How a standout test launched the Verstappen name into F1

How a standout test launched the Verstappen name into F1


The world of Formula 1 will see something of a shake-up this winter. A number of the ‘old guard’ are to make way for new talent which is banging hard on the usually-closed grand prix door. More than half the battle of becoming a grand prix drivers is getting a seat in the first place. Any number of the ‘new wave’ will slot quite happily into the big league – if only they get the chance.

So how do you prove your talent is worthy of a coveted F1 drive? At Estoril last week, two young drivers, each deserving of a full-time F1 seat, were given try-outs with Footwork: 1992 British F3 champion Gil de Ferran, and newly-crowned German F3 champion Jos Verstappen. Both are desperately keen to get their foot in the door of F1. For them, this test was hugely important.

Much has been written about Verstappen. The 21-year-old Dutchman’s car racing career spans just 24 months. From an FF1600 test at Zandvoort in October 1991, through a Vauxhall Lotus series (1992 Benelux champion), to a winter in New Zealand in Formula Atlantic (fourth overall) and this year’s successes in Germany, Verstappen has built a reputation for climbing into a car and stunning onlookers with his immediate pace.

Would he do the same in his first taste of F1? Few thought so, for having never driven Formula 3000, the leap from 175bhp F3 cars to a 750bhp F1 car with traction control, active suspension, semi-automatic gearbox and carbon brakes would surely take him some time to get used to.

Verstappen climbed aboard the Footwork-Mugen early on Tuesday morning. The sun was bright, the circuit dry, and he appeared relaxed. In fact, he looked anything but a nervous newcomer, about to sample the star-studded world of F1 for the very first time. Even the presence of a Dutch TV crew, shadowing his every step, was dealt with like a seasoned F1 champion. The instructions from the team were clear and simple. Take your time, make sure you are comfortable and find your limit.

Jos Verstappen, 1993 Footwork test

Jos Verstappen, 1993 Footwork test

Photo by: Motorsport Images

The Footwork fired up, and Verstappen drove out of the garage. Fifteen minutes later he was back. His audience couldn’t quite believe what they’d just seen. His fourth lap had been a 1m16.8s, which would have qualified him 24th for the previous Sunday’s Portuguese GP.

Still, they say getting within two seconds of a decent time is easy: it’s the final tenths that are difficult. Within five more laps, Verstappen was down to a 1m15.6s, just 0.1s shy of the qualifying time of the car’s regular driver, Aguri Suzuki. By lunchtime, he had done 41 laps, spun once, and had trimmed his time to 1m15.43s. Obviously, he felt comfortable with the Footwork, and F1.

“I never thought it would be so fast. But by the third lap I was really enjoying it, it was fantastic. After 10-15 laps it feels normal, and you find yourself wanting more” Jos Verstappen

“I must say I thought it would be quite difficult, the jump from F3 to F1,” he said. “I was thinking about the power, the brakes, the fast corner. But really, it was not so difficult.”

What about the massive increase in power under his right foot?

“Yes, that was incredible,” he smiles. “On the first lap I thought, ‘Shit!’ I never thought it would be so fast. But by the third lap I was really enjoying it, it was fantastic. After 10-15 laps it feels normal, and you find yourself wanting more. Still, it’s very fast…”

In the afternoon, Verstappen’s times tumbled further. At the end of 65 laps, he’d set a best of 1m14.45s, good enough for 10th on the grid and just 0.07s slower than Derek Warwick. The pits were soon buzzing.
Estoril is quite a physical circuit – especially the long, fast corner at the end of the lap – and Verstappen, understandably, had an aching neck and shoulders by the end of the day.

“I had a seat made, and it was very good. I feel very comfortable in the car. At the moment though, I hurt at the top of my shoulders, but it’s no real problem. At least now I know where to train! Everyone says how much it takes out of your neck, but unless you’ve actually driven a car, you can’t build for it.”

