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What could have been: The F3000 champion whose Champ Car move turned sour

Autosport logo Autosport 8/12/2021 James Newbold
Bjorn Wirdheim, CTE Racing-HVM © Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images Bjorn Wirdheim, CTE Racing-HVM

The success of Formula 3000 champions Juan Pablo Montoya, Bruno Junqueira and Sebastien Bourdais in Champ Car meant there was great expectation on the shoulders of 2003 king Bjorn Wirdheim when he headed Stateside in 2005. A money shortfall at his HVM squad, which couldn’t afford to go testing, and the lack of an experienced team-mate to learn from meant Wirdheim was effectively on a hiding to nothing. But a season he regards as “the most difficult year in my career” could have panned out very differently had it not been for a returning champion pushing him out of his preferred seat.

As part of his prize for winning the 2003 title, with two rounds to spare, F3000 chassis supplier Lola had arranged a post-season Champ Car test for Wirdheim with Patrick Racing. In his two-day outing at the Arizona Motorsport Park track near Phoenix, the UK-domiciled Swede broke the unofficial lap record and impressed veteran team manager Jim McGee.

“I absolutely loved driving that car, it was fantastic,” recalls Wirdheim, who called time on his racing career at the end of 2017 following an 11-year stint in Japan. “It was not that dissimilar from the F3000 car in the way it was handling, so it kind of suited me.

“There was a firm contract offer on the table and I really wanted to sign. I’ve still got it in a folder somewhere in the house! But I’d been fighting to get into Formula 1 for such a long time, and there were at least two opportunities for me to do something in F1 the following year.”

Wirdheim ultimately turned Patrick’s offer down to sign a three-year deal with Jaguar Racing – starting as the third driver running every Friday on Grand Prix weekends, with an option to race in 2005. Patrick ultimately quit Champ Car for the all-oval Indy Racing League, where it ran several drivers during 2004 including Al Unser Jr, Jacques Lazier and Wirdheim’s former F3000 team-mate Tomas Enge before folding at season’s end.

Wirdheim recalls his 2004 season at Jaguar with fondness – “the mileage I had in F1 was absolutely outstanding compared to what they get these days,” he says – although he grew to miss the racing. But the writing was on the wall for his F1 career when Ford sold the team to Red Bull.

“I knew pretty much straight away that I was out of the picture,” he says. “The only other option really was Minardi and I didn’t even want to have a discussion with them. My view at that point was that if you end up paying for a drive with Minardi, you’re always going to be paying for your drives in the future.”

Wirdheim enjoyed his time testing with Jaguar on Fridays, but it didn't lead to a race drive as Red Bull bought the team © Autosport.com Wirdheim enjoyed his time testing with Jaguar on Fridays, but it didn't lead to a race drive as Red Bull bought the team

Wirdheim enjoyed his time testing with Jaguar on Fridays, but it didn't lead to a race drive as Red Bull bought the team

Photo by: Rainer W. Schlegelmilch / Motorsport Images

McGee, now at the PKV Racing squad co-owned by 1996 CART Indycar champion Jimmy Vasser and Champ Car series stakeholder Kevin Kalkhoven, promptly invited Wirdheim for a test at Barber Motorsports Park.

“Everything was on-track, that was the team I was expecting to sign for,” he says. “I went to the factory and I stayed with Jim as well in the off-season to prepare everything. Then all of that went into the drain…”

Vasser had swooped to sign Cristiano Da Matta - the 2002 champion who had been unceremoniously dumped by the Toyota F1 team midway through 2004 - and Wirdheim was left scrambling. He tested for Dale Coyne Racing at Sebring before Kalkhoven – “maybe he felt bad or whatever for signing Cristiano instead” – helped to broker a drive with HVM’s Keith Wiggins.

"The problem was the lack of money, there was absolutely nothing. I don’t think we did any testing at all throughout that season. I turned up at the first race weekend at Long Beach, a track that I’d never driven before, with a team that I’d never met before" Bjorn Wirdheim

The former Pacific F1 boss had taken over Bettenhausen Racing following the plane crash which claimed team founder Tony Bettenhausen in 2000, and turned it into a winning outfit under the Herdez Competition banner. If Mario Dominguez was fortunate to prevail at a sodden Surfers Paradise in 2002, he was a regular podium-finisher the following year and led Roberto Moreno in a team 1-2 at Miami, before Ryan Hunter-Reay dominated at Milwaukee in 2004.

On paper, the newly-renamed team (known as Hola Viva Mexico in an effort to retain interest south of the border following the withdrawal of Herdez) therefore appeared a strong prospect for Wirdheim to make an impression. But on the eve of the 2005 season Dominguez departed for Forsythe, and HVM instead ended up with two Scandinavian rookies – Wirdheim joined by Toyota Atlantic graduate Ronnie Bremer from Denmark.

“They were definitely very organised and everything,” Wirdheim recalls. “The problem was the lack of money, there was absolutely nothing. I don’t think we did any testing at all throughout that season. I turned up at the first race weekend at Long Beach, a track that I’d never driven before, with a team that I’d never met before.”

