Profile – Justin Wilson Part 1

Hailing from Sheffield, England, Justin Wilson waged an admirable fight against the power of wallet using determination as his weapon. Having finally faced defeat at the Formula One level, the lanky Yorkshireman took his skills across the pond instead and ended up building a long, respectable American open wheel career, which was tragically cut short at Pocono Raceway in 2015.

Nationality British
Date of Birth July 31st 1978
Date of Death August 24th 2015
Teams Minardi (2003), Jaguar (2003)
Races Entered 16
Races Started 16
Best Result 8th (United States 2003)

Justin Wilson 2013.jpg

Justin Wilson in 2013. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons

BEFORE FORMULA ONE

Most F1 talent is not over six feet tall and rarely hails from the northern part of England either. But Justin Wilson was born into a racing family, determined to prove the odds wrong. His father Keith’s racing career had concluded early due to an injury, but having inherited both talent and the passion for racing, Justin’s karting career advanced rapidly and soon took him far enough to face some of the best British racing talent of the future.

Check out brilliant karting action from 1988 as Wilson dices it out with Dan Wheldon, Jenson Button, and Anthony Davidson among others.

Wilson’s karting career did not produce much in the way of victories and titles, but improvement was to come after a promotion to Formula Vauxhall in 1994. He won the Challenge Cup title in 1995, which would earn him a move to Jackie Stewart’s son Paul’s team the following year. Despite being defeated by Peter Dumbreck for the 1996 title  and falling to fourth in the 1997 championship, Justin left a positive impression on his team bosses. However, the Stewarts had nowhere to put their exceptionally tall prospect anymore. Quoting Sir Jackie, “Justin was very, very good but he couldn’t have fitted in the Formula Three car at the time so we had to let him go. It was certainly not the right decision based on driving talent.”

Determined to keep chasing his Formula One dream anyway, Wilson went to Jonathan Palmer for alternative career advice. There, Justin learned of the new one-make, one-team Formula Palmer Audi championship that was being formed for 1998. He ended up winning the inaugural title with nine victories out of seventeen, and earned a Palmer-funded Formula 3000 ride for the Belgian team Astromega the year following! 

The 1999 Formula 3000 season started out promisingly for Wilson as he scored an impressive 6th place in his series debut at Imola, finishing immediately behind his third-year team mate Gonzalo Rodríguez. Wilson’s new “manager” Palmer instantly took the opportunity to market the name of his new star around, and soon enough, Team Astromega arrived at Monaco in the united colours of Wilson’s brand new sponsor that was the Benetton F1 team itself! Justin celebrated the occasion by spinning in qualifying and binning it in the first corner, while the Uruguayan in the other Astromega won.

Barcelona saw Wilson recover strongly. Having carved through the field early in the race, he ended up fighting the Brazilian Max Wilson who was intent on defending his P3. On the last few laps, Justin made his move and put his car on the inside on the main straight – just to see his fellow Wilson push him onto the grass going at full speed.

Just look at this display of dirty driving and nearly reckless bravery! You won’t be disappointed.

The Brazilian Wilson ended up in the sandpit with a stranded car while the Englishman managed to nurse his damaged car home to sixth place. Max would still attempt to put the blame on Justin, but the stewards naturally saw otherwise and disqualified the Brazilian for causing the collision. Anyway, with such a dazzling drive in only his third race, Justin had already made himself a name in the F3000 circles, but the rest of the season would be bleaker. A few disappointing races later, Justin saw an opportunity to demonstrate the size of his guts again. This time he did it by attempting a pass on Alex Yoong at Eau Rouge.

The scenes that followed were initially very concerning with Yoong remaining unconscious for 20 minutes. Fortunately, the Malaysian eventually made a full recovery from the injuries the 260kph impact caused, but it didn’t stop Wilson from receiving strong criticism for the collision in any case. Another accident at the final race in Nürburgring meant that Justin’s downward-sloping season ended with mere two points in ten races against his team-mate’s tally of 27 – but those who had been keeping a close eye on the early part of the F3000 season had noticed Wilson’s talent anyway. Autosport, for instance, ranked him the tenth best driver of the season.