Jos Verstappen, 1993 Footwork test

Jos Verstappen, 1993 Footwork test

Photo by: Motorsport Images

At 4pm, de Ferran climbed in for his first run. The Brazilian had his F1 whistle whetted last November, in a brief yet impressive run in Nigel Mansell’s Williams-Renault at Silverstone as a prize for winning the 1992 British F3 title. This, in Estoril, was altogether different. A good showing here could lead to a full-time F1 drive, and he knew it. You had to feel some sympathy for him: Verstappen would be a very hard act to follow.

As an F3000 racer (and championship contender), there was more expectation that de Ferran would go quickly. Verstappen, coming straight from F3, didn’t have that pressure. But if those thoughts were in de Ferran’s mind, he wasn’t showing it. He was just concentrating on doing a good job, making the right impression, and learning the intricacies of F1. He knew that he’d get only a handful of laps on Tuesday, as a prelude to a full day on Wednesday.

De Ferran acclimatised in 15 laps before the end of the day. Afterwards he discussed his first impressions with David Coulthard, himself down in Portugal to test for Williams once Alain Prost had gone home. The conversation was a fascinating insight into what drivers experience during and after their first laps in F1.

Coulthard had spent the afternoon watching out on the circuit, and de Ferran was keen to know how he compared during his few sample laps. Turn 5, the third gear left-hander at the end of the straight behind the paddock, requires heavy braking.

“There, you looked like you were slowing down for the corner, obviously feeling your way into it,” relayed Coulthard.

“Am I slowing down a lot more than the others into that corner?” wondered de Ferran.

“Yes, but everyone else is braking a lot later, and harder. They’re, like, stamp on the brakes, turn, then hard on the power. Your line in the corner was the same,” Coulthard continued before breaking into a smile, “and going out you sounded very good…” He followed his last remark with a passable impression of the Footwork’s traction control, before returning to his observations.

Gil de Ferran, Footwork test 1993

Gil de Ferran, Footwork test 1993

Photo by: Motorsport Images

“You were smooth into the corner, almost coasting in comparison with the others. That wasn’t the same as me when I first drove an F1 car. You find yourself braking, then having to get back on the power to reach the apex, because you naturally break too early.”

So how difficult is it for a driver to adapt to traction control?

“It’s not really a problem,” replies de Ferran. “The only difficulty is getting used to how much throttle you can use. I’m used to pushing the throttle, having the back step out, and then easing it again. With this it’s all a matter of confidence really. It comes in, and you are away.

He reappeared in the garage with blood gushing from his head and all over his brand-new Footwork overalls, having inadvertently walked into an open cupboard door in the transporter. The wound required two stitches, and his test was over

“Something else to get used to is the steering. It’s a lot lighter than in F3000, so in the fast stuff I’m ‘wandering’ a bit. In F3000, it’s very heavy, whereas F1 is more like F3 steering.”

But there is still a substantial physical effort required.

“I have no problems,” says de Ferran, “but then I’ve only done 15 laps, and I haven’t been pushing yet. Tomorrow I will push harder, it’ll be a longer day. We’ll start first thing in the morning, if it doesn’t rain.”

It did, heavily, and de Ferran wasn’t to get back in the car until past two on Wednesday afternoon. Circumstance, like luck, is another huge factor in getting an F1 drive. De Ferran was not having a good day: the rain put paid to his morning session, and now he was faced with just two hours of running.

Gil de Ferran, F3000 Silverstone 1993

Gil de Ferran, F3000 Silverstone 1993

Photo by: Motorsport Images

“It’s very frustrating,” he said, ” because I wanted to learn the car, understand it, and feel how it works and handles before going really quickly.”

Two more runs (of 15 laps) later, de Ferran felt ready to alter the car. “We’ve changed some things on the active suspension, and then I’ll try some new tyres.”

As the team made the modifications, they advised de Ferran to take the chance to get out of the car, take a stretch and have a drink. He reappeared in the garage with blood gushing from his head and all over his brand-new Footwork overalls, having inadvertently walked into an open cupboard door in the transporter. The wound required two stitches, and his test was over. Naturally he was bitterly upset.

