a match for any of those just half a step ahead. The danger now is that all the Friday fireworks that turned heads in motorhomes and media centres alike will go to waste, as Ant’s efforts are restricted to testing only. “I am concerned about that,” he admits, “but hopefully the car will be quick and we’ll have the chance to finish on top of the timesheets.”

He’ll need more than a quick car. Away from the real stuff, back in the dark cracks between motorhomes, where deals are done and paddock gossip breeds like fungus, Davidson will still require the assistance of an ace management team to ensure he steps onto that fickle grand prix racing ladder in 2006, or before.

This year he and manager Didier Stoessel slipped from every rung. Their early-season efforts to find a foothold through race drives with Sauber, Jaguar Racing (as was) and BAR didn’t progress fast enough to fulfil the aim of using the third-driver role, with the second best team, to become the number-one choice for any (serious) 2005 racing vacancy.

Midway through the season, Stoessel turned to David Robertson, the man who brought Button and Kimi Raikkonen into F1, to boost their seat-hunting firepower. Not a bad chap to have arguing your case to potential-future-boss team principals.

“Having both of them really pushing my case worked brilliantly for a while,” says Davidson, “and opportunities started to open up.”

In an effort to ditch the ‘brilliant test driver’ tag, his management team created a DVD of his best races, to prompt memories of the aggressive overtaking moves and first-lap charges for which he was noted in karts, Formula Ford and British F3. Recollection of the presentation to Peter Sauber prompts a rueful anecdote: “He said to me, ‘So, you have showed me all your best races,’ and I was thinking like, ‘Yeah, did you really expect me to show you the ones where I left the track in an ambulance?!’”

Davidson's strong Friday showings meant he became almost too valuable to BAR

Davidson's strong Friday showings meant he became almost too valuable to BAR

Photo by: Lorenzo Bellanca / Motorsport Images

The robust Davidson humour manifestly hasn’t been shaken by the 2004 rollercoaster, but the endless rounds of meetings with would-be employers – all strictly hush-hush – were, he admits, “difficult”, wearing and made all the more so by their eventual futility. “Those sort of things are never easy. It’s like any job interview – no one could say that they really enjoy them. But you go always in the hope they’ll lead somewhere.”

None of them did. At the time of writing, five race drives (BAR, Williams, Sauber, Jaguar Racing and Red Bull) had slipped through Davidson, Stoessel and Robertson’s fingers. How frustrating, then, does it feel, on a scale of one to 10? “I think ‘10’ would do it, yeah, 10,” he says. “I couldn’t really say otherwise, could I?”

It’s an odd moment – to be sitting with Davidson in the heart of the BAR-Honda empire (the leather ‘n’ chrome conference room) in the knowledge of his full and unequivocal backing from the team as third driver (at least), aware of his long-term contract (it’ll run to 2008, under certain conditions), discussing the prospect of once again driving what’s almost certain to be a top-three car in ’05… and to be talking only about what didn’t go right.

“It seemed that teams were looking at the contractual side of things and too much into the future before even putting me in the car. I just wanted to test and let them see if they really wanted me. It’s a shame we couldn’t get it to that stage” Anthony Davidson

“I don’t think people understand how competitive I am,” he ventures. “The problem has been in the past couple of seasons that I haven’t always had a chance to show it. Look, if I’m completely honest, I was the only guy in the team who wanted Jenson to leave when the whole Williams thing was going on. That’s nothing against Jenson, but any racing driver would be the same if he sees that kind of opportunity. The important thing is the team know I can be like that – and the fact they were ready to fight to keep me in the car shows that.”

Indeed, the knowledge that BAR and Honda, which is about to assume 45% ownership of the team, view Davidson, long-term, as a leader driver is one of several crumbs of comfort he can take from 2004. That didn’t make it any easier to be forced to sit on the sidelines, unable to drive either a BAR or a Williams at the start of last December as the teams bickered over his services for 2005 and ’06.

The dispute centred on their inability to agree on Davidson’s position for 2006: BAR was happy to release Anthony to Williams for one season (2005), with the option to get him back from 2006, should Button leave at the end of this year; Williams, meanwhile, wanted to be able to race Anthony in 2005 with the option to keep him for 2006, if he proved to be the real deal. The twain wouldn’t meet.