The only track he’d previously driven was Montreal – in the Jaguar the year before – but even there the references were totally different. The 2002-spec Lola that was by then ubiquitous after Reynard’s collapse was “not as reactive” as period F1 machinery, much heavier and less grippy.

Montreal was the only circuit Wirdheim had driven before, and without testing the year was a constant struggle © Autosport.com Montreal was the only circuit Wirdheim had driven before, and without testing the year was a constant struggle

Montreal was the only circuit Wirdheim had driven before, and without testing the year was a constant struggle

Photo by: Dan Streck

Managing expectations therefore was difficult. Montoya and Junqueira (F3000 champions in 1998 and 2000) had jumped in for their first seasons with Chip Ganassi Racing, the former taking a sensational rookie title in 1999, while 2002 champion Bourdais had replaced Da Matta at Newman-Haas and become the first driver to take pole on debut since Nigel Mansell in 1993 before winning the title the following year.

By contrast, Wirdheim didn’t have a hope of emulating his predecessors right off the bat. Without the opportunity to test, he had to do all his learning on race weekends.

“It was an impossible task,” he says. “There was a big difference between the teams, Newman-Haas were on a totally different level compared to everyone else.

“But had we just been able to do a few more test days and iron out some of the issues we had with the car [it would have been better] because we kept going from race-to-race fighting the same problems.

“Testing during the race weekend is always limited. Sometimes for me and also for Ronnie, we could barely tell if it was making a positive change because we were still learning the tracks and adjusting to the grip levels as they were increasing throughout the weekend.”

The financial situation in the team created more problems too – pressure to perform to keep his place meant he couldn’t afford to get comfortable before seeking out the limit. Small errors had race-ending consequences at Milwaukee, Toronto and Edmonton.

“It was probably the most difficult year in my career because I didn’t have the luxury of knowing that I would stay another year, so that I could just consider it as a learning year, like I’d had in every single championship I’d done previously,” he says. “It was probably a bit unfair to expect too much, but that’s pretty much how it was.

“It’s also the only time in my whole career from starting racing as a 10-year-old to stopping at 37 where I didn’t actually finish a complete season with the team that I was with. I missed the last two races that year because they ran out of money.”

Wirdheim enjoyed the ovals and produced his best performance of the year at Las Vegas, his final showing © Autosport.com Wirdheim enjoyed the ovals and produced his best performance of the year at Las Vegas, his final showing

Wirdheim enjoyed the ovals and produced his best performance of the year at Las Vegas, his final showing

Photo by: Paul Webb, USA LAT Photographic

Wirdheim was dropped after his best showing of the year on the Las Vegas oval, where he finished a strong sixth. But that only tells part of the story – he believes a podium would have been on the cards had it not been for a slow pitstop caused by a crew member forgetting to turn on the compressed air that would lift the car up on its jacks.

“They had to it manually and I dropped way down the field,” he says. “I ended up having to use all my push-to-pass to get back up into the top positions, I had nothing left towards the end. I think that was probably a podium I could have had, finally, but because of a screw-up from the team it didn’t happen. That was really hard to swallow.

“I also knew that I most likely wasn’t going to be able to finish the season with the team, so obviously I did everything in my power to make sure that they kept me on. It was just absolutely frustrating.”

"It’s the only time in my whole career from starting racing as a 10-year-old to stopping at 37 where I didn’t actually finish a complete season with the team that I was with. I missed the last two races that year because they ran out of money" Bjorn Wirdheim

For reference, his replacement Fabrizio Del Monte shunted out at Surfers Paradise and then wrote off the car at the Mexico City finale.

There were other frustrations too. Wirdheim led the second-most laps on only his second start in Monterrey, thanks to an offbeat pit strategy, and was running fourth when he ran out of fuel on the last lap. He was the blameless casualty of a first-lap crash at Cleveland instigated by Bremer – whose promised sponsorship never arrived, resulting in his departure afterwards – and was ordered to pit in San Jose when corner workers reported his car leaking oil. That wouldn't ordinarily have been a problem, except that the culprit was actually Nelson Philippe…

Despite the tough experience, which left him with few opportunities Stateside for 2006 and prompted his move to Japan – firstly in Formula Nippon and latterly in Super GT – Wirdheim “absolutely loved” his brief experience of oval racing and rated the championship highly.

“I enjoyed driving the Champ Car, I really did, because it felt like driving a proper racing car,” says Wirdheim, who also won the European Le Mans Series in 2015. “It didn’t have power steering so you really had to work hard at the driving from within the cockpit and there’s a different physical challenge in that respect.

“It wasn't as hard as Formula 1 when it comes to the g-forces, but it was very hard for your upper-body strength. The racing was also very nice I think, much more like F3000 where you could go more wheel-to-wheel and race each other hard.”

San Jose epitomised Wirdheim's year, being called to the pits for leaking oil - when his car wasn't the culprit © Autosport.com San Jose epitomised Wirdheim's year, being called to the pits for leaking oil - when his car wasn't the culprit

San Jose epitomised Wirdheim's year, being called to the pits for leaking oil - when his car wasn't the culprit

Photo by: Motorsport Images

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