What could have been: When an F1 dream hit a Pembrey dead-end

Riding high after his first Formula 3000 win at Silverstone, Nicolas Minassian’s opportunity to develop the latest V10 engine and electronics for Honda’s Formula 1 return didn’t yield the hoped-for breakthrough

What could have been: When an F1 dream hit a Pembrey dead-end

The Pembrey circuit in Wales isn’t an obvious destination for a potentially career-making Formula 1 test. But for future sportscar ace Nicolas Minassian, the opportunity to drive the Dallara-Honda test hack at the remote Carmarthenshire track in 1999 carried the very real possibility of a foot in the door at the BAR-Honda team for 2000. The outcome was somewhat less exciting though and Minassian never drove an F1 car again, but he remembers the “very good experience” fondly.

The Frenchman had tasted success at Pembrey in 1997, the year his British Formula 3 campaign was hampered by a two-race ban for pelting Thruxton gravel at backmarker Michael Bentwood. Unable to start race one due to a suspension issue on his Promatecme machine, he recovered from Brian Smith’s Turn 1 punt to claim his third win of the year in race two after Peter Dumbreck and Ricardo Mauricio both hit strife.

For Minassian, the three-day Honda test marked something of a third chance at breaking into F1.

His first taste of F1 came in the 1997 championship-winning Williams as part of a shootout against Formula 3000 drivers Juan Pablo Montoya, Soheil Ayari and Max Wilson. A still-healing broken hand, sustained in a Macau Grand Prix crash, set him back and he wasn’t selected as a tester for 1998. The test chance had arisen after Minassian had sent letters “to every single team in F1”, a sign of things to come.

“Williams liked the results I had in F3, and they actually liked the stupid thing I did!” he says. “They saw I had a bit of a character.”

Another F1 link came when he signed a deal with the McLaren junior team, West Competition, in F3000 for 1998. But Minassian never got to drive the MP4-13 in a year that he struggled to match team-mate and Mercedes junior Nick Heidfeld. Scoring just five points, he left the team before the Nurburgring finale after a falling out with team boss David Brown.

Short on options for 1999, he joined the fledgling Kid Jensen Racing team owned by disc jockey David Jensen. It wasn’t the obvious choice to inject new life into his career, but it proved an inspired move as Minassian formed a strong connection with engineer Phil Barker and marketing director, fellow Anglophile Vincent Franceschini. He starred at Monaco and was on course for second before the throttle broke, but made up for it with a dominant win from pole at Silverstone. Suddenly, Minassian was hot property again.
He didn’t have a manager, but was nothing if not persistent in his efforts to get his foot back into the F1 door.

Nicolas Minassian stands atop the F3000 podium after winning the 2000 Imola season-opener

Nicolas Minassian stands atop the F3000 podium after winning the 2000 Imola season-opener

“In F3000, we used to go in the F1 paddock very easily, it wasn’t complicated,” he says. “After each race, you could go in the paddock and approach the team owners and team principals. I remember going to see everyone all the time because you’re trying to find the best things for your career. I knocked on the door everywhere I could. [BAR boss] Craig Pollock did appreciate it and I was trying to get myself a drive. I wasn’t a shit driver, so that helps.”

Living in Quainton, close to Aylesbury, he regularly pestered Pollock in nearby Brackley. Eventually, he got his reward.

“I was always very hungry to drive in F1,” he says. “I kept contacting Craig until he gave me a chance. One day, he told me to come and see him in his office. I asked him, whenever there is something coming up, I would like to drive an F1 car.”

“First, it was brilliant to drive in F1, but Pembrey for sure was very tight. The car was taking nearly the whole width of the track! It was very entertaining, let’s say…" Nicolas Minassian

The Honda F1 project, managed by a group of ex-Tyrrell employees working under Harvey Postlethwaite, had been abandoned following the veteran designer’s death in April as the bosses in Japan instead preferred an engine supply deal to setting up a full team. Honda had allied itself with BAR for 2000 and, crucially for Minassian, both Barker and Franceschini had previously worked with Tyrrell – so had good contacts within the Honda F1 group as it scaled back its operations. Minassian believes their feedback helped Pollock to make his mind up.

“They did a good push for me,” says Minassian. “I had good people around me and when [BAR] asked around to Phil and Vincent, it was just something that helped me out as well.”

Minassian was tasked by Pollock with doing the grunt work on a semi-automatic gearbox, electronics and engine development using the Dallara-built Honda test chassis that had grabbed the headlines with Jos Verstappen earlier in the year.

“The car I tested was the Dallara and we did lots of laps around Pembrey – can you imagine Pembrey in an F1 car?” he chuckles. “Fortunately I knew the place well from my F3 days. We did many, many laps. It was really directed by Honda, by the Japanese people. It was engine and electronics and not much on the chassis.”

The Dallara-penned Honda test car, which never made it to the F1 grid

The Dallara-penned Honda test car, which never made it to the F1 grid

Minassian recalls that the test was directed by Japanese engineers from Honda with support from Postlethwaite’s group, plus a few BAR staff – who had their hands full debugging the perennially unreliable Supertec-powered 1999 chassis. Still, Minassian saw it as an opportunity to impress.