Post-season, Astromega lost their Benetton sponsorship, and Justin was off to Nordic Racing for 2000. Wilson found his pace in the second race at Silverstone, both qualifying and finishing third to score his maiden podium. The next few races, though, were marred by mediocrity and Franck Montagny, who spectacularly collected a spun Wilson at Nürburgring and then beat him in a battle for P6 at Monaco. 

Throughout the F3000 season, Wilson’s form ebbed and flowed, with a P2 at Austria as the clear highlight. At the end he finished a very respectable fifth in the final standings, in a stark contrast to his team-mate Kevin McGarrity who only scored points once, and so Wilson earned a contract extension with his team. Mid-season, the team had found a new sponsor in the form of Coca-Cola’s Central European branch. They upped their involvement with the team for the 2001 season, became the primary sponsor and inserted a Czechman to drive the second car, in the name of Tomáš Enge.

Preparing for their third year with the Lola-Zytek B99/50’s, Wilson and Enge were both expected to challenge for the 2001 title – though Mark Webber, about to begin his sophomore year in F3000 was considered the title favourite, having just joined the F3000 powerhouse Super Nova Racing. But none of their strong performances in pre-season testing could prevent an all-Brazilian top four in the opening qualifying at Interlagos in front of their home crowd, with Justin only reaching P7 on the grid.

The said Brazilians went on to organize a royal screw-up amongst themselves. Firstly Ricardo Sperafico met the wall in the first corner, and then Antônio Pizzonia, Rodrigo Sperafico (and Enge) passed the pole sitter Jaime Melo under safety car conditions, resulting in penalties. Wilson happily took his chance and comfortably led the remainder of the race for his first victory in F3000. 

It must have been that Justin was a great fan of Vittorio Brambilla. In a sad coincidence of fate, the Monza Gorilla passed away less than two months after – perhaps he had seen a fit successor of his to join the motorsport fraternity…

A couple of races later, at the A1-Ring, Justin again inherited the lead not thanks to his own doing, as the three leaders took themselves out in a silly first corner pile-up. Another ten-point haul allowed Wilson to open a bit of a gap in the standings, with 25 points to his team-mate Enge at 18. Meanwhile, Webber had been having an unlucky start to his championship campaign, but the Australian’s victory at Monaco over Wilson, who had trailed him all race, allowed the three-way title fight to tighten up. 

At Magny-Cours, Enge astonishingly beat Webber and Wilson to pole by over half a second. Less than astonishingly though, Enge failed to convert his qualifying dominance into a decent race start, allowing Webber to easily win ahead of the Nordic Racing pair. Enge then made a small error on the final lap: Justin took his chance to maneuver through and clung on to the points lead. 

This was the beginning of the end for the Czechman’s title hunt as he could only score seven points from then on, making way too many mistakes even if he was often the fastest man on the grid. Webber, on the other hand, again started to get involved in accidents towards the end of the season. Meanwhile, Justin Wilson found his form. The last five results of the season read 2nd, 2nd, victory at Hungaroring, 2nd, and 2nd – meaning that Britain’s first (and only) F3000 champion eventually broke all previous dominance records in F3000 with a staggering 32 point gap to Webber and Enge!

In the decades prior, such a dominant F3000 title would have been a certain ticket towards a mid-pack Formula One ride at least. However, times had changed, and instead of the F3000 stalwarts, team managers who weren’t looking for money were looking to find their wunderkind straight from the lower categories. Wilson became a victim of this development, too. In his first F1 test, with Jordan in September, he fared well but eventually got pipped out of the ride by the British F3 champion Takuma Sato. What role the Honda engines that Eddie was keen on keeping in his cars had in this decision is anyone’s guess. 

