Dan Wheldon may not have received the F1 break that his considerable talent deserved, but that did not prevent many of the drivers he should have been racing against from paying tribute to him on hearing news of his passing in a 15-car accident at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday.
Wheldon, who was making only his third IndyCar Series appearance of 2011 after finding himself without a ride at the start of the year, was making his way through the pack after starting at the back in the Las Vegas Indy 300. The Briton was, somewhat controversially, chasing a $5m jackpot - which was to have been divided with a randomly-selected fan - when his #77 Sam Schmidt Motorsport Dallara was left with nowhere to go as it encountered an accident on lap 13. The car was launched into the air, caught alight and collected the outside wall at almost unabated speed, leaving Wheldon with what series CEO Randy Bernard later reported were 'unsurvivable injuries'.
The IndyCar community naturally led the tributes, abandoning its championship showdown in favour of a five-lap salute to its fallen comrade, but Wheldon's death ricocheted around the motorsport world, eliciting homages from series as diverse as Australia's V8 Supercars - where he was due to have made an appearance in next weekend's Surfers Paradise event - and F1, where many drivers were contemporaries of the Briton as they made their way through karting and the junior single-seater formulae.
Despite having the ability to become an F1 driver, Wheldon suffered from the usual British malaise of failing to come up with sufficient backing to break into the top flight and, after a brief evaluation run with the BAR team, opted to ply his trade in America. Although he subsequently turned down the offer to become reserve at BMW Sauber in 2006 - the year Robert Kubica replaced Jacques Villeneuve - the decision proved to be a wise one, as he went on to become a household name in US open-wheel racing, claiming two Indianapolis 500 crowns - including this year's - as well as the 2005 IndyCar Series title. Despite sitting out most of the 2011 campaign, he was among those tipped to replace NASCAR-bound Danica Patrick by returning to the Andretti Autosport team next season, and was in the middle of developing the next generation IndyCar with Dallara and Bryan Herta Autosport.
"Just woken up to the most horrific news... Dan Wheldon RIP," Jenson Button, who beat his former karting rival to the 1998 Formula Ford UK title, wrote on his Twitter feed, "I have so many good memories of racing with Dan in the early 90's, a true fighter. We've lost a legend in our sport but also a great guy. I can't begin to imagine what his family are going through and my thoughts are with them at this very difficult time."
Button's McLaren team-mate, Lewis Hamilton, also broke off from winding down after the Korean Grand Prix to pay tribute to a driver he followed up the ladder, issuing a statement through the Woking team.
"This is a tragic loss at such a young age," he wrote, "Dan was a racer I'd followed throughout my career, as I often followed in his footsteps as we climbed the motorsport ladder in the UK. He was an extremely talented driver. As a British guy, who not only went over to the States but who twice won the Indy 500, he was an inspirational guy, and someone that every racing driver looked up to with respect and admiration. This is a tragic loss at such a young age. My heart goes out to his family and friends during this extremely difficult time."
Australia's Mark Webber raced in Formula Ford while Wheldon was cutting his single-seater teeth in Formula Vauxhall Junior, but recalled their days on the TOCA package in the UK.
"Rest in Peace, Dan," he wrote on his Twitterpage, "I remember our early days in the UK 95/96.. Miss ya..."
Rubens Barrichello, several years Wheldon's senior but who knew the Briton from his appearances in Brazil's end-of-season karting extravaganzas, was another to pay his respects.
"Just got out of the 'plane and got the terrible news about the death of our friend," he tweeted, "Will always remember the great times we had at karting in Brazil, my friend. Rest in peace."
McLaren, Lotus and Mercedes - the latter an evolution of the BAR outfit with which Wheldon got closest to F1 - led the tributes from F1's teams.
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