“When we ran there, we were doing 42-second laps or something like that,” he says. “First, it was brilliant to drive in F1, but Pembrey for sure was very tight. The car was taking nearly the whole width of the track! It was very entertaining, let’s say…

“The left-hander at the back was so fast, no run-off area and to be honest the feeling in the car was quite in-your-face. Whatever you do, you need to give it some to the car, otherwise you look like an idiot – even if the track is not really adapted to the car – so I really pushed quite hard, every lap I drove it there. I just wanted to show everybody my potential, even if it’s in Pembrey! I had as much fun driving there as I would have had if I was in any other track.

“I had the instructions to do this or that, the car was wired up with electronics and special – there were some special sensor stuff they put on the wheels as well to calculate the tyre and lots of other stuff, so they took lots of information and I just did my job.”

Unfortunately for Minassian, the test didn’t lead to further opportunities within the BAR setup for 2000. Instead, the team picked 1999 Macau Grand Prix winner Darren Manning as its test driver for 2000. Ironically, Minassian would take the Super Nova seat that Manning had targeted after a strong debut test at Jerez for David Sears’ sister team Petrobras (which was already committed to running Brazilian drivers). The Yorkshireman had clocked the second fastest time in a test best remembered today for Jenson Button’s only appearance in F3000 machinery.

“At the end of the day, I was just a guy that suited the programme at that time,” says Minassian. “I talked a lot with Craig Pollock but I never ended up getting the test drive with BAR, I don’t really know why.

“I did my job, I didn’t put a foot wrong, I did exactly what I was told to do because I was just the guy following instructions to run-in the car. I really enjoyed it – driving in F1, wherever you drive, it’s always something quite special. For me it was a very good experience, but it didn’t follow up the next year with a test drive.”

Nicolas Minassian leads eventual 2000 F3000 title winner Bruno Junqueira at Imola

Nicolas Minassian leads eventual 2000 F3000 title winner Bruno Junqueira at Imola

Photo by: Motorsport Images

It would also prove to be Minassian’s last chance to drive a contemporary F1 car. He ran Bruno Junqueira close to the 2000 F3000 crown with Super Nova, scoring wins at Imola, Magny-Cours and the A1 Ring, then inked a deal with Chip Ganassi Racing to join Junqueira in CART Indycar for 2001.

“I was in very good advanced talks with Minardi at the end of 2000 to get an F1 seat,” Minassian says. “Then I went to America testing the Champ Car, and they offered me the drive after testing straight away so I didn’t follow up on F1 after that. I thought, ‘I’m going to drive the Ferrari of America, or the car that is last on the grid in F1’ so I took that opportunity instead of pushing on the Minardi drive.

“In hindsight, my Champ Car days didn’t work very well after hitting the wall and getting a concussion. But that’s life.”

Minassian later had another potentially career-defining sliding doors moment in sportscars.

“I did my job, I didn’t put a foot wrong, I did exactly what I was told to do because I was just the guy following instructions to run-in the car. I really enjoyed it – driving in F1, wherever you drive, it’s always something quite special" Nicolas Minassian

Having made his Le Mans 24 Hours debut in 1994 with an Alpa, he had been a regular at the 24 Hours and driven for Hughes de Chaunac in 2000 and 2002 either side of his short-lived spell in America.

For 2005, de Chaunac had purchased an Audi R8 for the car’s final year before Ingolstadt returned as a works entity with the turbodiesel R10. Minassian was by then a well-respected member of the underdog Creation setup, and turned down the chance to represent Audi to stay with the team. Two years later, he was lining up against Audi as part of the Peugeot team.

Now the boss of the IDEC Sport LMP2 team that won the European Le Mans Series title in 2019, Minassian never won the Le Mans 24 Hours as a driver, but surely would have done in 2010 had the 908 he shared with Franck Montagny and Stephane Sarrazin not blown its engine in spectacular fashion on Sunday morning.

Nicolas Minassian, at the 2018 Le Mans 24 Hours

Nicolas Minassian, at the 2018 Le Mans 24 Hours

Photo by: Nikolaz Godet/Motorsport Images

Top 10: Most heartbreaking Le Mans retirements

“The thing is, when I drove with Creation, it was like an adventure,” he says. “I was with Creation from the beginning of the prototype era and it was a fantastic little crew. The car, I loved driving it. It was a hard decision, but a decision of the heart that I took to drive with the Creation and I didn’t look back to be honest.”

Afterwards, ORECA switched to the GT1 class with a Saleen and Minassian says he has no regrets over his choice to stay with the prototype minnows until Peugeot entered the fray for 2007.

“You never know how it goes in a career, you take a decision at the time that feels right,” he says. “With Creation, we were doing not only the races in Europe but we did race a bit in the US as well, that was good for me. With Audi, the discussions I had with them were not as concrete as driving with Creation so I just did that and I didn’t look back.”

 

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