Settling with a World Series by Nissan drive for 2002, Wilson understood that the only way to progress further on the open-wheel ladder was cold hard cash. Justin sent Palmer on his way trying to seek for new ways to obtain some of that. Meanwhile. Wilson’s season in the World Series by Nissan wasn’t particularly stellar. Of the 18 championship rounds Wilson only won two, which resulted in Ricardo Zonta running away with the title, and in getting soundly beaten by his French team-mate Franck Montagny too. 

It was evident Justin’s heart wasn’t fully in this campaign, as he was also dabbling with sportscars, taking part in the 12 Hours of Sebring with the Ascari squad. After some initial struggles, the all-debutant squad also consisting of Christian Vann and Ben Collins did well to bring their LMP900 car home in 6th place . Then in F1, Yoong’s Minardi seat opened up for two races, and it was Wilson who was first invited to the seat-fitting at the factory – only to find himself too tall to fit in the car and see his karting rival Anthony Davidson land the opportunity instead. Wilson also had a try-out test already set up with the CART powerhouse Newman/Haas Racing for later, yet that was soon to be forgotten when Justin’s career took another surprising turn.

The Minardi boss Paul Stoddart stuck his neck out in December of 2002, loudly announcing that he thought Wilson was really, really promising and that he really, really wanted him in his Minardi car for 2003 to keep up with their “tradition of having a star a year” – and to be fair to the Australian, he was not guilty of over-selling the seat. In 2001 and 2002, the same opportunity had already worked out so well for first Fernando Alonso’s and then Mark Webber’s careers. 

All Justin needed to get this chance of his lifetime was to find a bit of funding! The Wilsons were even briefly considering selling Keith’s garage business in order to fund the seat – and that was when Jonathan Palmer rushed in with another idea. As they were an estimated £1.2 million short of the required sum of around £3.5 million, Palmer promptly put together a ground-breaking “Invest in Wilson” crowdfunding scheme where anyone could buy shares in Britain’s new F1 talent for a minimum of £500, promising that they could get double the money back should Justin start make enough money from the lucrative salaries in F1. The program ended up getting oversubscribed and raising nearly two million dollars from the over 900 shareholders in Justin Wilson PLC, which was all used towards securing the 2003 Minardi seat. 

FORMULA ONE

Prior to the 2003 Formula One season, Stoddart was bullish in discussing his team’s chances with Wilson and Jos Verstappen. Thanks to the new Ford engines, Stoddart went as far as predicting that his team could fight for the 7th place in the constructors’ championship. Still, their funding was tight as always, and Minardi could only do little testing prior to the opening weekend, which led to the team abandoning their runs in second qualifying in order to be permitted to modify their cars for the race itself.

Wilson in the Minardi PS03. Source of the photo: minardi.it

Wilson in the Minardi PS03. Photo: minardi.it

Notorious for being harsh on debutants even in dry conditions, Albert Park chose to make itself even more difficult for the 2003 rookies by introducing them to the Melbourne weather. At the start, the track was still damp after a drizzle earlier in the day. Most of the field chose to start with intermediates – but Wilson went against the popular choice, gambled on dry tyres at the start, kept his head cool and took a careful start from dead last. As the dry-spec Bridgestones steadily found heat and performance, Justin would find himself on P12 after only a single lap, and on P9 after the second! 

Naturally, he couldn’t retain his position for too long, but kept his Minardi between the white lines anyway – showing favourably against his fellow rookies da Matta and Firman who managed less than 10 laps before self-inflicted retirements. A problem with the radiator caused an early retirement for Wilson, too, but it was a respectable showing nonetheless.

