SMP Images - Francois Flamand

Winning formula is tough to find

WHEN the formula one circus rolls into Melbourne this week, the top drivers will be treated like rock stars.

All the talk will be of mega-dollar contracts, private jets, flash cars, luxury pads in Monaco and supermodel girlfriends.

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But it wasn't always like that for these guys. Most did it tough, often with very little money, before cracking the big time.

To get to the top in F1 requires massive determination and sacrifice. You also have to deal with disappointment and, of course, politics.

A lot of talented drivers fall by the wayside for reasons other than the ability to cut a quick lap.

I raced against a lot of these guys in Europe between 1995 and 2002, competing in karts, Formula Ford and formula three; guys such as Jenson Button, Kimi Raikkonen, Fernando Alonso, Heikki Kovalainen, Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, who will all be on the grid at Albert Park this week.

We were a bunch of kids growing up together. In Britain, a group of us lived in the Midlands near Silverstone and we scrimped and scraped to get by. Any money we had went into racing.

To avoid paying tolls near Brands Hatch we used to drive really close behind the car in front and sneak through before the gate came down behind the people in front who had paid.

Which made it quite surreal when Jenson got his first F1 contract with Williams. None of us had any money and suddenly Jenson had heaps. We all went down to London to celebrate and Jenson got us into the famous Chinawhite nightclub near Piccadilly Circus. Usually you needed an invite to get in, but Jenson could now ''open doors''.

Many of us sacrificed normal family life to pack up and move to the other side of the world.

When I arrived in Italy to race karts in 1995 I was a 15-year-old kid from Penrith who couldn't speak the language. I lived in an apartment above a restaurant in a small town between Milan and Venice and worked for the team I raced for.

I had no social life, mainly because of the language barrier, but I got by. I looked forward to races because I got to stay in hotels and the team paid for meals.

I formed good friendships from my years overseas, but at times the rivalry was intense.

I remember when fellow Aussie (and now Indycar racer) Ryan Briscoe and I showed up at the 1995 karting world champs in Portugal. Neither of us had started to shave and I freaked out when I first saw Alonso and Vitantonio Liuzzi because they had facial hair and looked much older and meaner than all the other kids.

I secured pole position and at the drivers' briefing Alonso and Liuzzi stared me down and ran their fingers across their throats. I thought they were going to kill me.

While overseas I won two karting world championships, as well as the British Formula Ford series in 2000.

That led to being a Jaguar F1 test driver in 2001-02. Things looked good, but everything changed in July 2002, when I crashed in an F1 test at Monza. The rear suspension failed at high speed and I hit the wall at 307km/h. Paramedics checked me at the track and I was sent back to Britain on a cheap flight with some aspirin. There was no follow-up check by the team.

I had concussion, swollen brain tissue and was temporarily paralysed down my left side. I had migraines and blurred vision for weeks afterwards. So much for the playboy lifestyle.

I was disillusioned at the way I was treated because I didn't cause the crash. That's when I decided F1 wasn't for me. I discovered another side to F1 the public doesn't see. So I packed up and went to Japan the next year. I was offered an F1 drive in 2005, but the car wasn't competitive. I didn't want to drive around at the back of the field, so I came home to race V8 Supercars.

Despite the way things ended with F1 for me at Monza, I'd do it all again. Living and racing overseas is an unusual way for a teenager to grow up, but it's given me a lifetime of memories. It's a super-competitive environment and you learn a lot about yourself and life.

And it also makes you appreciate the sacrifices these guys make to get to the top.

Good luck to them.