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What could have been: The forgotten Indycar test of a sportscar great

Anthony Davidson never raced an Indycar, but the 2014 World Endurance Championship winner did test for Team Green in 2002. He recalls how it came about and why it never progressed further

Anthony Davidson tests with CART Team Kool Green

LAT Photographic

The careers of Anthony Davidson and Takuma Sato overlapped at several junctures. The pair finished first (Sato) and second as Carlin team-mates in the 2001 British Formula 3 championship, then were reunited for 2003 when Sato arrived as a race driver at the BAR Formula 1 team where Davidson was a test and reserve driver. Then, when Davidson was finally given a full-time F1 drive at Super Aguri for 2007, it was fitting that he should be paired up with Sato.

But after the Super Aguri team folded the following year, the pair went their separate ways. Davidson became one of the most sought-after prototype drivers around, as Sato headed Stateside. Now over a decade on, the Japanese is a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner and will go for a third this year after joining Chip Ganassi Racing for an oval-only programme. But it’s not totally beyond the realm of possibility that Davidson and Sato could have renewed their rivalry in US open-wheel racing, as the Briton impressed Team Green at a Champ Car test at Road America in 2002.

Looking back today, Davidson has a nagging suspicion that “I would have had quite good feel for the ovals” but decided early on that he wasn’t going to pursue a race seat for 2003 as “deep down I knew I never wanted to do the ovals”.

“I was always a bit fearful of the ovals if I’m honest,” says Davidson, who retired from racing in 2021. “It was alien to me. As I always said back then, I just liked braking too much! I was quite adamant in that decision, it was like for whatever reason it was just set in stone from the word go. I was never interested in doing the ovals.”

Davidson’s test outing had been organised by BAR’s engine partner, Honda. As Champ Car began to experiment with a traction control system that was “in its infancy”, Honda sought to transfer knowledge gleaned from its F1 programme. Davidson, who had been at the forefront of its development, was the logical person to call up – not least because Team Green (prior to Michael Andretti’s 2003 buy-in) was also funded by British American Tobacco.

“They wanted a bit of feedback as to what the driver feels from traction control, how to tune it, how to get the best out of it,” reflects Davidson, who was 23 at the time of the test. “Looking back at it now, it must have meant I was doing something right in my early days of being a test driver with BAR because they were keen to send me over as the oracle on what traction control should feel like. It was quite flattering really. I was quite young to be thrown in, really it was in the deep end.”

With no opportunity to acquaint himself with the 4.048-mile, 14-turn Elkhart Lake track on a simulator given the technological constraints of the time, Davidson found “it was an uphill learning curve” and admits to feeling “really apprehensive” for his first experience with a turbo-powered engine. Although he’d attended the 2002 Cleveland race as a guest of the team, he “didn’t know what to expect”.

At just 23 Davidson was given the guru status with its new use of traction control

At just 23 Davidson was given the guru status with its new use of traction control

Photo by: LAT Photographic

“I’d heard that these cars were absolute beasts to drive, no power-steering and a lot of horsepower,” recalls Davidson.

But his training in Formula 1 testing with 600kg, naturally aspirated V10 machines producing over 900 horsepower meant he was well-prepared for what he anticipates would otherwise “have been quite a daunting prospect”.

“They were telling me, ‘We’re going to start with the boost turned down, these things are ferocious when that turbo kicks in’ and I’d never driven a turbo car at that point in my career,” he says. “I remember putting my foot down for the first time out of the pits on the way down towards Turn 1 thinking ‘where is this power they’d spoken about?’ I had this massive moment of relief.”

Davidson says he could immediately feel the Champ Car’s additional bulk compared to the BAR, although enjoyed the “really sweet” handling of the Lola chassis. He reckoned at the time “it was like giving an F3 car more power”.

"Looking back at it now, of course you would say ‘I’m on a good lap, can I do one more lap?’ But I was so obedient and I think that’s what made me such a good test driver!" Anthony Davidson

“Although the engine had about 800-odd horsepower, it was still around a good 150 horsepower down and it weighed about 200 kilos more,” he recalls today. “It was a mechanical car, that was what I really liked about it. It had a lot of downforce, way more than a Formula 3 car would produce, and it had ground-effects as well.

