Out the back at Thruxton no one could touch Justin,” says the familiar voice on the end of the phone line. “He had the ability to go from bump to bump without unsettling the car. If those US speedways had been as bumpy as Thruxton his Indycar results might have been better… He just loved the high-speed stuff.”
It must have been 17 years since last we spoke, but Justin Wilson’s devastating accident at Pocono prompted former Paul Stewart Racing engineer and Formula Vauxhall team manager Andy Pycock to get in touch.
It was great to chat to him after so long. Today, Pycock runs a successful graphics company that supplies its designs to the car industry and he tells me I’m the first person involved in motor racing that he’s spoken to in about 10 years. We spend the next hour reminiscing about some of the great days in British junior single-seater racing – most specifically about Wilson and another much-missed Indycar ace, Dan Wheldon.
Pycock first met Justin at the end of 1995, when the Sheffield lad was just 17. “Wilson was my first choice of driver as team manager of PSR,” says Andy. “Graham Taylor had moved on to Audi’s touring car programme and I was promoted from chief mechanic and engineer. I thought Justin was the fastest guy out there to partner Peter Dumbreck in 1996.
“The first time I saw him he was driving a Formula Vauxhall for another team in the winter series at the end of 1995. It was one of those moments, like the first time you see an Indycar on a superspeedway: the way he was barrelling into Gerards, whacking the same bump on entry every time. I wasn’t sure it was the quickest way, but it was a sucking-teeth moment. As engineers, we tended to look at data all the time and didn’t tend to watch them through a corner. I’m glad I did that day.”
Through the 1990s in FVauxhall and Formula 3 PSR generally ruled the roost, its ‘Staircase of Talent’ much vaunted as the route to the top for any aspiring world champion. There were, of course, no guarantees and plenty of talent jumped off the staircase to pursue different paths. Wilson was among them.
As expected, Dumbreck swept to the ’96 crown and Justin stayed on for the following season hoping to replicate that success. But one of those pesky, well-funded Brazilians so common to the era would scupper his plans.
“In ’97 I engineered Justin as well as managing the team,” says Pycock. “He was quiet but he knew his stuff and was still learning. Luciano Burti was 22, Justin was still only 19 and it was the first time he’d come up against someone really quick. At Oulton Park they went side by side, Luciano didn’t give him room and Justin ended up in the barriers. He lost the title there, that was the key race, but he was far better than his results” – two wins – “suggested. It was difficult for him because there was a real buzz around Luciano, who was managed by Geraldo Rodriguez, who managed Rubens Barrichello among others. But of course if you compare their records now Justin was ultimately more successful.”
That ’97 season hurt Wilson, particularly when Jackie Stewart went public with his view that his future lay in touring cars or GTs because of his 6ft 4in frame. Against the odds, Wilson would of course prove his old boss wrong, but Pycock defends Stewart’s well-intended advice. “We had special dispensation to move the pedal box back and modify the shape of the pedals for him, and we did so because Justin was the best choice of driver.
“Jackie and Paul were always on the phone asking about the drivers, and Jackie was always being told by engineers that the regulations at the time wouldn’t allow Justin to fit in cars [beyond FVauxhall]. Since then things have changed and it’s become accepted that drivers are taller. The underlying fact was that both Jackie and Paul thought Justin deserved a career as a racing driver.”
As Simon Arron describes in his obituary on page 36, Wilson subsequently switched to Formula Palmer Audi, won the title and was catapulted on to the international stage. Meanwhile, Pycock’s attention had turned to the precocious Wheldon – even if the future two-time Indy 500 winner was destined never to step on PSR’s staircase.
“We had declined Dan at the end of 1996,” Pycock recalls. “At that stage he hadn’t enough experience in cars. He was very sure of himself, cheeky and cocky, but at the same time totally adorable. But he needed to lose a tough battle. Having fought Jenson Button in an inferior car in Formula Ford in 1998, he’d earned his chance.
“At the end of 1998 we planned to do the winter series with Richard Lyons and Wheldon, but there was snow on the ground and ice in the gravel traps, and I pulled the team from the race. Then Jackie and Paul closed the team because the cars were becoming obsolete and they had the F1 team to run, so Dan never did race for us.
“I was out of a job as well and felt bad for Dan because I’d done all the chasing to sign him. Clive Wheldon [Dan’s father] came to me asking what we could do, and at the same time [Van Diemen founder] Ralph Firman offered an opportunity to look at Formula 2000 in the US. I flew out with Dan to do a test at Sebring, reported back to Clive and convinced him to go to America. Dan didn’t really want to do it and would ring me every five minutes. It was a big move in those days, a route no one else had taken. Then suddenly the phone calls stopped. He found himself a girlfriend, fell in love with America and never came back. I lost contact with him. There’s nothing worse than hanging on in such a situation.”
Pycock has a gold Rolex to show for his PSR days, a gift from the Stewarts for all his work with their team. But the memories are what he cherishes most – especially now. It’s hard to take in that both Justin and Dan are gone.
Longevity is a running theme when you work for Motor Sport. The weight of the magazine’s hard-earned reputation and history – 91 years and counting – is inescapable, and a week never passes without someone telling me they’ve been a reader for 30, 40 or 50 years… and sometimes longer. As a familiar fixture in the lives of so many for so long, Motor Sport is more than just a magazine. It’s like an old friend that never lets you down – I hope!
The reaction to our ‘Lunch with’ special in the 90th anniversary issue last year (July), charting the history of the magazine, was another reminder that our own quirky timeline is itself an integral part of motoring and motor racing folklore. The magazine’s story, framed largely by that irascible triumvirate Denis Jenkinson, Bill Boddy and Wesley J Tee, is illustrious – but boy, is it rocky, too.
For almost 10 years now, under proprietor Edward Atkin CBE, Motor Sport has discovered a stability out of character with much of its past. That level is enhanced by our move this month to new premises in Hampstead, north London, Motor Sport’s first ‘permanent’ home since the Standard House days. Not that our new office has anything in common with that infamous, creaky old building in the city. Now state-of-the-art facilities befitting a modern media business await us each morning – and the public transport links are a whole lot better too, which helps!
Motor Sport is stepping up the pace as we gallop towards our centenary, with further developments in the print, online and digital spheres. In the future, we’re also looking forward to inviting readers to events at the new premises, so watch this space.
While others come and go, longevity is a constant at Motor Sport – but then you knew that, didn’t you?