Formula One is a hard mistress. A racing driver can spend his whole career, from his humble beginnings as a junior karter up, working towards the pinnacle of motorsport, competing in the various categories of racing with one eye on the prize, scraping and struggling towards being one of those twenty drivers that hundreds of millions of people watch as they line up on the grid in yet another country every two weeks. But what if you finally get there and she turns her back on you, spurns your advance?
Antonio Pizzonia did everything you're supposed to do to get to Formula One; he worked his way up the ladder and played the game according to the rules. He came from Manaus, a Brazilian town well away from the established scenes in Sao Paolo and Rio, starting in karts at home before moving south to take wins and national championships against more favoured, more moneyed competitors. He wanted more and took the risk of moving across the world to England to compete in Formula Vauxhall, taking second in his first year and the title the next. The British Formula Renault and Formula Three titles followed in successive years as though he was born for it.
Frank Williams heard about him, and liked what he heard. He helped Pizzonia into Formula 3000 with the Petrobras Junior team, affiliated with his own, and signed the young driver to a long term contract with BMW-Williams, running him as a tester around his racing career. His F3000 team wasn't a top line team but he impressed nonetheless, taking a win and a couple of other podiums and fastest laps along the way.
And then Jaguar came courting.
It was a risky move, but racing is inherently about risk. Pizzonia had a long term contract with a top three team in his pocket, was highly regarded by that team and others in the pitlane, and had a certain financial future ahead of him. But he wasn't racing, and racing was why he was there in the first place.
Racing for Jaguar has always been a questionable drive – all the way back to the team's beginnings as Stewart Racing questions have been asked about whether they were able to run two cars equally, and looking at the statistics for the team there is no question that one driver has been able to massively outperform his teammate every year since their inception. When you consider that the team has never been blessed with a large budget in comparison to the others, it is easy to draw the inference that they are often unable to run two equal cars in terms of new parts.
But a race seat is a race seat, and Pizzonia asked Williams to defer his contract to allow him to race for the green team, and Williams were amenable to this. "It's a long term contract, and obviously the plan was to be with Jaguar for two years," Pizzonia explained while sitting in the Williams cafe in the Indianapolis paddock, "that was my plan and that was Williams' plan as well. The plan was to do two years with Jaguar and then to come back here (as a race driver).
"So basically things went wrong and now our plans are different, they've changed at the moment. I didn't actually expect to be in this situation today, and Williams didn't expect me to be in this situation as well. We are trying to find the best option for my career at the moment, what's best for me and what's best for them as well."
To say that things went wrong is an understatement – in his eleven races for Jaguar Pizzonia had one top eight grid position, finished no higher than ninth, failed to even finish in four of those races, and was comprehensively outperformed by his teammate Mark Webber.
DC: Do you actually know, or did they ever say, what was the problem at Jaguar?
Pizzonia: "I know exactly what happened there, but I don't want to talk about the problems because there's a lot of good people in there who don’t deserve to hear anything bad, you know – there's a lot of good mechanics, a few very good engineers – the problem is not them; it's different problems. Like I said I don't want to talk about those problems because it's part of the past now, and we are trying to reach an agreement.
"But I know exactly what happened and I'm sure one day we'll be able to say. Time will show that what they did was wrong, and what they are doing to Justin (Wilson) is exactly the same thing. I don't want to really compare him to myself – I think he is doing worse than what I was doing there, but it's not his fault – it's definitely not his fault."
Pizzonia's not going to say it, but his comments don't exactly put cold water on the one car team theory. Premier Performance Division CEO Tony Purnell's recent comments about the possibility of the team taking a driver who brings a budget with him probably confirms it, as does Pizzonia's replacement Justin Wilson's record of three car retirements and a lucky point in a messy US race.
But where does that leave Pizzonia now? With only ten teams and most of the drivers staying where they are for another year there aren't many options for him, even if a team wanted to look past his record and take a chance on the form he showed in the junior categories. "Well there's not much happening at the moment unfortunately," Pizzonia confirmed, "first of all because we still haven't reached an agreement with Jaguar, and we're still working on that.
