Feature: Hard Road Pays Off for British Rookies

Justin Wilson has not forgotten former World Champion Jackie Stewart telling him that he was too tall to be a Formula One driver.

Feature: Hard Road Pays Off for British Rookies

Justin Wilson has not forgotten former World Champion Jackie Stewart telling him that he was too tall to be a Formula One driver.

But, despite the Scot's advice to the teenage racer in 1997 that he should concentrate on sportscars, the Briton never gave up the dream.

At the same time, compatriot Ralph Firman was wondering whether he would ever make the breakthrough after winning the British Formula Three title before embarking on years of Japanese exile.

Next week both Grand Prix rookies will make their home Formula One debuts at Silverstone, for Minardi and Jordan, proving the point that persistence pays off.

Wilson, who measures 1.90 metres, has more reason than most to feel vindicated at a circuit owned by the British Racing Drivers' Club of which three-times champion Stewart is the president.

His height prompted Stewart's advice when the teenager drove a Formula Vauxhall car for the former champion's son Paul alongside Brazilian Luciano Burti.

While Burti took the direct path to Formula One, staying with Stewart's fledgling Grand Prix team that was then bought up by Ford and renamed Jaguar, Wilson was left to consider his options.

"We had to think long and hard at the end of that year, do we take his (Stewart's) advice and go off to look to get a GT drive or touring cars or do we follow the dream?" he said in an interview. "We stuck with it."

Quoted Company

This year Wilson became a publicly quoted company, selling shares in himself to raise nearly $2 million to pay for his Minardi drive, and has already been talked of as a possible Jaguar signing.

That would be ironic, given Stewart's original misgivings, but the 24-year-old holds no grievances against the Scot, feeling instead that he has proven already that size does not matter.

"It's not just Jackie, a lot of people believed that I wouldn't make it, wouldn't be able to fit in the car," said Wilson.

"I'm not criticising him because I know it's very easy to get caught off guard. But it will be very nice for me to go back there as a Grand Prix driver, five or six years after racing there in Formula Vauxhall.

"I see Jackie now and again. He gives me bits of advice, he wanders up and down the grid sometimes."

Wilson moved into Formula 3000, becoming the first Briton to win that series in 2001, but nobody was knocking on his door until Minardi gave him his break. Now his aim is to stay in Formula One.

"The height is still an issue that we have got to get over when you talk about changing teams or with engineers but it's not as big a problem as it was when I was outside Formula One," he said.

"Once you get in it's easier to be noticed. We always believed that once you get in maybe you can show what you can do and there's a better chance of staying there."

No Points

Wilson has yet to score a point, unlike Firman who finished eighth in Spain, but he has made a name for himself with remarkably quick race starts.

"It's been good getting a few starts like that and moving up the order, it's always very nice especially when we are in difficult circumstances," he said.

"It would be nice if at some point we could pick up a point this season but it's looking hard. A points finish at Silverstone would be like a race win for anyone else."

Silverstone was where Wilson first drove a Formula One car, testing for Jordan in 2001, and is also right next door to Firman's team headquarters.

Firman's career has been more of a roller coaster ride and he owes his place at Jordan to commercial considerations as much as experience. It is only fitting that he intends therefore to combine both Formula One and roller-coasting after Sunday's race.

Plans are afoot for a Jordan show car to be bolted on to Blackpool's main ride with the 28-year-old Briton 'driving' it on the Thursday immediately after the race.

"If it's safe I'll do it," said Firman, who had plenty of practice on the big dippers in Japan. "I've been on the one in Fujiyama which goes up to 80 metres. I think this one drops 71 metres on the first hit, it's good fun. It's just a roller-coaster ride. It shouldn't be any problem for me."

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