He may be largely unrecognised in his home country, but Justin Wilson is one of the UK’s finest racing drivers.
At Daytona the weekend before last he showed his stuff yet again as part of Mike Shank’s winning team in the Rolex 24 Hours. It was Justin’s first race since suffering a compression fracture of his T5 vertebra in an IndyCar accident at Mid-Ohio last August and he had no problems at all in the race. Wilson drove three times during the 24 hours, beginning with a double stint lasting almost two hours.
“I got out from the first stint and I could feel a tingling from a lot of the muscles in my back that hadn’t been worked-out for a while,” Justin said. “I thought, ‘this might not be good.’ But the second time I got in the car after four hours rest I felt much better and when I got in for my third stint, I felt great. I did four stints in a row from 5.50am until 9.10am – three hours and twenty minutes – and I felt 100 per cent.”
Justin and his team-mates – AJ Allmendinger, Oswaldo Negri and John Pew – enjoyed a faultless race. “The car was fantastic,” Justin declared. “There were no reliability issues whatsoever. We didn’t have to do anything to the car – we put fuel and tyres on it, changed brake pads, and that was it. We refilled the driver’s drink bottle a few times and it went pretty much perfectly.
“Everyone was focused on what we needed to do and although we didn’t talk about it, we all knew. We just got in and did it. AJ did a great last three hours and Ozz did a fantastic three hours before that and John Pew was driving really fast. It all came together.”
Wilson has nothing but praise for team owner Shank who’s also trying to put together an IndyCar team this year with Paul Tracy driving. “Mike is a great person, a great team owner and someone you always enjoy driving for,” Justin says. “There’s no hidden agendas, nothing going on in the background. What he says is what he’s going to do and it just happens. There are no games with Mike.”
After his crash at Mid-Ohio last summer Wilson wore a plastic back brace stretching from his shoulders to his hips for 10 weeks. Fortunately the compression fracture in his back was such that an operation wasn’t required and after four weeks wearing the brace he started swimming on a daily basis.
“You just had to be very careful. I did six lengths the first day and slowly built it up. Being able to use the muscles without risk of damaging your spine anymore sped up the rate of recovery. By eight weeks I was feeling really good and just itching to get back in a car.”
The first time he drove a racing car after the accident was in January’s three-day Rolex 24 test session at Daytona. He had been out of action for five months. “The first lap around Daytona up on the banking was a strange sensation. It was, ‘OK, I’ve got to get the body used to this again.’ But after a couple of laps you forget about it and get back into a rhythm. It wasn’t too bad. I was able to get back up to speed and built it up over that test and it all felt good.”
Justin has rejoined Dale Coyne’s team for the upcoming IndyCar season with Honda engines. Bill Papis will engineer his car this year. Papis was his engineer when Wilson scored Coyne’s only win at Watkins Glen in 2009. Todd Phillips has joined Coyne from Newman/Haas and will be Wilson’s crew chief.
“We’ve got some good people and hopefully we can win some races again,” Justin remarked. “I think we’ve got a good opportunity with Dale and the Honda engine. If we do some good testing I think we’ll be in with a shout. We just have to work it out. I think it’s going to be an exciting year. I’m really looking forward to it. It’s a great opportunity and a chance to really build something and hopefully win a few more races.”
A Formula 1 superstar he may not be, but Justin Wilson is an excellent driver and true racer. If you want an underdog worth cheering for, he’s your man.