Once a bright British prospect whose F1 career was equal parts bafflement and brevity, Justin Wilson has now spent more than a decade in America. He’s forged a fine reputation in his adopted home, thanks in part to his habit of conjuring victories for unfancied teams…
Writer: Simon Arron
It is almost 20 years since Justin Wilson created a piece of history that will forever be his. He was one of the first to capitalise on looser licensing rules that allowed younger drivers to graduate to cars – and in October 1994 became the first 16-year-old to win a UK single-seater race (and on his debut, too), the opening round of the Vauxhall Junior winter series at Pembrey. It was symbolic of rich promise so often apparent during his formative years, yet there were also niggling setbacks.
He was supposed to make a full-time switch to cars in 1995, for instance, but missed the start of the campaign after breaking his left wrist and ankle in a testing accident at Brands Hatch.
He was soon back at the helm and four victories earned him a 1996 seat with Paul Stewart Racing’s crack Formula Vauxhall team. More wins followed, but the title proved elusive and patron Sir Jackie Stewart concluded that Wilson’s height – he’s 6ft 4in – would be a barrier to single-seater progress. He suggested Justin look to sports or touring cars instead. That became a motivational tool – and remains so. “It was a spur to prove I could do what I set out to do,” Wilson says.
In 1998 he switched to the new Formula Palmer Audi series, whose creator Jonathan Palmer promised a fully sponsored FIA F3000 drive to his inaugural champion. Wilson took the title and moved to within a stone’s throw of the Grand Prix paddock. He joined Belgium-based Astromega and scored a point on his F3000 debut at Imola, one of only two accumulated during the campaign, but it was an impressive season nonetheless.
This was the first time F3000 had been a full-time F1 support series: more than 40 drivers were challenging for 26 places on the grid and they had only half an hour in which to acclimatise and set a qualifying time. Despite the unfamiliar surroundings, Wilson was one of only a select handful to make the cut every time.
He switched to Englishman Derek Mower’s Nordic Racing in 2000, notching up a few podiums and finishing fifth in the standings, then stayed put for 2001. That season began with a spin at Interlagos… but only because he was celebrating wildly after securing his maiden win and subsequently forgot about the first corner. “People still remind me about that,” he says.
He and Mark Webber were that year’s stand-outs, with three wins apiece, but Wilson’s superior consistency – he was on the podium for 10 of the 12 races, and failed to score only once – gave him the title. He subsequently made an impressive F1 test debut for Jordan, at Silverstone, but wasn’t really on anybody’s radar in terms of a full-time seat. That height thing, again…. While Webber graduated with Minardi, Wilson stepped sideways into the Nissan World Series, where he met Eric Boullier – the man recently appointed as McLaren’s racing director. “I had Franck Montagny as a team-mate and Eric running things,” he says, “so it was all a bit French. I wondered how it would work out, but Eric was scrupulously fair. He’s a really good guy: I was chuffed when he got his first F1 job, with Renault, and am not surprised by his success.”
Montagny and Wilson finished second and fourth in the series, behind F1 refugee Ricardo Zonta, but during the summer there was a chance the Englishman might head in the other direction. Minardi needed a stand-in, after Alex Yoong was rested for two Grands Prix, but Wilson didn’t fit the cockpit and the drive went instead to jockey-sized Anthony Davidson.
Minardi owner Paul Stoddart had faith in Wilson, though, and for 2003 insisted his cars should accommodate somebody of taller stature. Money remained an obstacle, but Palmer – Wilson’s manager since that FPA success – hit upon the idea of a share issue and Justin Wilson plc was launched.
That raised enough to fund a Minardi seat and early-season performances were impressive. He and team-mate Jos Verstappen invariably qualified at the back, but Wilson’s consistently brisk starts and instinctive eye for first-lap gaps allowed him to put the Minardi in places it had no right being. And he frequently kept it there, until pit strategies breached his defence. By July Jaguar had swooped to sign him as replacement for the axed Antonio Pizzonia, as team-mate to former sparring partner Webber, and that’s when his F1 career lost impetus.
“I feel I could have done a better job if I’d had more seat time,” he says, “but I joined Jaguar in the middle of a test ban. I did about 10 laps on Silverstone’s South Circuit, to make sure the seat fitted, then headed off to race in the German GP at Hockenheim.
“The first couple of times I drove the car, everything felt very natural… but then it suddenly became pitch-sensitive. I couldn’t turn and brake simultaneously at all and was never able to get the car properly balanced for corner entries. And then, when I was asked to test at the season’s end, everything felt normal again. I never did get to the bottom of that. I don’t know what I was doing wrong. Perhaps I just forgot how to drive for a few months…”
In the background, meanwhile, Red Bull had for several months been poised with a wad of cash to place F3 graduate Christian Klien in a Jaguar for 2004. Wilson left with a single point to his name and jetted off to the States. “It’s frustrating that I didn’t do more in F1,” he says, “but I guess it just wasn’t meant to be.”
