Justin Wilson: before America

Indycar

It’s business as usual at Motor Sport this week. The new issue has gone on sale, featuring a warm appreciation of our cover star Stefan Bellof by those who knew him well, and we’ve launched the sports car category for the 2016 Hall of Fame following the recording of a fun podcast in which we picked our dozen heroes for you to choose from in our new public vote format.

Yet despite the usual buzz and hubbub, there’s a shadow we just can’t shake. Justin Wilson’s death from injuries sustained in the Pocono IndyCar race knocked the wind from our sails, just as it has, I’m sure, for many of you.

Tributes have been heartfelt and great in number, which is no surprise because Justin was an extremely popular man on both sides of the Atlantic. Forgive me, but I can’t let this opportunity pass to add a few thoughts of my own – particularly as it’s hard to think about much else right now.

Before I go any further, I won’t pretend I was a close friend of Justin’s – that would be disingenuous. First of all, I’m uncomfortable with the concept that journalists should get too close to their subjects if they want to avoid compromising genuine neutrality. Secondly, I can’t remember the last time I spoke to him face to face, but it was probably 10 years ago.

I knew and wrote at some length about him before he went to America, through Formula Vauxhall, Palmer Audi and Formula 3000. Despite my personal ‘line’ on what constitutes friendship in its true sense, naturally in life you get on better with some than others – and in Justin’s case it was impossible not to like him immensely.

I wouldn’t say he was always easy to deal with because he was so painfully shy, particularly early on. But I remember making it a personal mission to engage him in conversation in paddocks as often as possible because I had a hunch that if we struck up a rapport I’d be rewarded by getting to know a terrific bloke behind the awkward ‘beanpole’ racer – and consequently he’d talk to me more openly about his performances.

That’s how it turned out. By the time he made it to F3000, paddock conversations were always easy. Like all of us, as he was getting older he was becoming more comfortable in his skin.

Wilson’s dyslexia was a significant contributor to his lack of confidence in the limelight, a characteristic only accentuated by his six foot four inch frame. The height thing was always a pain for him, sometimes literally in cramped single-seaters, and it dogged his career from the beginning. I well remember the Silverstone British Grand Prix meeting where he was competing on the undercard for Paul Stewart Racing, when word went around that Jackie Stewart had said in an interview broadcast over the PA that Justin ‘would make a good touring car driver’. What a blow that was.

But he wasn’t interested in saloon cars. He wanted to race in Formula 1, in single-seaters, and that single-minded focus clearly remained beyond his too-short Grand Prix career. In America he did of course win the Daytona 24 Hours, in 2012, but he never gave up on open-wheelers despite the setbacks that peppered his IndyCar career. It would have been easier to switch full-time to endurance racing and make a decent living, but that wasn’t the path he’d set out on when he became the first 16-year-old to win a single-seater race in the UK in 1994.

Finally, with Andretti Autosport, it appeared he’d landed the top drive he deserved, at the age of 37. That he’ll never have a chance to discover what he could make of it is one small part of the tragedy.

Back in 1998, I recall noting how he’d quietly disregarded Stewart’s well-intended suggestion of what he’d do next. Wilson signed up for the new Formula Palmer Audi series – and I subsequently watched him dominate the first round at Oulton Park. The lad was shy, but there was no lack of self-belief.

Quite right, too. As others have written this week, Justin Wilson had fantastic natural ability. His lightning starts became something of a signature, as did his racecraft. There was never anything awkward about his approach to slicing past a rival, and in that year of Palmer Audi he was clearly the best in a quality field that included Darren Turner and the underrated Justin Keen.

Jonathan Palmer had seen enough, and along with the incredible prize of a paid-up Formula 3000 drive offered him a management deal. Justin and his dad Keith made the right call in accepting Palmer’s offer. Now he had a relentless force in his corner who would push in the manner required to land drives and raise the budgets he always lacked. The novel scheme that would make Justin a public company was a typically ground-breaking solution for Jonathan to keep Justin on track.

