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6 great drivers who were close to Formula 1, but never made it there

Date: April 14, 2024 Time: 20:41:42

The history of motorsport knows many outstanding drivers who never had the opportunity to start in the Formula 1 Grand Prix, and some of them had very tangible chances to finish in the Real Races. Below we present a list of six great drivers who had the opportunity to join the world of Formula 1, but for various reasons this did not happen.

Note: in this material we only consider those drivers who had a really real opportunity to build a career in Formula 1, so Sébastien Loeb, Valentino Rossi and other great drivers from alternative racing series will not be here.

Rick Mears

Rick Mears is, without exaggeration, a legend of American motorsports: three titles in the CART series (predecessor of IndyCar) and four victories in the Indy 500. However, Mears may not have achieved even half of his success in his native continent, because the following year, after winning his first title, he had a real opportunity to go to the world of Formula 1.

In 1980, Brabham boss Bernie Ecclestone became seriously interested in the reigning CART champion and invited the American for testing. Mears’ first attempt at formula technology took place at the Paul Ricard circuit. Rick spent the tests in France trying to get used to the driving style of the car that did not suit him, but already in the following tests at Riverside, Rick showed his talent in all its splendor, ahead of the Brabham leader, Nelson Piquet.

Mario Andretti, unlike Rick Mears, has achieved success on both sides of the ocean.

Photo: Mike Powell/Allsport

Impressed by Mears’ speed, Ecclestone immediately offered the American a contract for the next season; Most importantly, Rick’s candidacy was also approved by his potential partner Piqué. Mears had an excellent opportunity to build a career in Formula 1 (especially given Brabham’s rapid progress), but the American driver never accepted Ecclestone’s offer, preferring his native championship.

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Al Unzer Jr.

Another star of the “American formula”, although from a slightly later era. Interestingly, Anzer Jr. could have ended up in the Royal Races even before establishing himself as one of the fastest drivers on the continent: at the end of the 1985 season, Ecclestone invited Al to join Brabham, but again heard a refusal from the Driver American – Anzer The younger thought that he first needed to make a name for himself in his homeland.

Al Unzer Jr. in 1998

Photo: Robert Laberge/Getty Images

Al will soon regret his decision, so the next time he has the opportunity to compete for a seat in F1, he will accept without hesitation. In 1991, Frank Williams invited an American driver to do post-season testing in Estoril. At that time, Anzer had already gained weight in the world of motorsports, having become champion of the CART series the previous year. However, Anzer was unable to demonstrate his speed during Williams testing: he never beat the time of the team’s co-driver, Ricardo Patrese. This is where the relationship between the American and the Grove team ends.

According to Al, in the future he had other options to enter F1; in particular, it was the Benetton of the Michael Schumacher era (Anzer did not specify the year). Flavio Briatore’s team was willing to sign the American driver, offering him a quarter of the amount he received at home. Anzer could not tolerate such rudeness, having finally given up on his Formula 1 dreams.

In Formula 1, transfers often fail:

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Greg Moore

Greg Moore is considered one of the most talented drivers among those who never debuted in Formula 1. Already in his second year of racing in the CART series, the 22-year-old Canadian began to achieve his first victories as part of the Forsythe Racing team, who is far from being a leader. The year was 1997, a time when formula team bosses were looking across the ocean with interest, impressed by the impressive results of CART graduate Jacques Villeneuve.

Michael Andretti, Greg Moore and Dario Franchitti in 1999

Photo: Robert Laberge/Getty Images

In the Formula 1 paddock, of course, they knew Moore’s name. It is known that the talent of the Canadian pilot was not highly appreciated by anyone, but by Jean Todt himself. As for real interest in Greg, only Jackie Stewart showed it: in 1997, the great Scot met Moore during the Canadian Grand Prix, but things never amounted to a full proposal. Perhaps in the future Greg would have become the “Queen of Motorsports”, but unfortunately, the talented Canadian crashed in the last race of the CART season in 1999 when he was only 24 years old.

