Home Featured Memories of 2001: When Wilson won out over Webber

Memories of 2001: When Wilson won out over Webber

by Peter Allen

Photo: Roger Gascoigne

To celebrate Formula Scout’s 10th anniversary, founder Peter Allen looks back a decade further to one of his earliest junior single-seater memories.

Before Formula 2 there was GP2, and before GP2 there was Formula 3000. And in the year 2000, it was F3000 that first got this writer hooked on single-seater racing below Formula 1 – thanks to highlights that went out on ITV on weekends when there wasn’t a grand prix on.

I remember being captivated by that year’s title fight between Bruno Junqueira and Nicolas Minassian, seemingly convinced that one or both would end up in F1. This seven-year-old was presumably unaware they were relative series veterans compared to the two rookies that finished the season in third and fourth: Mark Webber and Fernando Alonso.

With his win in the final race of the season at Spa-Francorchamps a few weeks after his 19th birthday, in only his second year of car racing, Alonso would be the youngest winner in F1’s primary feeder series until Lando Norris took his first and only F2 win in 2018, and he propelled himself into an F1 drive with Minardi. As for Junqueira – already passed over for Jenson Button’s Williams seat the previous winter – and Minassian, they would have to make do with rides in the United States.

The driver who finished fifth that year was rather overlooked, but he would change that in 2001. Justin Wilson had signalled his promise when he became the first 16-year-old to win a car race in Britain when he took victory on his debut in the Formula Vauxhall Junior winter series, but was unable to kick on in the following years. Jackie Stewart, whose son Paul ran Wilson’s team, advised that his 6ft 4in (1.93m) frame would be better suited to racing touring cars.

Undeterred, Wilson was to find some rather more encouraging support from another ex-F1 driver when he signed up for the new low-cost Formula Palmer Audi series in 1998 and won the championship’s prize of a fully-funded drive in F3000. Series founder Jonathan Palmer was impressed and took his backing a step further by becoming Wilson’s manager.

Driving for Astromega in 1999, Wilson scored a point by finishing sixth in his first race at Imola, which was no mean feat given the leap in car performance. Although he only scored one further point over the remaining rounds, he earned credit as one of only seven drivers to qualify for every race, at a time when over 40 drivers had just half an hour to secure one of 26 grid spots.

That earned the attention of Nordic Racing – a British team run by father and son Derek and Chris Mower – for 2000, when Wilson finished third at Silverstone and second in Austria. Now 22, he stayed on with the team for 2001 but this didn’t necessarily make him one of the title favourites. For one thing, Nordic was only the third most-fancied F3000 operation in its home county of Norfolk.

David Sears’ Super Nova Racing had been the team to beat in the 1990s, and also had a satellite operation in the Petrobras Junior Team – headed up by Paul Jackson, who went on to found iSport International when F3000 became GP2. Junqueira had won the 2000 title driving for Petrobras against Super Nova’s Minassian.

Moving over to Super Nova for his second season in F3000, Webber was the obvious title favourite. Also hotly-tipped was Petrobras rookie Antonio Pizzonia, fresh from blitzing the British scene with back-to-back titles in FVauxhall Junior, Formula Renault and Formula 3.

Nordic meanwhile hadn’t won an F3000 race since 1995. What it did have was new title sponsorship from Coca-Cola, courtesy of its central European division which welcomed the arrival of Wilson’s new team-mate Tomas Enge, a proven race-winner in F3000 with the now-defunct McLaren junior team West Competition.

The 2001 season began with the first ever championship round to be held outside of Europe, at Brazil’s Interlagos circuit. It was easy to see why: In contrast to now, the nation was incredibly well-represented in the European junior ranks with a whole generation of drivers inspired to race by the heroics of Ayrton Senna and often carrying big-money sponsorship to match. In qualifying, the locals absolutely dominated, locking out the front two rows.

Photo: Ron McQueeney

On pole wasn’t Pizzonia, who rounded out the quartet in fourth, nor his team-mate and Italian F3000 champion Ricardo Sperafico who was second. Nor was it Sperafico’s twin brother Rodrigo who claimed third after a late deal to join Coloni, nor Webber’s team-mate Mario Haberfeld, who had to make do with ninth. Instead it was future Ferrari GT star Jaime Melo with returning team Durango who made the most of his circuit experience from three seasons racing in his domestic F3 series.

