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DECEMBER 8, 2002

Jaguar's new boy


One would think that coming from the Amazon jungle is not really an advantage for a racing driver in Brazil - but it is. The logic is simple. The local region wants to attract business to the city of Manaus and so offers incentives for firms to settle there. As a result a lot of big companies are there.

"And I am the only racing driver to come from Manaus," says Antonio Pizzonia. "So I have sponsors to help me. All the guys from Sao Paulo are fighting over the same sponsors."

That was about the only advantage he had because Manaus did not even have its own karting facility when Pizzonia was growing up. The locals used to race on the streets and in car parks. This meant that there were not many events.

Antonio was eight when he was given his first go-kart by a family friend. Antonio was mad about football but wanted to try the racing machine but his father forbade him to use it unless he did well at school. It was a year before he had his first race, which he won, and after two years of beating everyone in Manaus he started travelling to Sao Paulo to take on the best youngsters that Brazil had to offer. He was 11 and flew backwards and forwards every week. But it paid off. The Jungle Boy won a string of national karting titles. By the time he was 15 he had won the top Brazilian karting title and was looking to race abroad. He was asked to join the Tonykart factory team and move to Italy but his family wanted him to finish school and so a compromise was found. He moved to Florida and finished his studies and raced in the Barber Dodge racing school series. He learned from the American racers that Europe was probably the best place for him to go if he wanted an international career in the sport and at the start of 1997 (when Antonio was 16) he moved to England and settled in Cambridge, a haven for Brazilian racers at the time. He began to race in the Vauxhall Junior Series with John Village and was quickly a winner, although he ended the year only second in the series. With time on his side and money not easy to find he stayed on for a second year, switched to Jonathan Lewis Motorsport and won both the winter series and the main championship the following year.

That led to a move up to Formula Renault with the successful Manor Motorsport and Pizzonia was winning again, becoming the British Champion of 1999 and finishing second in the European series. Winning the British series gave him the chance to test drive a Williams-Renault F1 car. He was 18 years of age. It was an experience which gave him a taste to one day race in F1.

For the 2000 season Antonio moved into the British Formula 3 Championship with Manor Motorsport and he was quickly winning again, taking victory in the first two races and set off to win the title. This sort of performance attracts attention and Pizzonia was soon testing for the Benetton team and after that there were plans to test for Prost Grand Prix but they asked him to sign a contract which he refused to do. But there followed a test with Arrows, which gave him more mileage.

Petrobras now appeared to help Pizzonia's career and he was signed up to drive in 2001 for the Petrobras Junior Team in the International Formula 3000 series. He made his mark with speed and wildness but there was only one victory. This year he began test driving for Williams while also racing in F3000 and while the racing was again frustrating as the car was rarely competitive, Pizzonia did make a mark on Williams.

After two years in F3000 Pizzonia's next move was a tricky one. He could stay on at Williams as a full-time test driver, having signed a long-term deal with the team, or he could try to land an F1 drive. There were talks with Toyota but Cristiano da Matta's performance's in CART pushed Antonio out of the picture but then Jaguar Racing came calling and Pizzonia grabbed at the chance.

And so the boy from the jungle has made it to the top of the tree. There are some who believe that it is only a matter of time before he finds his way into a top drive, possibly with Williams in 2005. The same has been said many times before of many others drivers but Pizzonia does not let that get to him. He knows that he has to do the job and that the rest will take care of itself...