|It's November 2004. Another long F1 season has drawn to a close, a year of Ferrari annihilation capped off, somewhat surprisingly, by a win for Juan-Pablo Montoya in his last race for Williams in the Brazilian GP - what would turn out to be Williams' last victory for seven and a half years. But in these days before cost cutting and resource restriction agreements, the teams are already preparing to embark on a gruelling schedule of testing on the circuits of southern Europe.
But instead of joining a host of other teams at Barcelona, perennial minnows Minardi arrive at the Autodromo Santamonica in Misano with their two race cars from 2004 and their fleet of two-seaters. A motley crew of veterans, pay drivers and rookies descend upon the Rimini coast for the five-day test - partly preparation work for 2005, partly a young driver evaluation, and partly a fulfilment of sponsorship obligations and other personal promises.
This was before the days of restricted testing. Before the advent of the designated "young driver" tests. Before the current day when all teams in F1, big or small, would have their fingers in junior formulae and driver development programs, and it became almost impossible for anyone outside of these connections to even get a taste of F1. This was a time when teams could afford to let an aspiring pilot simply have a go. More than a dozen drivers converged on Misano; it's fascinating to see where they have gone since.
The man who would get the most track time - some 92 laps over the first two days of the test - was Chanoch Nissany. The then-41 year old Hungary-based Israeli, having bought a test with Jordan and three F3000 races for Coloni earlier in the year, had waved his shekels in front of Minardi owner Paul Stoddart and been entrusted with one of the race chassis for two days, in part to familiarise himself with the team and in part to evaluate aerodynamic parts for the 2005 season.
Nissany finished with a best lap time around Misano of 1:14.00. He would, of course, go on to be given a Friday free practice outing at the 2005 Hungarian GP, where he was at least 6 seconds off the pace, prompting Mark Webber to recall, in years to come, the situation "a few years ago in Budapest when we had some Israeli guy which was total bananas". Chanoch was to be seen no more in top-flight motorsport after that. Presumably he preferred to support the budding career of his son Roy Nissany instead.
|In the other PS04B race chassis, ex-F3, F3000, Champ Car and Nissan World Series racer Tiago Monteiro had been given 20 laps on the first day, primarily to set the car up for the other drivers who would follow him. He got down to a best of 1:13.24. Of course, the following year he signed to race for Jordan, finishing 3rd in the six-car USA GP, followed by a second season with the team (rebadged as Midland) before establishing a career in the World Touring Car Championship for Seat.
Monteiro handed over his car to Patrick Friesacher. After four seasons in F3000, this was the first time he had sampled F1 machinery. After 42 laps he posted a best time of 1:11.15. It obviously impressed Stoddart sufficiently for the Austrian to be given a race seat for 2005. After 11 races his sponsorship ran out and he left the Formula One arena. Apart from two A1GP events for Team Austria, five American Le Mans Series rounds in 2008, and appearances in the Minardi two-seater, Friesacher's career petered out.
Stoddart used the second day to fulfil promises he had made to two young Australian drivers at the Australian GP earlier in the year. Will Power had had two middling seasons in F3, and after 22 laps of Misano he had improved to a time of 1:11.79. Within a year, having done well in the World Series by Renault, he would be racing in Champ Cars and is now, of course, an Indycar frontrunner for Penske and a fan-favourite who, with better luck, would have already had two Indycar titles under his belt.
The other young Aussie was Will Davison, who had scored a win and five podiums in British F3 over the previous two seasons. After 22 laps of his own he only trailed Power by 0.11s, recording a best of 1:11.90. But unable to progress his single-seater career, after some outings for Team Australia in A1GP in 2005-06, by 2006 he would follow a well-trodden path back to V8 Supercars. Several up-and-down seasons followed, including a runner-up finish in 2009, but he has become the driver to beat in 2012.
Days 3 and 5 of the test were allocated to the Minardi two-seaters, piloted by a range of drivers. There was Zsolt Baumgartner, who had scored Minardi's last ever championship point earlier in the year at Indianapolis, and who would become a mainstay of the two-seater program at the expense of his own competitive career. There was Nicolas Kiesa, who had raced for Minardi in 2003 and who would have Friday outings for Jordan in 2005 before a brief flirtation with sports cars and DTM in 2006.
Then there was Jos Verstappen, without a drive since competing for Minardi in 2003, who would go on to race in A1GP in 2005-06, and have a successful year in LMP2 sports cars in 2008, but in recent years the headlines have been more about what Jos the Boss was doing off the track, rather than on it. And there was Robert Doornbos, who would go on to race for Minardi and Red Bull in 2005 and 2006 followed by a successful year in Champ Cars in 2007, before landing in the now-defunct Superleague series.
|Christijan Albers was there too; indeed, one of the guests he took for a spin in the two-seater was F1 Rejects contributor Mischa Bijenhof. Albers had just come off two successful seasons in DTM, and had 20 laps in the PS04B race car on the fourth day of the test. He set the fastest time out of all five days, a 1:10.80, and eventually earned a Minardi seat for 2005, going on to race for Midland and Spyker in 2006 and 2007 before a few sporadic sports car outings ending in 2010.
The connections with Minardi's Dutch sponsors ensured that two other unlikely Dutchmen got a run on the final day. One was Jeffrey van Hooydonk, who had been racing in F3 and F3000 since 1997, and who would go on to become a regular in Belgian sports car racing. He had a five lap run for a best time of 1:15.93. Patrick Huisman, meanwhile, was (and remains) a four-time Porsche Supercup champion and sports car ace who had never raced an open-wheeler. After six laps he recorded a 1:20.42.
And so most of the drivers who took part over the five days at Misano were drivers nearing the end of their single-seater careers, or looking for a big break after several years in junior categories. Only one driver was, comparatively speaking, at the beginning of his single-seater journey. He was a 19 year-old Venezuelan driver called Pastor Maldonado who had only had two years in Formula Renault since graduating from karts, but who had won the Italian championship in 2004.
Maldonado had 22 laps on the fourth day alongside Albers, and set a best time of 1:11.33, making him the third fastest driver behind Albers and Friesacher, despite being by far the least experienced. It marked him as a driver to watch. After two seasons in the World Series by Renault, including an unsavoury incident at Monaco where he hit a marshal and cemented a reputation for being something of a wild driver, he would spend four seasons in GP2, winning races in each year, culminating in the GP2 title in 2010.
Which was, of course, followed by Pastor's ascension to Formula One with Williams in 2011, a dreadful year in a dreadful car, before the crowning glory of his brilliant Spanish GP victory under pressure a few days ago (at the time of writing). Back in November 2004, if you had told Sir Frank Williams that his next Grand Prix winner would be the teenage Venezuelan Formula Renault driver having his first drive in an F1 car as part of Minardi's liquorice-allsorts test at Misano, I'll bet he would have laughed.
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