The Nearly Men

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The Grand Prix greats are household names. Ayrton Senna, Juan Manuel Fangio and Jim Clark are legendary names throughout the world, and all three appear in our list of all-time greatest wins.

But what about those drivers who never got to show their talent, had a career stuck in uncompetitive machinery, never made the big time or had their chance cruelly cut short by injury (or worse)? Formula One history is littered with great drivers who, for whatever reason, never quite made it. Even in today’s ultra-safe age where most drivers, money permitting, can expect to complete their career, there are countless cases of racers who never showed their true potential.

A good example is Jan Magnussen. I witnessed Magnussen’s breathtaking performance at the 1992 Formula Ford Festival and I was convinced I’d seen the next superstar. The 1994 British F3 series re-affirmed this impression as Magnussen made it look easy, cruising to the title and comprehensively thrashing his team-mate, one Dario Franchitti (latterly of Champ Cars and the Indy Racing League). But his big break into F1 never quite worked out. In a one-off drive for McLaren at 1995 Pacific Grand Prix, Magnussen showed his pace, but nothing further was forthcoming until a 1997 seat for Stewart. This should have been it, a secure drive in a well-funded team, but it never clicked and Magnussen was routinely unspectacular until he was sacked halfway through 1998. That was the end of Magnussen’s Grand Prix career, although the Dane has since carved out a successful career in sports cars.

Fellow Dane Jason Watt is also worthy of mention. Another stellar talent in the junior formulae, his career was tragically cut short following a motorbike accident. Few doubt he would have gone all the way. Watt suffered his injury following the 1999 season in which his Formula 3000 rivals were Nick Heidfeld and Gonzalo Rodriguez. Of the three, Rodriguez was the most eye-catching on the track and personable off it. His death in September that year, trying to qualify a Champ Car at Laguna Sega, robbed F1 of a potential star. Had Watt and Rodriguez been able to fulfil their talents, Grand Prix racing today could look very different.

Others did make it to the top of the motorsport tree, but never got into an F1 team worthy of their talent. The 2002 Toyota driver pairing of Allan McNish and Mika Salo is a great example. I recently picked up a copy of the 1989 F3 video and was amazed at how impressive McNish was back then at just 19. That he never got a shot at F1 in competitive machinery is a baffling question, and so is the question why the same team let both Salo and McNish go after one season. Few people remember that Mika Salo took Mika Hakkinen to the wire in the 1990 championship. One became a double world champion, the other surely deserved to be. Anyone who saw what Salo did with an uncompetitive Tyrrell in the mid-90’s is in no doubt of his talent. It is a travesty that Salo had to hand over his only Grand Prix victory to Eddie Irvine in 1999 to help the Ulsterman’s title challenge.

F1’s top test driver last year was without doubt Anthony Davidson, but those in the know also kept an eye on Bas Leinders. Leinders seems to have spent an age in under-funded junior formulae drives, often always beating much-fancied rivals, but never seemingly getting the credit for it.

Like Salo, another Grand Prix tail-ender with talent was Bertrand Gachot. Gachot is famous for being jailed after spraying a cab driver with mace and losing his seat to Michael Schumacher whilst behind bars. Prior to having his training time involuntarily cut to one hour a day, Gachot was comfortably quicker than De Cesaris in the sister Jordan and would have been unlucky not to land a top seat for 1992. Two years in the Pacific wasn’t any compensation.

Ukyo Katayama, crasher extraordinaire, a man who has entered every corner on the Grand Prix calendar going backwards, has been cruelly judged by history. In 1994 Katayama blew the wheels off Mark Blundell, and was desperately unlucky not to put the Tyrell on the podium at least once during the season. Had his career not been allowed to peter out at Minardi, Katayama could have easily beaten Takuma Sato to the honour of first Japanese driver on the podium. Another driver for whom great opportunities came to nought is Ivan Capelli. His performances in the Leyton House were astounding and he was the only non-McLaren driver to take on Senna in a straight fight in the 1988 season. Four years later, in the Ferrari, Capelli’s career was stone dead. That the car’s high-speed handling was comparable to that of a Reliant Robin has been lost in the passage of time.

Had any of the above drivers got the drive their talent deserved, or had a stroke of luck when they needed it, Formula One history books would look very different. Any sport is full of ‘what if’s. But as Murray Walker endlessly said: “F1 is ‘if’ spelt backwards.”

Couldn’t agree more.

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Ben Evans
Motorsport commentator Ben is RaceFans' resident bookworm. Look out for his verdict on the latest motor racing publications on Sundays....

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