The Sunday Telegraph - Sport
Wheldon enjoys lap of honour
With a 102-point lead, the Buckinghamshire-born driver is seemingly coasting to his first IndyCar championship
IT WAS not the fastest lap of his motor racing career. In fact, it was pretty pedestrian by his high-velocity standards — little more than a gentle system-check before today’s race in upstate New York. But for Dan Wheldon, it was one of his most important.
On Friday morning, in conditions so wet and misty that the few hundred hardy souls watching from the grandstand could have been forgiven for missing it, the 27-year-old from Emberton, Buckinghamshire, completed the single practice lap that made him the fi rst Briton since Nigel Mansell to clinch America’s IndyCar series. Forget Jenson Button and his multi-million pound contractual manoeuvrings. It is Wheldon who can now claim to be Britain’s most successful motor racing driver.
Under the IndyCar Racing League’s scoring system, a last-place finish guarantees a driver 12 points and, with a 102-point lead going into the penultimate race weekend of the series, that was all Wheldon needed to make his victory a mathematical certainty. Just finishing a solitary practice lap was enough.
Technically, the title will not be his until today’s race result is deemed official — which means 31 of the scheduled 60 laps have to be completed — but it would require Hurricane Rita to strengthen and veer a thousand miles north-east to prevent that from happening.
“I don’t even have to be here,” he says. “I could go home. Even if the race was cancelled I would still be champion as I have such a big points lead.”
Wheldon, who was runnerup in his fi rst full IndyCar championship last year, has been unstoppable this season, becoming the fi rst driver in IRL history to win six times in a single series. One of those victories came in the fl agship Indy 500 — an achievement he rates as bigger and more emotional than clinching the overall title.
His performances have turned him into a sporting celebrity in America, with an appearance on the David Letterman Show and the honour of pitching the first ball at a New York Mets baseball match, yet he remains virtually unknown in Britain. All that may be about to change, however.
Since his latest race victory in Chicago earlier this month, Formula One has fi nally woken up to his talents and a couple of teams have made approaches that, he admits, “are definitely more than just talk”. Their interest is enough to have made him delay signing a new contract with his Andretti-Green Racing team. His manager, Julian Jakobi, who used to run the affairs of Ayrton Senna, is talking to one of them in Brazil this weekend.
Wheldon declines to identify the teams but, in the small world of Formula One, there are not exactly many candidates. One of them could well be Williams, who still have a vacancy after Button’s decision to remain with BAR-Honda, while Ferrari are looking for a replacement for Rubens Barichello. All Wheldon will say is that both “can contend for points.”
“I’ve probably had maybe 15 approaches from different teams but being approached and actually being offered a deal are two different things,” he says. “There are a lot of people who talk big in this game but don’t pull through. The only way you know when a Formula One team are serious is when they ask your weight and your height because they want to know if you can fit in the same car as your team-mate. One team have done that.”
The simple solution would have been for Button to honour his contract at Williams and for Wheldon to continue his relationship with Honda, his engine manufacturer in the United States, by taking Button’s seat at BAR.
Honda’s satisfaction with Wheldon was demonstrated by their double-page advertisement in Friday’s edition of USA Today
congratulating the Briton on his victory in Chicago. It is ironic, therefore, that it was almost certainly Honda who helped buy Button out of his Williams deal for a reported £12 million.
“I think Jenson somewhat screwed me up there,” jokes Wheldon. “I think if he had gone to Williams it would have made things different, but it obviously wasn’t meant to be, was it? I’m a big believer that things happen for a reason.
“To tell you the truth, I’m surprised Honda paid so much to get Jenson out of his Williams deal because I personally think that if you give me the right time, I can certainly be as good, if not better. I’m sure every driver thinks that, but I certainly believe I can be as good.”
The dilemma for Wheldon is that although Formula One has been his big ambition ever since he used to race Button in karts and in Formula Ford, he is more than happy with his US team and the American way of life. Having crossed the Atlantic in 1999 due to lack of sponsorship opportunities in Britain, he now has three homes, seven cars and, less conventionally, a collection of shoes to rival Imelda Marcos.
“Staying in the States would obviously be the easier option,” he says. “It’s difficult because I love my team and I’m very comfortable here. But you’ve got to keep motivating your s e l f . Y o u could say the same a b o u t M i c h a e l Schumacher. He won two world championships at Benetton, so you would have thought he would have stayed there, but then he went to Ferrari, who were not performing at all, and look what happened. Different things motivate different people. I still feel very young and there’s still a lot I want to achieve.”