Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Dan Wheldon - Profile of a Champion

Born in Buckinghamshire, Dan Wheldon grew up as one of several future British stars, sharing a strong rivalry with 2009 F1 champion Jenson Button. However, unlike his contemporaries Button and Anthony Davidson, Dan Wheldon lacked the funding to continue racing in Europe and eventually make the move to Formula One. Instead, Wheldon moved to America, a move that was to make him a mega star.

After 3 years in lower single seater series, Wheldon graduated to what was the Indy Racing League in 2002, for two events as team mate to Sam Hornish Jr. at Panther Racing. The following year, he had his first full time campaign in the IRL, replacing the retiring Michael Andretti at Andretti Green Racing, winning the Rookie Of The Year award. 2004 proved to be his breakthrough year with 3 wins, including his debut win at Motegi, before finishing runner up to Tony Kanaan in the championship.

Wheldon's rise continued in 2005, a year where the Brit's legendary status was to be confirmed. He clinched his maiden Indianapolis 500 victory and broke the record for the most IRL sanctioned wins in a season with 5.

A move to the great Chip Ganassi squad led to two more wins in 2006, however, he was to miss out on a second championship despite tying for the points lead. His former team mate Sam Hornish Jr. took the title with 4 wins.

Ganassi released Wheldon in September 2008, replacing him with 2007 champion Dario Franchitti who was returning to Indy Car after an unsuccessful stint in NASCAR. This led to Wheldon spending two seasons driving the National Guard car for Panther Racing, the team who gave his his debut seven years previously. These two seasons proved to be frustrating though, with Wheldon failing to win a single race (also having two second places at the Indy 500). 2011 Left Wheldon without a full time ride for the first time since the beginning of his Indy Car career after the announcement that he was to be replaced by Californian rookie J.R. Hilderbrand.

2011 was to be a mixed year for Wheldon. With no full time race seat, he took on the role as test driver for the new for 2012 Indy Car vehicle built by Dallara. However, before the testing program began, he was to have another crack ath the Indianapolis 500 driving a car ran by his friend Bryan Herta.

In an emotional fairytale of a race, Wheldon took the lead on the final corner of the final lap, passing his replacement at Panther, J.R. Hilderbrand, who smashed into the outside wall whilst lapping the slower car of Charlie Kimball. Wheldon only had a drive for Indy, the 100th anniversary of the race, and he managed to win. It couldn't be made up and not a single person was disapointed to see it.

Whilst testing the 2012 Dallara Chassis, Wheldon evaluated his options for rides. He agreed to participate in the Indy Car World Championship event in Las Vegas. He was to start from the rear of the field, and if he won he would collect a $5 million prize purse which was to be split between him and one lucky fan.

Before the race event began, there were huge concerns over the saftey of the venue and the 33 car field. Las Vegas Motor Speedway is a high banked, high speed track designed primarily for stock car racing. Plus, Indy Car only ever runs a field larger than 26 when they run 33 cars at the larger Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Despite the concerns, the race went ahead. Wheldon carved his way throught the field in the early stages, working up from his 33rd place starting spot. On lap 11, the reasons for all the concerns became apparent. A 15 car pileup ensued with Wheldon unable to slow down in time to avoid it. His car was launched into the air, flying 99 meters before smashing into the catch fencing. A red flag followed instantly.

Daniel Clive Wheldon died on the 16th of October 2011, aged 33.

Once described as 'difficult', there is no doubt that Wheldon was a driven and motivated sportsman. ESPN's Brent Musburger remarked 'He was one of racing's brightest lights and most charismatic personalities'. He will forever be regarded as a legend within motorsport and what could've been achieved by the great Brit will never be realised. On the morning of the 16th of October 2011, Wheldon signed a contract with Andtretti Autosport, replacing NASCAR bound Danica Patrick and returning to a full time ride with the (renamed) team that gave him his first and sadly only title. Andretti Autosport went on to win the 2012 IZOD Indy Car Championship with Ryan Huinter-Reay, driving the Dallara DW12, a car named in hounour of it's test driver. The late, great Dan Wheldon.

"To be honest, why drivers don't like talking about the danger of their sport is it tempts fate. Do I believe that it'll ever happen to me? No. Could it happen to me? Absolutley...But at the end of the day, when your time's up, your time's up."




We all know motorsport is inherently dangerous. It's something that cannot be avoided no matter ho hard we try. Developments in the last 30 years have made deaths, once a frequent aspect of our sport, an unwelcome surprise; a surprise that shook the motorsport to it's core one year ago today.

I'm a huge fan of motorsport, I'll watch anything with four wheels and an engine, so the events of last year were tough to comprehend, just as they would be for any motorsport fan. However, Dan Wheldon was the driver who got me interested in Indy Car racing. I remember hearing about him for the first time and thinking about how I had to take a look at American open wheel racing to see this guy from our tiny island beat all the American's at their own game. If it wasn't for him, I probably wouldn't be as fanatical about American open wheel racing as I am today.

It was great to see Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan cross the line together back in May on the final lap of this year's Indy 500. A fitting tribute by three of Wheldon's closest friends. As previously mentioned, this year's Indy Car chassis is named after Dan Wheldon, ensuring that although he no longer races in person, his legacy races on. The new car has made massive strides in driver saftey, just ask Mike Conway! However, some may see this as too little too late. My view is that the only thing better that having Dan Wheldon play such an integral role in producing this new car would be to have him racing it himself.

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