Giorgio Pantano, the German F3 champion and highly-rated since karts, managed an impressive sixth for Astromega, with Wilson lining up seventh directly behind team-mate Enge. Webber meanwhile was only 10th after spinning.

Undaunted by the huge Brazilian GP crowds, Melo got away well from pole position, but Ricardo Sperafico was slow away and almost rear-ended by team-mate Pizzonia. He then got tagged by Pantano’s front wing on the apex of the first corner, causing him to crash into the barriers on the outside of turn two. That brought out the safety car boards, for which Melo slowed abruptly on the approach to Juncao, while Pizzonia, the other Sperafico and Enge all went charging past him.

That led Durango boss Ivone Pinton to protest to race director Charlie Whiting, but Melo would soon lose another place when Wilson passed him on the restart. Further down the order, the two Red Bull Junior Team cars of Patrick Friesacher and Antonio Garcia collided, taking both out of the race and no doubt earning them an earful from their team boss Helmut Marko.

Pizzonia led comfortably on his F3000 debut but, after some deliberation, received a 10-second stop-go penalty for his pass on Melo, as did Enge and Rodrigo Sperafico. That gave Wilson a clear track which he used to pull away from Melo en route to his maiden win. His only scare came right after the finish line when, in a combination of excitement and surprise at seeing yellow flags on the approach at the first corner, he spun and only narrowly kept his car away from the pitwall. Behind him, Webber had pressured Melo into a mistake and got by for second place, only to later be penalised for passing before the start-finish line at the restart. That relegated him just out of the points and meant Wilson headed back to Europe with a healthy early advantage over all of his expected rivals.

Webber struck back in round two at Imola, leading from pole position in what was a far more processional affair at the front. Squeezed onto the grass at the start as he tried to get past Webber, Darren Manning took second place for Christian Horner’s Arden team. Having hoped to fight for the title himself, Manning wouldn’t make the podium again all season, but later went on to precede fellow Yorkshireman Wilson’s underdog performances in IndyCar with a few of his own. While Enge was third and Pizzonia fourth, Wilson had to make do with a solitary point in sixth behind Friesacher.

Race three of the season at Barcelona would also be settled at the first corner. The good news for Wilson was that he was on pole for the first time, leading Enge in a Nordic one-two. But after an initially good start, a bad gear change cost Wilson on the run to the first corner and Enge edged ahead, before Bas Leinders stole second.

Third was still a positive result for Wilson relative to Webber, who qualified 11th after a mid-session crash and was unable to break into the points after leaping to seventh on lap one. Indeed, it was Enge who was now Wilson’s closest title rival, just one point adrift, and the pair enhanced their relationship a few days later by sharing a Coca-Cola-backed Porsche in an FIA GT race at Magny-Cours.

It was the two Nordic drivers and KTR’s interloper Leinders who came to the fore again at the A1 Ring, even though none of them made the grid’s front row. On his and the Red Bull team’s home track, Friesacher lost it under braking for the first corner and took out poleman Sebastien Bourdais, additionally triggering a midfield pile-up that accounted for Webber and seven others.

Leinders escaped with the lead, but succumbed to Wilson on the restart. Perhaps surprisingly, Wilson couldn’t simply pull away and instead spent the rest of the race under pressure from Leinders, who did get back down his inside at one point only for Wilson to out-drag him once again. Less than a second covered Wilson and third-placed Enge at the finish, but the points gap between them was up to seven.

Webber reignited his title hopes with the first of his three career wins around the streets of Monaco. Both he and Wilson rose to the occasion and were fairly closely matched throughout. Their weekends could have come undone at the first corner when third-placed Manning couldn’t get stopped and nerfed the rear of Wilson, but the main damage done was to Manning’s own front wing. Wilson was just 0.893s behind Webber at the finish.