"Also we don't know what's happening with the testing regulations for next year – I know there are a lot of teams who want to cut testing, and if that happens it's going to be quite difficult for me to get a test driving seat. The plan is definitely to be in Formula One as a test driver, or a race driver if there is a seat available I'll take it. We'll see – it's probably a bit early I think."
DC: There's not a lot around at the moment.
Pizzonia: "Well yeah, it is very difficult at the moment to find a race seat, but we're not finished yet – it's not impossible, and we're still talking to a few teams, but obviously the teams that are available need a sponsor. We'll see – it's still quite early, but we'll see."
DC: You're spending a lot of time here with Williams – can we read anything into that?
Pizzonia: "Well obviously I still have a contract with Williams, and I came here just to watch them working you know – I think I've been away too long already and I can't wait to be back. There is a possibility to become a test driver for them, so that's why I'm here."
DC: You haven't been racing for a few races now – what's it like to have to watch it from the sidelines?
Pizzonia: "Well it's a bit different of course, but I'm trying to enjoy my life outside of the race track and I'm doing all those things I couldn't do before – I'm playing a lot of sports, everyday playing football, waterskiing every day, and spending a lot of time with the family. Of course I miss being in the car, driving and racing, but there's nothing I can do at the moment so the only thing I can do is try and enjoy my life outside of the car."
One thing that has been occupying his time is the struggle to settle with his former team. Jaguar have still not settled his contract despite sacking him in late July immediately after the British Grand Prix, and this has meant that Pizzonia's management has been looking at filing a lawsuit against the team (as well as sponsor HSBC for misuse of the driver's property rights). " I just want to reach an agreement, I just want what I lost, and that's it," Pizzonia reluctantly confirmed. "I don’t want more, I just want what I lost, because I had sponsors, I had contracts with sponsors. But if we don't reach an agreement then we're going to have to go to court."
DC: But nothing has been filed yet?
Pizzonia: "Not at the moment – at the moment everything is quite, quite slow from their side, but I'm not going to wait too long."
DC: I suppose with the season going on it's something they're trying to sidetrack, but it's not really something you can let run on for too long.
Pizzonia: "Well exactly – I also have to live, I have my family that I look after, I have my career that I have to look after, and I can't wait for them – if we don't reach an agreement we're going to go to court."
DC: It's a shame, because you're a really young guy with a potentially big career ahead of you, but it's hard to know what's going to happen.
Pizzonia: "Yes, it's all up in the air at the moment and I know what I can do and I just want the opportunity to show it, which I didn't have (at Jaguar). They (Williams) know what I can do, and they believe in what I can do, but unfortunately Jaguar didn't see it."
Williams have been strong in their support of the young driver throughout the Jaguar debacle, with the team's senior management and drivers all confirming their belief in the Brazilian and his ability throughout. "Yeah, Frank and Patrick have always believed in my potential, in my career, and I think they still do. Like I said it wasn't my plan and it wasn't their plan for me to be back so early, so we're just trying to see what's best for both sides."
In the lead up to the season finale in Japan, Williams brought the driver back into the fold as a test driver, and he rewarded their faith with a successful test session in Jerez where he topped the times months after last sitting in a Formula One car. But until the testing regulations for next year are announced Pizzonia's career is in limbo – unwilling to risk a testing drive with Williams again he cannot pursue alternative drives in other series, but by not doing so the seats are filling, which could leave him without any drive in 2004.
DC: Obviously you're still young – you're actually younger than most of the guys in Formula 3000 – have you thought about going back there?
Pizzonia: "The only problem is to race in F3000 you've got to pay, and I don't want to pay to race anymore – I can't take money away from my family anymore, and I've got to do whatever's financially possible."
DC: What about over here, in America – have you thought about racing here?
Pizzonia: "Yes, and I'm going to watch the ChampCar race on Sunday in Miami, but the target is still to be in Formula One."
Which leaves the likeable Brazilian in the hands of others to kick start his career. There is no question that Williams will help him where they can, but Pizzonia and his management need to put the Jaguar mess behind him by settling on best terms and then concentrate on getting him back into a car as soon as possible. At the age of 23 he has time on his side, but he needs to reconfirm to the motorsport world that the talent he showed in the past didn't evaporate when he pulled on those green overalls.
As the man himself said, time will tell.