It was a case of what might have been for Bruno Junqueira. He was one half of a shoot out for the Williams F1 drive in the year 2000. Unfortunately he would miss out on the drive to a certain Jenson Button, and the Brazilian would never get the opportunity to compete in Formula 1.
Alessandro Zanardi’s departure from Williams at the end of 1999 following a disappointing season left an opening alongside German Ralf Schumacher for the 2000 season. In a shoot out at Barcelona, both 1999 Williams test driver Junqueira and then rookie Button impressed, finishing within two tenths of a second apart.
“Both drivers did a very good job,” said a team spokesman at the time. “They kept the car on the road, and the sessions were totally trouble-free. It will be a very tough decision to make.”
It was a tough decision, but ultimately Williams went for Button, leaving Junqueira out in the cold.
‘We decided to go for Jenson because we feel that over the long term he has truly vast potential,’ said Frank Williams at the time of signing Button.
Patrick Head admitted that Junqueira was his driver of choice prior to the Barcelona shoot out, but Button’s performance made it impossible for them to ignore him.
“I’d pretty much decided we should have Junqueira because we were already familiar with him and the engineers had a high regard for his technical understanding,” said Head.
“Then Jenson did a test for us at Jerez that suddenly made the decision very difficult. We then went to Barcelona and he used a left-foot braking set-up for the first time – it wasn’t something he’d done before.
“And instantly, on a track he’d never seen before, he was very quick and in the end we had to go for him.”
Junqueira would return to F3000 with the Petrobras Junior team, and won four races en-route to the championship, defeating Frenchman Nicolas Minassian in a final race shoot-out. When asked about his prospects about moving to Formula 1 in 2001, he was doubtful.
“I’m not optimistic, I’m just trying to stay away from this, because I don’t want to have a big frustration if I don’t get an F1 drive,” said Junqueira.
“On the other hand because I’m not hoping too much, if I get it, it will be very good for me, and I will be really happy. I think I’ve learned in the past that I have to do my job and try to get a good team, and see what happens.
“I have a possibility to go to CART, and I also have to think about being a test driver. I like to race, but you can learn testing. If Jenson was staying at Williams, there might be more opportunities to test next year, but a new driver needs time.
“At the start of this year I wasn’t doing many tests, but at the end of the year I will do much more, because Jenson already has a handle on the car and doesn’t need to test so much.”
Ultimately, an F1 drive was not forthcoming for the Brazilian, and he did move to CART with Chip Ganassi Racing.
“It’s good to come in with such a good team, such a competitive team,” said Junqueira on signing with Ganassi. “And that will help me a lot in the first year. The first year is going to be a learning year. I don’t know about ovals, I don’t know the other circuits either. I think with a good team like Ganassi, they can teach me and show me how to go.
“I enjoyed the car a lot. There was a lot of power, really fast on the straights. The biggest thing is the power, and how fast it comes in, when the turbo comes in you have big power. I thought that after the test went very well, and that I could have a good opportunity.”
Chip Ganassi was happy to announce Junqueira as one of his drivers for the 2001 season, alongside Nicolas Minassian.
“Bruno and Nicolas displayed a lot of talent and experience during our tests and they both have impressive racing resumes,” said Ganassi.
“One thing that jumped out at us was how similar their attitudes and racing styles were to [Jimmy] Vasser and [Juan Pablo] Montoya. We believe these guys will quickly become stars in this series.”
Whereas Minassian was dropped after just seven events, Junqueira remained at the team for two seasons and won his first CART race at Road America event in August. He finished 16th in the standings, and was second in the rookie of the year rankings behind New Zealander Scott Dixon. He was then retained for the 2002 season.
“I’m excited to have the opportunity to drive for Team Target in 2002,” Junqueira said.
“Last year, I developed a good relationship with my engineers and team members, and I’m looking forward to working with them again. We had some good races, but I was hoping for better results than what we had. I’m looking forward to getting back in the seat of the Target car and winning some more races this year.”
Ganassi managing director Mike Hull welcomed the Brazilian back to the team for a second season, and praised his speed and ability on track.
