Some drivers’ career statistics will forever sell them short, and Justin Wilson is one such. There was much, much more to him, though, than an abundance of racecraft. He was a man of great integrity, dignity and good humour. It was my privilege to know him well.
After graduating from karts, Wilson created a small slice of history when he became the first 16-year-old to win a car race in Britain – a Formula Vauxhall Junior event at Pembrey in October 1994. He built on that flying start to become a regular front-runner in FVJ and Formula Vauxhall, where he drove for Paul Stewart Racing, but team patron Sir Jackie Stewart eventually advised him to seek an alternative career path, because he felt Wilson’s 6ft 4in frame would hinder progress in single-seaters. Justin ignored him, switched to Formula Palmer Audi, scooped the title and with it the main prize, a fully funded drive in the FIA F3000 Championship. Three seasons later he won that, too.
He subsequently impressed Jordan with his performance during an end-of-season F1 test, but there was no room at racing’s top table and it seemed as though his career might stall as he moved sideways into the 2002 Nissan World Series. Minardi boss Paul Stoddart offered him a two-race F1 deal that summer, but Wilson proved too tall for the cockpit. Stoddart promised that the 2003 Minardi would be bigger, kept his word and Justin’s manager Jonathan Palmer launched a share scheme that raised sufficient funds to secure F1 graduation. The Minardi was only ever going to be good enough for a spot at the tail of the grid, but Wilson’s habitually brisk starts – and an eye for first-lap gaps, proof if ever it were needed of his inner racer – enabled him frequently to hold positions far beyond the car’s true potential (leastways until the tyre stops brought a reality check).
By mid-season Jaguar had swooped to sign him as a replacement for the struggling Antonio Pizzonia, but the partnership never gelled. In the background the team was courting Red Bull, as a future sponsor (rather than potential owner) that was trying to find a seat for protégé Christian Klien. There could be no place for Wilson in such a set-up and you could understand why he felt he wasn’t being given a fair crack of the whip, although he never complained. At the year’s end, with a solitary point to his name, he left F1 behind and set about building a fresh career in the States.
And that’s where he’d been based ever since. The records might show that he scored only seven Champ Car or Indycar victories (although he tasted success in sports cars, too, scoring an outright win in the 2012 Daytona 24 Hours), but he spent most of that time with unfancied teams. With Wilson at the helm, they became competitive and, occasionally, unbeatable. He had similar underdog opportunities for 2015, but spurned them in order to hold out for the chance of a seat with Andretti Autosport. Initially that failed to materialise, but it produced a deal for the two Indianapolis events and then an opportunity to contest the final five races of the season. It was in the fourth of these, at Pocono, that he suffered a serious head injury after accident debris struck him on the helmet. He died on August 24, aged 37.
In our final email exchange, a few weeks before his passing, he wrote that he was looking forward to a run of races with a top team and working hard to make it a permanent arrangement for 2016. Nobody would have begrudged him that opportunity.
Universally respected by rivals, Justin is survived by wife Julia, daughters Jane and Jessica, father Keith, mother Lynne and brother Stefan, a fellow racer. Our sport has lost a fierce competitor and an even better ambassador.