My best memories are from his F3000 title year in 2001, when he strung together the consistency of performance so many before him had failed to find. He’d become the only Brit to win the series, despite the talents who’d passed through its ranks before him.

Derek and Chris Mower’s Nordic Racing had never got anywhere near an F3000 title before. But in the team’s second year with Justin, the combination just clicked – beautifully. The first race that year was down at Interlagos, supporting the Brazilian Grand Prix (and adding unwelcome long-haul travel to stretched F3000 budgets). When Justin crossed the line to win, both arms punched the air in delight – and he spun off at the first turn. We never let him forget his ‘Brambilla moment’.

It was one of the few mistakes he made through a season in which he scored three wins from 12 races. So did Super Nova title favourite Mark Webber, but Wilson’s string of six runner-up finishes eclipsed the Aussie. Their mutual respect and Webber’s upfront admission that he’d been beaten fair and square were pleasing aspects of a feel-good season.

As the year progressed, I became convinced that Wilson was doing enough to justify at least a shot at F1 – although there was a perception he’d always be overlooked, largely because of his height. It became something of a campaign to force the F1 teams to look at him. I remember organising a (cheesy) photoshoot at the Nürburgring, with a glum Justin sitting crossed-legged outside the paddock turnstiles to emphasise his frustration. Palmer loved the idea. Justin was a bit embarrassed, but played his part in good spirit.

Of course, when he did get his chance, with Minardi, he didn’t fit the car. OK, the height problem was genuine! But thanks to Paul Stoddart, the plain-speaking Aussie who’d bought the team and showed a genuine willingness to give people a chance, he’d finally graduate – and fit a larger cockpit – in 2003.

When Jaguar signed Justin, I phoned him and convinced him to meet our photographer at a local dealership to capture a news image of him beside the leaping cat logo. Many drivers would have told me where to go and it’s hard to imagine such a thing today. But again Justin obliged, willing to do what was required to help.

At Jaguar, the F1 dream turned sour. His performances were not quite good enough, especially when Red Bull was on the verge of taking over the team and had its own agenda and drivers to support. America beckoned, and my regular contact with Justin petered out.

Still, I followed his stuttering IndyCar career from afar, noting how his talent would shine whenever he had the chance to show it and also how highly regarded he was among his peers – just as in Europe. And I laughed when he won in Texas and had to pose in a daft cowboy hat. He was the least likely racing driver to pull that look off… and as for the ironic nickname of ‘Badass’ that he’d earned – perfect.

I was pleased to learn he’d married (I’d always got the impression he wasn’t exactly a ladies man) and had become a father of two girls. As a parent myself, it’s his daughters who have played on my mind most this week.

Since the news on Monday, the world has kept turning. Headlines about Justin’s organ donations saving six lives and his family’s dignified request for charitable donations in lieu of flowers (see below) have followed. Then there was IndyCar’s drive across San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, which was a lovely tribute.

Solutions to create better head protection for single-seater drivers are back at the top of the safety agenda, and to be honest I’m still trying to decide how I feel about them. Fighter pilot-style canopies create more problems than they solve, but I guess the y-shaped bars concept might work. The problem is I struggle with the dilution of what single-seater racing has always been about, but that might be my failing. It feels callous to come out against such change right now and we’ll see where the debate takes us.

On that subject, check out Stefan Bellof on the front cover of the new magazine, in his Tyrrell from 1984. The low-slung cockpit and hint of swept back sidepod leave him so vulnerable, so exposed. The photo was taken 31 years ago, but it almost feels like the dark ages from what he have today. Drivers are infinitely better protected – but sometimes even now that isn’t always enough.

Justin Wilson’s family has requested that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Wilson Children’s Fund care of INDYCAR

Wilson Children’s Fund
C/O INDYCAR
4551 West 16th Street
Indianapolis, IN 46222

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