Drafted back in to F3000 for a one-off outing by the Prost team, for whom he was F1 test driver at the time, Stephane Sarrazin completed the podium ahead of compatriot Bourdais. After crashing in qualifying, Enge was only seventh, denied a point by surprise Red Bull recall Ricardo Mauricio, but he took his chance to rebound next time out at the Nurburgring, when he drew level with Wilson and Webber on two wins from the opening six races. This was even more straightforward than his Barcelona victory as this time he led from pole. Webber was second, and Wilson missed out on points for the first time when a sheared brake disc bell while in eighth place sent him into a spin and ultimately retirement.

Enge started from pole again at Magny-Cours – this time by a massive 0.573s. But, just as Wilson did at Barcelona, he fluffed his shift from first to second gear after the lights went out. This time Webber was in a position to pounce, and he turned that opportunity into a commanding win. A pre-race setup change caused Enge to drop back with heavy tyre wear into the clutches of Wilson, who dived past for second place on the last lap to ensure he held onto the standings lead by a point over Webber.

Nordic’s drivers had appeared friends up until now but tensions showed at Silverstone. Enge upstaged Wilson in qualifying, outpacing the home favourite by 0.373s to take his third consecutive pole, and led a Nordic one-two in the early laps.

Wilson looked to be playing the long game but was given an opportunity when Enge erred at Becketts and was slow onto the Hangar Straight. Wilson got on Enge’s outside into Stowe but found himself run into the gravel trap on the exit. He rejoined in third behind Sebastien Bourdais and raised a hand in protest.

Justin Wilson’s career stats

Category Starts Best result Best quali Podiums
IndyCar 174 7 wins 8 poles 27
F1 16 1x 8th 1x 10th 0
FE 1 1x 10th 1x 13th 0
F3000 32 3 wins 2 poles 12
FPA 16 8 wins 4 poles 9
FOpel 29 4 wins 4 poles 17
FOpel Jr 17 5 wins unknown 5

Halfway through, not unusually for Silverstone, rain showers began to blow in. First onto the scene whenever the track got more slippery, Enge went off at Copse, dropping himself down to third. Bourdais, who was able to stick with the Nordic pair and leave Webber behind at the start, was now in the lead and duly claimed his maiden F3000 win for DAMS. And while Wilson took second, Enge fell to fifth – behind Pizzonia and Webber – after losing power out of the final corner on the last lap.

That was Pizzonia’s first F3000 podium and he followed it two weeks later with a maiden victory at Hockenheim in an entertaining final race on the flat-out old layout. Team-mate Ricardo Sperafico looked far more likely to be the one breaking his duck after claiming pole, but he was hounded on the first lap by the Nordic pair behind him and Wilson snatched the lead on the way into the stadium section. From sixth on the grid, Pizzonia then stormed around the outside of Sperafico in the Sachs Curve, and he aggressively forced his way by Wilson on lap three.

Wilson could be satisfied with a third successive second place finish, after Enge spun trying to set up a pass through turn one, then ran through the gravel trying to take third back from Sperafico later on and ended up fifth once more. Webber failed to score at all after tangling with Manning on the first lap, rueing a damaged damper that left him seventh on the grid.

Hockenheim set the tone for the end of the season. At the Hungaroring, Wilson took pole by 0.659s over Webber and was untroubled on his way to his third win of the year. While Mauricio took a surprise second to justify his recall by Marko, Enge and Webber did battle over third place until 13 laps to go. Then, Enge ran wide into the final corner and hit Webber’s sidepod when he tried to shut the door – earning him a stop-go penalty that dumped him out of the points and ending his title hopes for good. Webber continued and set after Mauricio, only to spin into retirement on worn tyres.

Wilson now led Webber by 20 points with a maximum 20 available from the final two rounds, and thus went to Spa needing just one point to seal the title. In the end, it was after another second place that Wilson could celebrate in Belgium. But the title was already decided on lap two by another Webber retirement, this time a far more spectacular off at Raidillon following a safety car start in mildly damp conditions. Petrobras was running one-two after dominating qualifying, but Pizzonia spun out of second trying to warm his tyres behind the safety car, leaving Sperafico to get his first win.