Davidson with his manager Robertson sounded out all the options for 2005, but to no avail

Davidson with his manager Robertson sounded out all the options for 2005, but to no avail

Photo by: Sutton Images

It didn’t amount to Button-gate round two, but the breakdown of talks that might, just, have put Davidson in a Williams race seat this year led certain factions to depict BAR-Honda as F1’s new evil empire. Nick Fry, BAR chief executive and newly promoted to the team-principal role in the wake of the departure last month of David Richards, has this to offer: “We have a long-term commitment to Anthony and there are clauses in his contract that say we are bound to help him with his career.” A bald but emollient statement intended to cool the heat of another fierce tug-of-love between Williams and BAR for a BAR driver’s services.

Fry says BAR was in the unenviable position of having to balance its need and desire to hang on to a driver of Davidson’s talent against its moral and contractual obligations to give him wings.

“We understand Anthony’s frustration that he will not be racing in 2005,” he says. “The fact that he feels so strongly is good in itself – it would be a worry if he had resigned himself to the situation of not being a racing driver. And let’s be clear: if we do not have Jenson in 2006, we definitely want the option to race Anthony.”

A glimmer in the gloom for probably the unluckiest lucky driver in F1? Davidson’s response, predictably, is that of a stymied racer: “It seemed that teams were looking at the contractual side of things and too much into the future before even putting me in the car. I just wanted to test and let them see if they really wanted me. It’s a shame we couldn’t get it to that stage.”

A shame, yes, but not (yet) a disaster. That would only come if Davidson who, at 25, is still plenty young enough to have a bright future as a grand prix racing driver, never gets the break he deserves. Would he then consider that he might become one of the great lost talents of his generation?

“I refuse to think about it unless someone mentions it to me… but as you have, yeah, that would be pretty cruel,” he says. “But I’m going to fight until there’s no more hope for a race drive and only then will it be time to move on.”

The 2007 Canadian GP promised much for Davidson, but ultimately ended in disappointment

The 2007 Canadian GP promised much for Davidson, but ultimately ended in disappointment

Photo by: Sutton Images

What happened next

Sure enough, Davidson did indeed return to the F1 starting grid sooner than he thought, but the words "pretty cruel" seem apt. Deputising for the unwell Takuma Sato at BAR in the 2005 Malaysian GP, Davidson's race lasted just two laps before he was out with engine failure. He then continued as a test driver into the team's Honda era in 2006, with more Friday practice running again, before landing that coveted full-time drive the following year - with unofficial Honda 'B' team Super Aguri.

But, once again, the words "pretty cruel" would characterise Davidson's spell with the squad, most notable perhaps for striking a groundhog when in podium contention in the 2007 Canadian Grand Prix. It was soon Groundhog Day for Davidson again when the team's money ran out in 2008 and he was back in the Honda testing fold, continuing with the team as it morphed into first Brawn and then Mercedes over 2009-10. But he would never race an F1 car again.

At this point, Davidson branched into two other successful avenues of his career. First, as an F1 pundit, initially on BBC radio before then becoming a popular feature of Sky Sports' F1 coverage. His on-track competition, meanwhile, moved into the endurance arena. Having made his Le Mans debut in a Prodrive-run Ferrari in 2003, he made his top-class debut with the Aston Martin-badged Lola in 2009, before having a stint with Peugeot and then becoming a Toyota regular.

Despite good results, and winning the 2014 World Endurance Championship, the Le Mans victory proved elusive. It was "pretty cruel" that it was Davidson who made way for Fernando Alonso in Toyota's line-up for 2018, the year when the Japanese manufacturer ended its 'curse' at the endurance classic.

Davidson found a new home in the LMP2 ranks but the news earlier this week that he will retire from professional racing at the end of this season has brought an end to the career of a driver who always showed plenty of potential, but a "pretty cruel" set of circumstances meant he never quite got the opportunities or results his talent arguably deserved.

The sun has now set on Davidson's professional racing career

The sun has now set on Davidson's professional racing career

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

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