Motorsport can be one of the most joyful sports, but equally it can be the cruellest. On August 24, former Formula 1 driver and three-time IndyCar Series race-winner Justin Wilson died, aged 37, from head injuries he sustained in a freak accident during the closing stages of Sunday’s Pocono 500 oval race.
He is survived by his parents Keith and Lynne, his wife Julie and their two daughters Jane and Jessica, and his younger brother and racing driver Stefan.
At 1.93 metres tall (6’4″ in the old scale), Wilson would perhaps been an athlete more suited to basketball, but despite continued challenges of trying to squeeze his lanky frame behind the wheel, he proved to be a talented racing driver, which included an all-too-short spell in Formula 1.
Born on the last day of July in Sheffield in 1978, Wilson struggled through his childhood, both due to his unusually tall height but more so because he suffered from acute dyslexia.
He found an outlet when he started karting at the age of eight, and in subsequent years he proved to be extremely competitive in a variety of local and national championships.
He graduated to car racing at the age of 16, moving into the Formula Vauxhall Junior championship where he won on debut and became the youngest driver in the series’ history to achieve the feat.
He spent two years cutting his teeth in the championship before joining the brand-new Formula Palmer Audi Championship in 1998. His campaign started slowly, but he pulled it together in a late surge where he won six of the last seven races. The title was his, and his success forged a connection with the series’ owner, the former Grand Prix driver Jonathan Palmer, who took the lanky driver under his wing.
Palmer had proven himself to be quite the wheeler-dealer, and he successfully negotiated for a Formula 3000 race seat to be Wilson’s prize for winning the title. Wilson took the chance with both hands, and he was one of just seven drivers to qualify for every single race that season. It was an excellent performance for someone who had little racing experience outside the UK. He scored two sixth-placed finishes with the Astromega outfit, finishing 18th overall in the championship standings.
He moved to the Nordic Racing in 2000, finishing fifth in the standings with two podium finishes and a much-improved knowledge of the circuits. In 2001, he became the first British driver to enjoy true success in F3000; he claimed wins at Interlagos, the A1-Ring and the Hungaroring in addition to a further 7 podium finishes to beat Mark Webber to the Drivers’ Championship title.
Formula 1 should have been the next step, but there were no available seats in 2002 and so he was forced to tread water in the Telefónica World Series by Nissan, where he finished fourth in the standings with wins at Interlagos and Valencia.
His potential was being keenly noticed by Minardi boss Paul Stoddart, who wanted to get Wilson into the car midway through the 2002 Formula 1 season when the team was looking to ‘rest’ its struggling driver, Alex Yoong. But Wilson’s height proved to be the deciding factor; he was simply unable to fit in the team’s PS02 chassis.
Stoddart was utterly convinced that Wilson was going to be his man in 2003, and so he commissioned a new chassis design that would accommodate Wilson’s frame, signing the Englishman alongside F1 veteran Jos Verstappen for the season.
A second handicap was that Wilson had barely any financial backing to support him getting into the cash-strapped Minardi team, so Jonathan Palmer came up with an enterprising scheme where members of the public could buy shares in him to raise the £1.2 million start-up amount needed.
The share scheme was promoted heavily by F1 commentator Murray Walker, and as a result it was quickly oversubscribed.
The new Minardi PS03 continued to cement the team at the back of the grid, but Wilson and Verstappen caused some stirs with a succession of fast starts that propelled the two into the midfield in the opening laps of many races.
His performances were enough to mean he was in the frame to replace the struggling Antônio Pizzonia at Jaguar midway through the season. Paired alongside his former F3000 rival Mark Webber, Wilson struggled against the well-established Australian but he did pick up a point with an eighth-placed finish at the rain-hit United States Grand Prix at Indianapolis.
It wasn’t enough to attract serious attention from other teams for the 2004 season and the lack of a serious sponsorship budget proved to be the nail in the coffin for further F1 prospects. So he headed Stateside to the ChampCar World Series and landed a drive with the Mi-Jack Conquest Racing team. He battled all season with A.J. Allmendinger for the ‘Rookie of the Year’ title, finishing runner-up to the American in the end.
He moved to the RuSPORT team in 2005 and quickly grew to being a regular frontrunner as the season progressed. He was on course to claim a dominant maiden win at Portland until his engine let go, but he bounced back with wins in Toronto and Mexico City en route to an impressive third in the standings.
He continued with the team in 2006 and, despite missing the Gold Coast round with a broken wrist, he went one better and finished runner-up with a remarkable run of podium finishes. With Sébastien Bourdais dominating the field, Wilson tasted victory just once, at Edmonton. Another year with the team saw a repeat of the result behind Bourdais, and he again won just once at Assen.
When ChampCar merged with the Indy Racing League and Bourdais headed off to Formula 1, Wilson took over the Frenchman’s seat at Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing. The outfit struggled with the regulations shift and the move to the Dallara chassis, and Wilson won just once at Detroit.
Drives with top-line teams were out of reach, and successive seasons between 2009 and 2014 were carved out with smaller outfits likes the Dale Coyne Racing and the Dreyer & Reinbold Racing squads. He claimed the former’s first win at Watkins Glen in 2009, and won again with the team at Texas Motor Speedway in 2012 despite his car being fitted with non-compliant bodywork.
Wilson was a popular figure in the IndyCar paddock, and was highly regarded for being a fair racer on the track, and one of the kindest and most good-humoured figures off it.
Images via Daily Mail, IndyCar Series, LAT, The Cahier Archive, The Grid, XPB Images