“Bruno learned a lot from his rookie season last year,” said Hull. “He’s an extremely talented driver who had some flashes of brilliance last year. He also made some mistakes, which I’m confident he’s learned from. Bruno has shown he can run at the front and win races.
“With one year of experience in CART, he has a chance to compete for the championship this season.”
Whereas a fight for the championship did not exactly happen, four wins saw him finish second behind fellow Brazilian Cristiano da Matta in the standings. He did shock the Indy Racing League though, when in a one-off appearance at the Indy 500, Junqueira grabbed pole position.
“I thought I could qualify in the first or second row,” he said. “One thing I have learned in one year of racing ovals is you have to be patient, especially in the race. But today I was the first one to qualify. That can be good or bad – you never know what can happen.”
He swapped Ganassi Racing for Newman/Haas Racing for 2003, and once again he finished second in the championship, this time behind Canadian Paul Tracy. It was a much closer affair, and Junqueira was still in the hunt for the championship going into the penultimate event. However Tracy won in Mexico to clinch the title, leaving Junqueira to fight Mexican Michel Jourdain Jr for second.
He remained at Newman/Haas for 2004, this time in the newly formed Champ Car series, which had replaced CART, and for a third consecutive season ended up runner-up in the championship. He lost out this time to Frenchman Sebastien Bourdais, but Junqueira did not go down without a fight, and won twice and finished second on no less than seven occasions! Ultimately he would come up 25 points shy of Bourdais in the championship.
His 2005 season would end abruptly in a crash at the Indianapolis 500. He broke two vertebras in his back and his ankle when he hit the wall, which saw him ruled out for over six months. He returned to the paddock at Toronto in July, but only as a spectator.
When Junqueira made his return, he was instantly quick in testing, and legendary actor and Newman/Haas co-owner, the late Paul Newman, praised him.
“That kid had a long, hot summer and he probably got real tired of watching all those guys race when he had to sit,” said Newman.
“He was very impressive wasn’t he? He got right back in rhythm and right back up to speed. I’m proud of him because he was hurt pretty bad and he really worked hard to get back in shape.”
Junqueira was surprised by Newman’s comments and attendance at the test and admitted it was one of the best days of his life.
“To have Paul here today, I cannot tell you how much that means to me,” said Junqueira.
“He’s not only a great owner, he’s a good friend and this was a very nice surprise. It’s one of the best days of my life.”
Junqueira’s 2006 season was not as impressive as in previous years however, and he came only fifth in the championship without winning a race. He was almost 170 points behind champion Bourdais.
For 2007, he swapped Newman/Haas for Dale Coyne Racing. He managed three podium finishes for the small outfit, and finished seventh in the championship. He remained at Dale Coyne for the 2008 IndyCar series; the first year that Champ Car and the Indy Racing League were reunited. He only managed two top ten finishes as the Champ Car teams adjusted to life in the IndyCar series.
Since 2009 however, he has been left on the sidelines for the majority of the time, with only sparodic appearances in the IndyCar series. He qualified for both the 2009 and 2011 Indianapolis 500’s before being replaced by other drivers before the race. In 2009 he was replaced by Conquest Racing team-mate Alex Tagliani, while in 2011, Andretti Autosport paid AJ Foyt to put Ryan Hunter-Reay into his Foyt Enterprises entry.
Tagliani repaid him in 2010 when the FAZZT team he was a part of gave him a chance in their second car at Indianapolis. He qualified comfortably with barely any running but crashed out early in the race. In 2012 he made his final IndyCar appearance to date at the Baltimore street race, when he replaced an injured Josef Newgarden in the Sarah Fisher Racing entry.
Junqueira has been most recently seen racing in the now defunct American Le Mans Series.
But could have Junqueira cut it in Formula 1? In my honest opinion, Williams made the correct call to take Jenson Button, but I also believe Junqueira deserved a shot. He was outstanding in F3000 in 2000, and won many races in CART and Champ Car since. Had he not had that season-ending crash at Indianapolis in 2005, he could have been champion that year, and it is in my belief that he was never quite the same driver again. He has always been quick around Indy though.
F1 was an opportunity lost for the Brazilian, and I feel sorry that we never saw him race in F1. A certain Jenson Button put paid to that dream.