Like in Melbourne, Verstappen had the upper hand again at Sepang qualifying, leaving Wilson ahead of only Ralph Firman’s Jordan on the grid. And again it was Wilson who turned the tables in the race with his bullet start. Taking advantage of the crashes of the front runners, Justin barged through the field and soon found himself on P8! This was again quite short-lived for Wilson and his slow Minardi, but they were still onto a good result – until about 20 laps in when he started feeling uncomfortable and experiencing pain in his shoulders. Wilson didn’t know what was wrong, and no attempts to stretch his arms to make it better were successful. Then he managed to flat-spot his tyres to add to the pain. “Such incredible vibration that your vision goes blurred”, Wilson recalled. “Anything above fourth gear I could just about make out the edge of the track. Everything else was impossible, just a blur of colour”. Wilson fought on for 42 laps, but finally succumbed to the fatigue and was forced to retire. Later on, the cause of the pain was found to have been ill-fitting seat belts, which had slipped off and made the driver’s shoulders take on all the weight from the bumps! The poor Briton felt devastated, having lost a potential top ten position over such a basic error.

Any readers somehow unaware of the happenings during the unforgettable 2003 Brazilian Grand Prix should now stop reading and look to find the full replay of the race to avoid spoilers. In any case, reject aficionados are likely to remember Stoddart’s claims that had Verstappen kept it on the track, he would have taken the win for Minardi over the eventual winner Giancarlo Fisichella – what is less remembered that it was only decided by coin toss that Verstappen, not Wilson got the full tank strategy. In any case, in the race Wilson was running well in the lower midpack yet again, but ended up becoming the first of the many victims at Curva do Sol by having a harmless spin there. 

Briefly, Wilson looked like getting going again, but a problem with the anti-stall system ended his race short.

For the Minardi team, the home race at Imola race was a dismal effort as both cars started from the pitlane and Justin had to retire due to a malfunctioning refuelling machine, but things came together in Barcelona again. In a classic Wilson fashion, he took the full advantage of the first lap mayhem ahead of him, got up to P9 and formed quite a train behind, allowing through none of Fisichella, Webber and Coulthard. The Minardi man held on to his position until his first pit stop on lap seventeen. Eventually, Wilson finished 11th, two laps down – but well ahead of last-placed Verstappen.

During the next couple of races it started to become increasingly evident that Minardi’s hopes of making a step into the midfield were more like dreams. To add to the clouds over Wilson’s skies, Verstappen began finding speed as the season wore on and started to be the more impressive Minardi in quali trim. However, he continued to suffer from bad luck in races. Whereas Verstappen had his launch control fail in Austria, a safety car allowed Wilson to leapfrog himself ahead of several cars and momentarily find himself on P9 – only to finish two laps down and last at the end. Fuel vaporization problems led to an early retirement in Monaco for both Minardi cars, but Montreal saw another trademark strong first lap from Wilson – this time it was from P18 to P13. In the traditionally attrition-filled race, Justin was on the way to finish ahead of Verstappen, who eventually finished 9th. However, with only eight laps to go, Justin’s car got struck by a gearbox failure. 

At the European GP, Wilson and his team-mate trundled around to finish 13th and 14th, two laps down. However, Minardi’s weekend at Magny-Cours began more promisingly. On the Friday qualifying they scored P1 and P2 with Verstappen lapping the track slightly faster than Wilson. Both cars were nearly three seconds quicker than the third-place-man Ralph Firman in his Jordan. The reigning World Champion, Michael Schumacher, was no match for the Minardis that day as his time was six seconds slower than theirs.

Perhaps, the qualifying format that day allowed the cars last championship standings to get the driest track. Granted, it may have impacted the result slightly. Yes, the Friday qualifying in 2003 only served to set the order for the Saturday qualifying proper. Indeed, Wilson had his lap-time later deleted for his car being underweight. But it was all very funny, regardless. #bringbackonelapqualifying

However, the Saturday qualifying and the race weren’t much to write home about either due to both cars hitting technical gremlins, and Silverstone was the same old story again – except with the twist that this time it was only Justin’s Minardi that had troubles with the fueling system. However, the misfortune of getting beaten to the flag by Verstappen wasn’t going to bother Wilson for very long, for the head honchos over at the Jaguar Racing garage were finally growing tired of the pointless Antônio Pizzonia…

To be continued!