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Why Supercars star gave up Formula 1 dream
Former Supercars series champion James Courtney says he has no intention of giving the sport away anytime soon, as he reaches a major milestone at Albert Park.
Courtney will become just the ninth driver in history to start in 500 Supercars races, a landmark he says wasn’t even on his radar growing up.
A champion in karts, that success translated into open-wheel cars, before a horror crash while testing a Jaguar Formula 1 car in 2002 derailed his dream.
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“I was thinking I’d go and race Formula 1 and once I’m old, like I am now, I’d come back and muck around with Supercars,” Courtney told Wide World of Sports.
“Obviously that didn’t pan out for any number of reasons, but when I first came back I was sort of kicking myself that I didn’t come back earlier.
“The championship is phenomenal, there’s some great, really tough racing and there’s a lot of passing for position, it’s such a competitive category.
“Our sport is really popular on a per capita basis, even compared to Formula 1 in Europe.
“Some of the guys in our category dream of things overseas, but I always tell them that the grass isn’t always greener.”
Given his childhood dream of racing in Formula 1, it’s perhaps appropriate that Courtney reaches the 500-race milestone at Albert Park, where, if things had turned out differently, he could have driven an F1 car.
“I’m the person I am now because of what happened to me when I was younger, but like I always say, had the whole F1 thing happened I’d probably be more of arsehole than I am!” he joked.
“I’ve got two amazing kids, I probably wouldn’t have them if I’d stayed in Europe and done F1.
“When I first came back to Supercars I actually had a chance at an F1 race drive, with Midland. I could have been a full-time F1 race driver.”
Courtney doesn’t need to add that Midland’s only season of F1, in 2006, was an almost complete disaster. The remnants of the Jordan team, which had won races with Damon Hill and Heinz-Harold Frentzen, was now propping up the rear of the grid.
It was sold again a short time later, eventually morphing into the Aston Martin team that will run Sebastian Vettel and Lance Stroll this weekend.
“What really got to me was that realistically I was never going to win, even points would have been unlikely, and for me there would have been no satisfaction,” he added.
“In Supercars the championship is super tight and the racing is great.”
Courtney has already had a glimpse at what a future without racing might look like, having been caught up in the ill-fated Team Sydney debacle in 2020.
He split with the team after just one race, and faced the prospect of missing the Australian Grand Prix meeting in March.
The onset of COVID-19 meant that weekend was abandoned, and by the time racing resumed later in the year he’d linked up with Tickford Racing, where he remains.
“Just seeing everyone rolling out on track in Melbourne in 2020 affected me more than I thought it would,” Courtney concedes.
“I might have been the only person happy the race was cancelled.
“It made me realise how much I love the competition, and working together with the team, I’m definitely not ready to stop just yet. Nothing comes close to sitting on the start line just before the lights go out.
“While I’m still competitive and not embarrassing myself, I’ll keep going. I just love the fight and the passion.”
Inevitably over such a long career there’s highs and lows. Courtney nominates his 2010 championship win as a moment he won’t forget, but also a lesser-remember win, his Gold Coast 600 victory in 2015.
“The stand-out was winning the Gold Coast race with Jack Perkins,” he recalls.
“The back story to that was Jack’s father Larry giving me $5000 when I was 15 and heading off the Europe, and he didn’t want anything in return.
“He just said he knew how tough it would be, having done F1 himself. To be part of Jack’s first ever race win, and to see how much it meant to him to win and stand outside his dad’s shadow, that was special.
“Given the backstory of what Larry did for me, and then to be able to play that forward and help his son was special.”
The 41-year-old says the Bathurst 1000 remains a box he’d like to tick, having finished on the podium four times during his career without yet making it to the top step.
But he also realises his role within the Tickford setup has changed, given he’s very much the elder statesman alongside teammates Cam Waters (age 27), Thomas Randle (25) and Jake Kostecki (22).
“It’s great seeing the passion of the younger guys, with Cam, Jake and Thomas it’s up to me to remind them that we all make mistakes, but as I tell them, I’ve made those mistakes before, so it’s about helping them avoid the drama I went through,” he says.
“I never had anyone guide me, I had Russell Ingall who was building traps for me to fall in to!
“It’s the first time I’ve been legitimately happy when a teammate has success. In the past you’d stand at the podium and pretend to be happy, but really it was eating me inside.
“But if Cam has a good result I’m genuinely happy, I’m a team guy and enjoy helping the other drivers along.”
A huge crowd is expected over this weekend at Albert Park, as motorsport gradually returns to what we knew as normal prior to COVID-19.
Courtney has qualified 10th and 7th for the first two of four races this weekend, and while he jokes that his 500th race “just means I’m old” he also acknowledges how much he’s missed the atmosphere that a large crowd brings.
“It’s just going to be amazing to be at such a big event again,” he said.
“Especially here in Australia, we’ve been starved of these marquee events, even Bathurst hasn’t really been a patch on what it’s been in the past, because of COVID-19 restrictions.
“This will be the first event in front of a huge crowd, and that play a huge part. It’s nice to race in front of all that colour and noise and excitement.
“Everyone is going to realise what a great sport it is and hopefully rekindle that passion again.”
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