“It was a well-sorted car, late in its life cycle of that chassis and the team were obviously very slick. It was brilliant, I really enjoyed it.”

Davidson also relished his first experience at the fast and swooping Road America, a popular favourite of many an IndyCar regular. “It’s a beast of a circuit to learn,” reflects Davidson, who also enjoyed sharing his TC knowledge and its tunability.

“The key really is tuning it so that you’re just allowing slip rotation in the tyres, against the surface of the track at all times,” he says. “And there is still a certain amount of modulation that the driver has to do when you’re running traction control in a rear-wheel-drive car.”

Despite impressing in the test it never led to a serious role in the future

Despite impressing in the test it never led to a serious role in the future

Photo by: LAT Photographic

Also on-hand for the test was Newman/Haas driver Cristiano Da Matta, who went on to win that year’s Champ Car title on his way to an F1 seat with Toyota for 2003. Davidson ended up 0.9s slower and believes he was on course to shave off another two tenths when he was called into the pits.

“I had the in-lap board and I just respected the board,” he recalls. “Looking back at it now, of course you would say ‘I’m on a good lap, can I do one more lap?’ But I was so obedient and I think that’s what made me such a good test driver! I just came into the pits thinking ‘that’s a shame, I was two tenths up!’ So I’ll take those two tenths… I was pretty happy about that in just a handful of laps.”

It impressed Team Green’s general manager Kyle Moyer, who told Autosport: “Anthony is a smart driver. He has a great feel for the race car and he adapted well to a new machine.”

Despite the test coming during a point in the summer when next year’s plans are rarely far from the lips and BAR boss David Richards expressing his hope to Autosport that Davidson would land a drive for 2003, Davidson says it was never on the agenda. Six of the 19 races on the 2002 Champ Car schedule were ovals, but the newly renamed Andretti-Green’s move to the IRL for 2003 meant an all-oval schedule.

“It wasn’t so much as ‘it’s a chance for you to do Champ Car or IndyCar one day’, it was just purely development work,” Davidson says. “That’s really as far as it went and I think as it ever was going to go. I think there was talk of going back and doing another test, at some point, but that didn’t materialise.

“But it raised a few eyebrows I think. And not just within the team but other teams that were watching on. It was only a good thing for me.”

Davidson had won the Pau Grand Prix in Formula 3 and found the idea of racing on street courses “enticing,” but stuck to his guns on ovals. Subsequent discussions with Gil de Ferran when he became sporting director at the Honda F1 team and with Mike Conway, when they were team-mates on Toyota’s World Endurance Championship programme, helped Davidson recognise he made the right decision.

“I would get to feel [de Ferran’s] experiences because he would describe it so well, in such detail,” he relates. “Then looking at what has happened to some of my good old friends from those days, Justin Wilson and Dan Wheldon [accomplished oval racers who lost their lives at Pocono in 2015 and Las Vegas in 2011 respectively] – I feel like that feeling I had was justified.”

Davidson did get a partial taste of oval racing when he contested the 2013 Daytona 24 Hours

Davidson did get a partial taste of oval racing when he contested the 2013 Daytona 24 Hours

Photo by: Eric Gilbert

But he did at least venture onto an oval in a Daytona Prototype in the 2013 Daytona 24 Hours, and came away with his confidence boosted. In his first race outing after breaking his back in a frightening aerial crash at Le Mans the previous year, which Davidson was a tester “to see if I was going to be fit enough and whether I still wanted to do it anymore”, he received positive good feedback from his spotter about his spatial awareness on the oval section where he previously “thought I had no idea what I was doing”.

“It was nice to hear from somebody so experienced,” he says. “I thought you go around an oval and it’s just flat out, so how can you see whether I’m doing something right or wrong on a part of the track that’s easily flat out and you barely have to turn the steering wheel? He clearly saw something during that race.

“Of course it would have been fun and super-exhilarating, but I always had this voice telling me not to do it.”

Davidson says he has no regrets about his decision, having retired from racing in 2021 and is now a TV pundit and analyst

Davidson says he has no regrets about his decision, having retired from racing in 2021 and is now a TV pundit and analyst

Photo by: Mark Sutton

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