Jimmie Johnson says he would jump at the chance to race in Formula 1, as his preparation for Monday’s car swap with McLaren’s Fernando Alonso continued Saturday in Abu Dhabi.
Johnson and members of Hendrick Motorsports spent the day with McLaren at the Yas Marina Circuit ahead of the swap Monday in Bahrain, which will be the seven-time NASCAR champion’s first drive in an F1 car. Alan Gustafson, who is serving as the crew chief for the swap, sat in on team engineering meetings with McLaren.
Alonso treated Johnson to a hot lap in a McLaren road car on the F1 circuit — during which the Spaniard was keen to turn off the traction control.
“Fernando was very upset he couldn’t turn off the stabilization/traction control in the car, and when he figured it out we actually spun out,” Johnson recounted. “It was great.”
At the age of 43, Johnson says he would never turn down the opportunity to race in a grand prix, even if he would expect any one-off appearance to be a challenge for a non-F1 driver.
“I would take it in a heartbeat,” Johnson said. “I would love the opportunity. Love, love, love. I think you could ask any competitor around the world in any form of auto racing and they would take it in a heartbeat.
“You have to have realistic goals and expectations with any opportunity like that. I’d be silly to think I could come in and compete with the team cars and be on that same level. We’ve watched many open-wheel drivers come to NASCAR and it seems to be about three or four years before you can finally shave off the last few tenths of a second.
“The last single-seater I drove was probably in 1996, maybe ’95 even, so it would be crazy for me to come in and just immediately be there. But I firmly do believe if you give a top level driver time to grow and learn a vehicle then one can come to NASCAR from open-wheel and do just fine and be successful and compete for the win. And the same going in the other direction, it just takes time to find those last few tenths of a second.”
Johnson would like to see the two-time F1 champion attempt a NASCAR race.
“I would be all for it. His personality and what I saw with the sedan-style vehicle on the track and how much he likes to slide, I think he would do just fine. He would be a great fit.
“We haven’t [discussed it]. I’ve read plenty of rumors — and we even played in a few rumors too just to have fun with it — but I haven’t spoken to him about it at all.”
Johnson also toured the McLaren garage and witnessed pit stop practice and qualifying, where he was able to compare the F1 setting to his more familiar NASCAR surroundings.
“It certainly is different in appearance and racetrack amenities but at the end of the day it’s all about driving the fastest on track. So definitely some aesthetic differences but all in all it’s still engineers and drivers and mechanics trying to get what they can out of the car.
“I loved that I was out on the pit wall during practice and to listen to the conversations between the two cars and adjustments being made, it took me back into my space. The terminology is a bit different, the adjustments are a bit different but it’s still seeking that oversteer/understeer balance and living by the stopwatch at the end of the day.”
Earlier this week, Johnson began his preparations for the car swap with a visit to the the McLaren Technology Centre for a seat fitting and time in the race simulator.
“What an amazing place,” he said of Woking. “The architecture and design of that facility was beyond impressive. I got to turn some laps in the simulator for almost six hours the other day and I can’t wait for the real thing.
“Simulators are obviously no replacement for the real thing but they do help with the basics and baselines. I can’t wait to get in that car in Bahrain.”