2001 Int. F3000 standings

Pos Driver Wins Poles Podiums Points
1 Justin Wilson 3 2 10 71
2 Mark Webber 3 2 4 39
3 Tomas Enge 2 3 5 39
4 Sebastien Bourdais 1 1 3 26
5 Ricardo Sperafico 1 2 4 24
6 Antonio Pizzonia 1 1 2 22
7 Bas Leinders 2x 2nd 2x3rd 2 17
8 Ricardo Mauricio 1x 2nd 1x3rd 2 14
9 Giorgio Pantano 1 1x3rd 1 12
10 David Saelens 2x 4th 1x4th 0 10

With Mauricio on the podium again, Enge finished fourth in what would be his final F3000 race of the season. Come Monza he was an F1 driver for Prost: the opportunity came about after Luciano Burti was injured in a big crash at Spa, but the Coca-Cola money was a sweetener for a team that ultimately lasted just three more races before folding. Enge would return to F3000 for 2002 with Arden – notably being stripped of that year’s crown for failing a drugs test.

Wilson meanwhile ended the 2001 season with a sixth second place from 12 races. His consistent season allowed him to break Juan Pablo Montoya’s series points record and with a record  gap to second place too, as Webber crashed out for the fourth race in a row – colliding with former Sauber F1 driver Norberto Fontana in a remarkably chaotic start to the race. Webber had already been sent to the back of the grid as one of several to stall across two aborted starts. This after heavy rain and winds on Friday led qualifying to be run just before the race.

When it did get going, pole-sitting Pizzonia forced a fast-starting Pantano onto the grass to keep the lead. Pantano’s late-season team-mate Enrico Toccacelo then triggered the first-corner melee after braking too late and cutting to the inside. Despite his speed, Pantano had scored just two points all season up to now but was in inspired form at home, coming back from fifth to take victory – replicating Alonso’s Spa win from Astromega a year earlier – after Pizzonia was penalised for his opening-lap swipe.

For Wilson and Webber, despite the very different ways their seasons ended, the focus now was the same: finding a way onto the F1 grid for 2002. For Webber, the odds had always seemed better after Benetton boss Flavio Briatore took a liking to both he and Alonso during their strong rookie F3000 seasons in 2000 and made Webber his team’s test driver. After impressing with Minardi, Alonso was moved to the test driver role at the renamed Renault squad for 2002, but Briatore wanted Webber on the grid. The chance came with Minardi through Australian owner Paul Stoddart, who had given Webber his first F3000 chance with his own European Racing team. Webber repaid his faith with a dream fifth place on debut in Melbourne, and while he would never actually race for Renault, he would go on to win nine grands prix for Red Bull.

Photo: Minardi

All through the 2001 season, the question was whether F1 teams were taking any notice of Wilson at all. Eventually the interest came, including from McLaren and Williams, but it was Jordan that gave him his first tests. Eddie Jordan was on the lookout for a young driver who could go on to challenge the dominance of Michael Schumacher, and was also talking to 2001’s other record-breaking junior series champion, Takuma Sato. It was eventually Sato that got the drive, undoubtedly pleasing engine supplier Honda.

Wilson was also considered by Minardi, only to lose out to Webber, forcing him to spend a season in the World Series by Nissan. Later in 2002, when Minardi benched the struggling Alex Yoong for two races, Wilson went for a seat fitting – but couldn’t squeeze into the car and the drive went instead to the somewhat shorter Anthony Davidson. But Stoddart wanted Wilson to replace Jaguar-bound Webber for 2003 and made sure his team’s car was built to fit him. He wanted sponsorship too, and Palmer raised it through an innovative share offering.

Now given his chance, Wilson impressed to the point that he earned a mid-season switch to Jaguar – where he became Webber’s team-mate, in place of the underperforming Pizzonia. For 2004 he had to make way for Red Bull’s F3 Euro Series runner-up Christian Klien. Wilson moved to Champ Car, finishing runner-up to series dominator Bourdais in 2006 and 2007 before taking the Frenchman’s Newman/Haas Lanigan seat when he got his own deserved chance in F1.

Champ Car was immediately merged into IndyCar and Wilson was once more the underdog, but he thrived in that role, earning victories with the plucky Dale Coyne Racing team – as well as the respect of his peers and fans for his efforts behind the wheel and his kindness out of the car. When Wilson was killed by debris striking his helmet during a race at Pocono in 2015, he was contesting a part-time schedule with Andretti Autosport – an opportunity that might just have led to his talent getting a full-time go at a championship once more.