Whel­don en­joys lap of hon­our

With a 102-point lead, the Buck­ing­hamshire-born driver is seem­ingly coast­ing to his first IndyCar cham­pi­onship

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Motor Racing - SI­MON HART IN WATKIN’S GLEN, NEW YORK

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.”

Driv­ing on... Dan Whel­don, the run­away IndyCar cham­pion, is now in talks with For­mula One

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