Thursday , 24 September 2020

Justin Wilson: 1978 – 2015

The motor racing world is in mourning today following the sad news of Justin Wilson’s death. Whilst the statistics will say that Wilson managed just one season in F1, scoring one point, his record elsewhere was much more than reasonable. Despite having notable issues surrounding his tall six feet, four inch frame, he was able to be a fierce competitor in small, open-wheel racecars. He made his name in the United States, where he made his name as a tough and consistent road and street course specialist. Ironically though, his final race victory would come on an oval, as would his tragic final race.

Wilson was born in Yorkshire, England, and started karting from a young age as many other racing drivers did. By the late 1990s, he was working his way through the small junior formulae before moving to the FIA-sanctioned International Formula 3000 championship. In his third season, he took the championship in dominant fashion through sheer consistency compared to his nearest rival Mark Webber, both taking three race wins but Wilson took six second places. This earned Wilson a test for the Minardi Formula One team, but he was unable to fit into the 2002 machine, so he headed to the World Series by Nissan, where he finished fourth overall in his one and only season, whilst Minardi were able to build a car for 2003 which suited him.

Wilson’s team mate for 2003 would be the experienced Jos Verstappen. He retired from each of the first four races but across the four races where both he and his team mate finished, Wilson was ahead of the Dutchman on three of the occasions. This earned a place for the final five races at Jaguar alongside Webber, after they dropped the underperforming Antonio Pizzonia. Wilson was replaced by Dane Nicolas Kiesa, who was unable to beat Verstappen. Whilst Webber arguably performed better than Wilson, the Brit beat Christiano da Matta to his first and only point at the United States Grand Prix, a result which ultimately resulted in Jaguar beating Toyota that season.

However Jaguar’s financial problems came into play and for 2004 he was dropped for pay driver Christian Klien, who favoured no better against Webber. Wilson made his way over to the United States, where he would take place in the 12 Hours of Sebring as well as the newly-rebranded Champ Car World Series. He also made a one-off trip back to Europe to take part in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Wilson joined Conquest Motorsports for his rookie campaign alongside Alex Sperafico and later Nelson Philippe, also both rookies. Wilson impressed with his rookie campaign, finishing ahead of his team mate on all bar one occasion at Toronto. He however missed out on the Rookie of the Year honours to A.J. Allmendinger, who already knew the majority of the circuits from running in the junior categories over on that side of the world.

Impressed by both ‘Dinger and Wilson, the former’s team RuSPORT decided to run the pair of them for 2005. Wilson outpaced his team mate and had a realistic shot at the title before Sebastien Bourdais’ strong run of form at the end of the season. Nonetheless, he took his first win at Toronto, and his first pole at Portland, and finished a strong third in the championship. For 2006, he was completely unable to match Bourdais for the first four races, but still took three second places. Allmendinger was replaced after those four races by da Matta, whilst Allmendinger started winning races with Forsythe Racing. Wilson would only win once that season, at Edmonton, and managed to finish runner up, despite breaking his wrist and the penultimate round at Surfer’s Paradise. 2006 also saw his first attempt at the Rolex Daytona 24 Hours, a race which he would win at last in 2012.

A single win at Assen was the high for Wilson in 2007, in a season which was once again dominated by Bourdais. Nonetheless, his consistency led him to another runner-up spot and with Bourdais off to Formula One for 2008; Wilson would surely become the championship favourite for the following year – especially as Wilson was to replace Bourdais at Newman/Haas/Lanigan alongside Graham Rahal.

However it was not to be. The series was bought out and unified by the Indy Racing League into the IndyCar series we know today. Given rookie status, Wilson struggled to adapt to the series which ran many different courses, much of them on ovals. He missed out on Rookie of the Year status by just six points, but still managed to win on the streets of Detroit. He finished 11th overall, ahead of the likes of Will Power, Ed Carpenter and Rahal.

Wilson left his team and joined Tomas Scheckter at Dale Coyne Racing for 2009, which after 25 seasons in racing were looking for their first race win. Wilson struggled once again on the ovals but showed his class on the road and street courses. He was able to deliver Dale Coyne their very first victory at Watkins Glen in brilliant fashion, by leading the most laps along the way. Wilson would endure one and a half winless seasons at Dreyer & Reinbold Racing which ended prematurely with him injuring his back at Mid-Ohio.

He re-joined Dale Coyne for 2012, but seemed to struggle. However, he was able to take a race win on the Texas Motor Speedway oval – his first on an oval, and what turned out to be his last. He had a much stronger 2013 overall, finishing fifth at Indianapolis, and taking four top threes en route to sixth in the championship. At Baltimore that year, he started with his younger brother Stefan as his team mate. A less impressive 2014 saw him dropped for an array of pay drivers for 2015. Left without a full-time drive, Wilson joined Andretti Autosport for 2015 as part of a shared drive between him and Simona de Silvestro in the fourth car. He impressed on almost every occasion he was in the car, and although he did just two road courses that year, he finished runner-up at Mid-Ohio – his penultimate IndyCar race. He even touched on Formula E with Andretti, taking a sole point in his one-off appearance at Moscow.

Much like the now-late Dan Wheldon before him, with a possible seat at Andretti up for grabs for the next season, things were looking strong for the Brit. Things turned disastrous though, as in the closing stages of the race at Pocono, Wilson was hit on the helmet by a nosecone whilst doing well over 200mph, and ultimately was killed, right before another great, rightfully-deserved opportunity for success was about to come his way.

Wilson was always respected amongst his peers, something which is very important whilst doing those speeds in a race. Often quite quiet in the paddock, he was often regarded as one of the good guys, and the reaction from those who he raced against on social media shows how they saw him. Despite his setbacks in F1 through no fault of his own, he carved out a career in the United States, which is not always easy to do, and was set to get another opportunity with a top team. However, we will never know just what could have been in 2016 and beyond.

Wilson leaves his wife Julia and two young daughters, Jane and Jessica.

About Craig Woollard

Motorsport historian and journalist Craig Woollard has had an unusual path to a career in motorsport. After graduating from the University of Essex with a degree in mathematics in 2013, he changed his career path immediately after discovering a talent for writing. After occasional freelance work in 2015 and 2016, he joined the Autosport Academy for 2017. In the same year, he became an archive digitiser at Motorsport Images - which is his full-time job to this date.

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