He landed a CART seat with Conquest Racing in 2004, then switched to RuSport and took a first series victory at Toronto the following year. He was a consistent front-runner, but this was the time of Newman-Haas-Lanigan dominance, with Sébastien Bourdais, and Wilson emerged as runner-up to the Frenchman in both 2006 and 2007. Then Bourdais switched to F1 with Toro Rosso and NHL signed Wilson… just as America’s warring single-seater factions unified. He qualified on pole for the last-ever CART race, at Long Beach in 2008, but retired with engine failure and spent the rest of the campaign adjusting to Indycars and ovals. A late-season victory on the streets of Detroit was the only real highlight and, with NHL entering a period of financial decline, Wilson had to seek a new home.
He found it with previous backmarker Dale Coyne Racing, whose fortunes he helped transform. He finished third first time out at St Petersburg and scored a memorable victory at Watkins Glen in July 2009.
“That was really special,” he says, “because nobody expected it or even believed it possible. We had a fuel problem that whole race. The tank was supposed to hold 22 gallons but we could only put in 19.5. The car was very quick, but I constantly had to save fuel in order to do a two-stopper. I was thinking, ‘If ever I have the opportunity to go flat out, I know I’ll be able to drive away’. The others were sat behind me the whole time, but I was lifting on the straights and hardly braked for two-thirds of each lap. I’d coast into the corners, then get a good exit, but it was all about saving fuel. It was only with seven laps to go that I was told we had enough to make the finish. At that point I did a couple of quick laps, built up a lead of about four seconds and cruised to the flag.”
Was that the best win of his career?
“Possibly,” he says. “It was either that or the Daytona 24 Hours in 2012. That was special, as the 50th anniversary race, but they stand out for different reasons.”
That Daytona win – with Michael Shank Racing – was a perfect comeback tonic, for Wilson had been sidelined by a fractured back since the previous August, when he crashed during practice for the Indycar race at
Mid-Ohio – his final event with Dreyer & Reinbold after 18 months that yielded two podiums, but no wins.
Since then he has been back in the Coyne fold, running at the front and scoring his most recent victory at Texas in 2012 – his first on an oval – while also dabbling in sports car racing with Shank. After fracturing his pelvis in the 2013 Indycar finale at Fontana, he hoped history might repeat itself with another comeback victory at Daytona this year, but transmission trouble put paid to that.
His main target for 2014 is to ensure Coyne’s team remains a thorn in the side of its wealthier rivals. Does he relish the underdog role?
“I’ve been in this position for so long,” he says, “that I wonder if I’d be able to adjust my mindset if I had a target on my back, as the guy everybody had to beat. But with the way Indycar racing is right now, if you have a good engineer and a solid crew behind you, as I do, you can still achieve a lot. For the past couple of years we might have been underdogs as far as the wider world was concerned, but that’s not how it felt to me. If we got everything right, I always believed I had an opportunity.
“Dale wants to build his team. Our weakest area last year was pitstops. We should have won at Sonoma (Sears Point), but lost two seconds during a stop and got stuck in traffic. The other front-runners pulled out right ahead of me when I should have been a few seconds up the road. Dale has been working hard, pushing the team and practising stops all winter. If we can improve that and make sure everything else is as good as it was, we should be OK. But there’s so much to it when every team is using the same chassis and we’re chasing thousandths rather than tenths.”
It didn’t help that his team-mate changed from race to race. “With some of the bigger teams running four cars, they have one guy working on shocks, another on springs and bars, another on aero settings and the fourth on the diff. At the end of a session you just need one solid bit of information from each driver and you put the pieces together to create a fast car. With a one-car set-up, or a changing roster of team mates, you have a relatively limited amount of information. That’s something else we need – two consistently competitive cars.”
One of the upsides was an opportunity to race alongside brother Stefan, 11 years his junior, in Baltimore. “It was fun,” he says, “because we’d never raced on the same track –
I was already in F3000 when he started karting. Unfortunately, he had an opportunity to do one race and it happened to be at the toughest track. Baltimore is incredibly bumpy – it’s basically a motocross track for Indycars…”
Time spent in America has buffed a few edges from his Sheffield accent and he admits he’s in no rush to head home. “You do pick up a certain way of speaking,” he says, “but there are some things I won’t accept. I prefer tomatoes to to-may-toes, for example, but sometimes it’s just easier to adopt the American way.
“Will I stay? I’m not sure. My wife Julia would like to return eventually to the UK, but there’s a good standard of living where we’re based in Colorado, it’s a nice environment for our two young daughters and I’m far from done with racing.
“I’m 35 now and feel I can be competitive in Indycars for at least five or six more seasons. After that, I don’t see why I can’t race in sports cars for another 15 or so. I’m as enthusiastic as I’ve ever been and still feel withdrawal symptoms when I’m away from the racetrack.
“Indycar is a bit like Formula Ford, in a way, in that the racing is hugely serious but off the track the drivers all chat and muck around together. It’s a friendly environment and things are much more relaxed than they are in Europe, where people seem to age really quickly in the cut-throat atmosphere.
“Just look at Scott Pruett – he’s still going strong here in sports cars at the age of 54.”