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Dario Franchitti

Franchitti’s acquaintance with the world of Formula 1 occurred at the end of 1995: as the winner of the McLaren Autosport Young Driver, the Briton had the opportunity to participate in the McLaren post-season tests, such a late award (he received the award directly in 1992). According to the test results, Darío made a good impression on Ron Dennis, so he was offered a contract as a test pilot. However, Franchitti was not particularly inspired by the prospect of being in the reserves, so he did not sign a deal with McLaren.

Next, Franchitti will go to the United States, where he will slowly begin to build a long and successful career. In 1998, the Briton would take third place at the end of the CART season, and a year later he would be one step away from the title. With his first successes abroad, Dario attracted the attention of the newly formed BAR team. This time Franchitti was offered a contract as a fighter pilot, but the Briton did not dare to change the championship, in which he was progressing rapidly, for a formula team with vague prospects.

Dario Franchitti celebrates winning the 2010 Indy 500

Photo: Nick Laham/Getty Images

And finally, the third and last opportunity to join the world of F1 was given to Franchitti in 2000. At the suggestion of Jackie Stewart, Jaguar invited Darío to carry out private tests; If the result was successful, the Briton could have a place as a fighter pilot next season. However, the test results disappointed both parties: Jaguar was not impressed with the driver’s speed and Franchitti was dissatisfied with the car, and that was where they parted ways. So, Dario lost his last chance to be on the Formula 1 starting grid, but maybe it was for the better. While he remained in the United States, Franchitti built a great career: four IndyCar titles and three Indy 500 victories are proof of this.

You don’t have to compete in F1 to become a racing legend:

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Daniel Weldon

Wheldon is one of the main IndyCar stars of the 2000s. In 2005, the British racer became champion and also celebrated success for the first time in the Indy 500. By that time, the formula bosses had already cooled down a little towards foreign drivers, but, even so, Wheldon managed to interest the boss of BMW-Sauber, Mario Theisen. Dan was offered a contract as a test pilot for the 2006 season, but the Brit turned it down because he was not guaranteed a spot as a fighter pilot for the 2007 season.

Instead of a deal with BMW, Wheldon signed a contract with Chip Ganassi, but to no avail: if he had agreed to Theisen’s conditions, he would have debuted in Formula 1 next year. In the middle of the 2006 season, Jacques Villeneuve was sent on indefinite leave: the free seat in the blue and white car was taken by BMW-Sauber test driver Robert Kubica. Thus, with his refusal, Wheldon paved the way for the Polish driver to enter F1.

Why BMW didn’t succeed in F1:

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Gary Paffett

So we come to a corridor that has nothing to do with the American championships. Paffett was lucky enough to compete at a time when it was possible to go directly from DTM to Formula 1, so after his victory in the German Touring Car Championship, he was a very real candidate to debut in the Royal Races.

At the end of 2005, immediately after winning the first DTM title, Paffett signed a test driver contract with McLaren, and already in the following season an unexpected staff shortage arose in Woking. Right in the middle of the championship, Montoya left the team and, at the end of the season, Raikkonen also left. And if the position of team leader was reserved for the newcomer star Alonso, then for the place of the second driver an internal struggle broke out between three drivers: the experienced De la Rosa, the DTM triumphant Paffett and the young talent Hamilton. As you know, Ron Dennis chose the latter (and he was right).

Gary Paffett testing a McLaren in 2010

Photo: Vladimir Rys/Getty Images

So Paffett missed the most real opportunity to reach the start of the Grand Prix. However, already in 2007, the Briton’s name appeared again in several transfer rumors: the ProDrive team tried to enter F1 and Paffett was considered as a potential driver. Unfortunately, the Prodrive project died out rather quickly and Gary was forced to say goodbye to his last hope of making his F1 debut.

Some DTM drivers still made it to F1:

Schumacher and 6 other drivers who entered Formula 1 in an unusual way

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Puck Henry
Puck Henry
Puck Henry is an editor for ePrimefeed covering all types of news.

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