“I was down to 1m16.0s,” he said, “and with the changes there was plenty more to come.”

Verstappen had another run on Thursday, suffering a stiff neck and shoulders from his exertions on the Tuesday. Again he was bang up to speed immediately – his fifth lap of 1m14.4s was already as quick as he’d been on Tuesday. But then he crashed at the last right flick before the last corner. The Footwork spun into the barrier, damaging two corners and the nose. The team packed up, and Verstappen headed for a live TV interview.

What did team manager John Wickham make of the newcomers?

“Verstappen was very confident,” he said. “He fitted the car well, and had three good sessions. He didn’t ask for much on the car, but he sensed understeer and oversteer. He has amazing natural feel.

Jos Verstappen, Footwork test 1993

Jos Verstappen, Footwork test 1993

Photo by: Motorsport Images

“Gil had an unsettled first day, with 15 laps. He was just settling in when he injured his head. His helmet and his glasses were both in the transporter, and if he’d had either on he would have been okay! Seriously, I’d be interested in running both Gil and Jos again.”

F1 is a fickle world, where first impressions count for everything. Who would want to be a budding F1 driver on the verge of his big break? Racing must seem like a doddle after that…

What happened next?

Speaking to Autosport in 2009, Verstappen admitted he was “completely destroyed” after his first day of running, but it had certainly got tongues wagging in the paddock.

“I can remember after that day at Estoril, we had contact with all of the teams except Ferrari and Williams,” he said. “Benetton rang and wanted us to come over for a chat. We originally had a deal for one year of testing and then we know what happened to JJ Lehto [Benetton’s 1994 race driver, who broke his neck in a Silverstone test crash]. Then they put me in the car.”

An F1 career that had promised so much fizzled out after a pointless season flogging an underpowered Minardi in 2003

Up against champion-elect Michael Schumacher, Verstappen was up against it and had a tough time with only two podium finishes at the Hungarian and Belgian GPs.

“The 1994 Benetton wasn’t my kind of car,” he explained. “It was very nervous and difficult to drive.”

Thereafter his F1 career struggled for momentum. He remained on Benetton’s books in 1995 racing for the moribund Simtek team, then switched to Footwork for 1996 before joining Tyrrell in 1997.

Jos Verstappen, 1996 Footwork

Jos Verstappen, 1996 Footwork

Photo by: Motorsport Images

He was left without a drive for 1998 when the team signed monied duo Ricardo Rosset and Tora Takagi, found a temporary drive at Stewart when Jan Magnussen lost his drive mid-season, then sat out 1999 when the promising Honda F1 project he was attached to was mothballed following the death of technical lead Harvey Postlethwaite.

Verstappen returned for a second stint at Footwork – now back under its original guise of Arrows and under the ownership of Tom Walkinshaw – in 2000 and stayed for a second season for the first time in his career in 2001, scoring its only point with sixth in Austria.

But it wasn’t enough to keep him at the team for 2002, and an F1 career that had promised so much fizzled out after a pointless season flogging an underpowered Minardi in 2003.

De Ferran meanwhile never got the chance to race in F1, and following his F3000 title near-miss in 1994 made a successful switch to Indycar racing for 1995, winning his first race in the final round of that season at Laguna Seca.

Second in the standings with Walker Racing in 1997, he attracted the attention of Roger Penske, who signed the Brazilian to lead his Indycar revival for 2000. Penske’s faith was rewarded with back-to-back titles in 2000-01, plus the 2003 Indianapolis 500.

PLUS: How Penske ended its longest drought

After retiring from Indycar racing, de Ferran made a successful comeback racing for his own team in the American Le Mans Series.

Gil de Ferran, 2003 Indianapolis 500 winner

Gil de Ferran, 2003 Indianapolis 500 winner

Photo by: Motorsport Images



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