James Winslow has admitted that the offer to join Conquest Racing for this week's Atlantic Championship season-opener at Sebring caught him by surprise, even though he was making enquiries into openings in the US open-wheel scene.
The last-ditch deal helped the reigning Australian F3 champion rescued a 2009 campaign that he hoped would lead to a place on the V8 Supercar ladder. When the global economic crisis made it hard to conclude a deal, however, he was left to look elsewhere and, with few options on the table, he looked set to spend at least the opening part of the year on the sidelines.
Ironically, it was while making enquiries about openings in the Atlantic and Indy Lights championships that Winslow got the chance to complete a move to America that he initiated as long ago as 2007. On that occasion, a mutual sponsor helped the then Renault V6 champion to test a Champ Car with Conquest Racing and, while nothing came of that opportunity, Winslow clearly left a strong impression on team boss Eric Bachelart.
“Eric contacted me out of the blue with the chance to race with his team in Atlantics this season and, as you can imagine, I jumped at it,” Winslow, winner of three international titles in as many seasons, revealed, “I was already looking for opportunities in America after my openings in V8s dried up, but I didn't expect something to happen this quickly – or in this way.”
Winslow will face potentially the steepest learning curve of his ultra-successful career when he hits the track at Sebring on Wednesday [18 March], having never as much as sat in a Swift 0.16a, the mandatory chassis of the Atlantic series, while the majority of his rivals have enjoyed at least two two-day test sessions in which to prepare.
The Briton will have a single 45-minute practice session to learn the car, and reacquaint himself with team and track, before the first of two 50-minute qualifying sessions on Wednesday afternoon. He then has a second qualifying outing on Thursday before the 45-minute race on Friday that serves as a curtain-raiser for the American Le Mans Series' 12 Hours of Sebring.
“This is possibly the toughest task I have given myself in my motorsport career,” Winslow admitted, “but it is a necessary one given the circumstances. Of course, it is not ideal going to the opening round of a championship - especially one as hard-fought as Atlantics - without any real preparation, but I am confident that Eric and the Conquest team will give me all the help I need.
“I already know the team, and have driven at Sebring before, following my Champ Car test in 2007, so hopefully that part of the learning process will be relatively quick. The team also has a lot of Atlantic knowledge, having run drivers like Graham Rahal in the past, so that should be a big help.”
Winslow's deal is currently for the first three rounds of the season – at Sebring, Miller Motorsports Park in Utah and the double-header at New Jersey Motorsports Park – but both parties hope that it can be extended to cover the entire twelve-race programme.
“I had hoped to be racing in either Champ Cars or the American Le Mans Series after winning the V6 title in 2007,” Winslow admitted, “so this represents a slightly belated opportunity to make my name in the USA. As I said, it is going to be tough on the track, but I hope that we can put something together to see it through to the end of the year.
“I learned a lot about finding the backing to continue racing in 2008, and will be calling on that in order to prolong my season in Atlantics. There is a fantastic prize fund in the series for 2009, and it would be good to be in the running for that – and a fourth successive major championship title - at the end of the year.”