In Part 1 we traced Wilson’s career from karting all the way to his Minardi days in F1. We pick the story back up in the summer of 2003 as Justin embarked on his Jaguar odyssey. Link to Part 1 >>
At the point of the actual team swap, Wilson had been aware that Jaguar did have an interest in him – he had even visited the Jaguar factory before Silverstone to test whether he could fit in the car, which was understandable for a driver of his height. It still came as a surprise to him that he would be replacing Pizzonia from Germany onward. Justin didn’t have to think twice about the offer – his old F3000 rival Mark Webber had already demonstrated the Jaguar’s potential with multiple promising performances. Stoddart also warrants some credit for the deal. He could have blocked the move, but chose to wish Justin luck instead, predicting that the partnership between his former drivers would work very well.
Wilson’s first competitive lap in the Jaguar.
Come the Friday qualifying, it seemed the lanky Brit had already adjusted to his car – his P7, just 0.3 seconds slower than an “immense” lap set by Webber, was seen very positively by the Jaguar head honchos. However, the qualifying proper was a struggle, and even Justin’s magic at starts ran short, as in the GP, he had nowhere to go in the first corner melee.
Then Webber started flying. Third fastest in Hungaroring Q1, repeating the feat in Q2 with a spectacular lap, and valiantly battling in the race to finish P6 definitely made everybody forget about poor old Justin, who was almost two seconds off the Australian’s one-lap pace. Wilson had another poor start and his anonymous race ended with an engine failure. Monza spat Webber back into the mid-grid, but that probably wasn’t making Wilson any happier as he was still 0.7 seconds off the Australian and then proceeded to fail to even move his car at the start as the Jaguar’s first gear was cranking up.
Come Indianapolis, and Justin’s hands were full with the ill-handling car all weekend. A lowly 16th in qualifying suggested no better prospects for the race, but the Indiana weather was to decide otherwise. First fooling some drivers onto wets during the early shower, the rain soon went away. So, when another light shower started spraying the track again during the first round of pit stops, most teams did not want to repeat the mistake, and chose to stay on the dry tyres – only for the rain to suddenly get heavier. That was good news for the top three, still yet to pit: Webber, Button and Wilson!
As Button and Wilson (and most of the others too) now opted for wet tyres, they were able to rejoin in the lead as Webber had already spun off with his dry tyres. Wilson soon had to forget about the podium, though, as he was already struggling with the car and couldn’t get his Michelins working properly in the wet conditions. Despite falling backwards in the order though, Wilson kept the car on the track, and when da Matta got a penalty for pit lane speeding, it was enough for Justin to score his first World Championship point for eighth place, two laps down. Behind them the only finishing cars were the poor Minardis, of whom Justin’s replacement Nicolas Kiesa was consistent and reliable, but much slower than Verstappen and never would even dream of causing the other cars bother the way Justin so frequently did.
The only role Wilson had in the season finale at Suzuka was being one of the cars Michael Schumacher rushed past during his hunt for the title. At the end Mark finished 13th and Justin 15th, which left the team with things to improve for 2004 – especially given that the big boys at Ford had started to question their F1 project’s future. Was it good business to spend hundreds of millions of dollars annually while making Eddie Irvine the third-highest paid employee in the entirety of the Ford Motor Company just to finish behind the Saubers anyway?
AFTER FORMULA ONE
“Justin’s speed, focus and experience are exemplary and our decision to put Christian Klien in the race car in no way reflects upon Justin’s clear ability as a competitive racing driver”. Jaguar’s Dave Brailsford may have been channeling his inner Ron Dennis while begrudgingly admitting that Red Bull logos appearing on the side of Klien’s Jaguar were not entirely coincidental – but for Wilson, the admission wasn’t of much help. Only Jordan and Minardi were showing interest in employing him for 2004, and the moment it became apparent that Wilson no longer brought in any funding at all, both turned their backs on the Englishman.
After his initially promising but ultimately disappointing year in F1, Wilson was now forced to reset his career sights. Like in 2002, he dabbled with sportscars, doing both the Sebring 12 Hours and the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Despite his relative lack of prototype experience, Wilson showed good pace in both races – even running as high as 2nd overall at Le Mans, before his Racing for Holland Dome-Judd was hit by mechanical gremlins.
Meanwhile, Justin had signed a one year contract with Conquest Racing to compete in the Champ Car World Series. Due to its ongoing war with the Indy Racing League, the US-based series may have been depleting in quality – but it was never going to be a walkover, for Conquest were certainly not the team to have in 2004.
Wilson, though, opened the season fairly promisingly with a pair of P6 finishes, followed by his oval debut at Milwaukee, where he was bitten by the very first turn and lost his front wing straight away. Similar was the theme of his season as it progressed – various mechanical woes and collisions with Paul Tracy dotted Wilson’s season of unluck. Having qualified in top ten in all but four races, running in top five in most races and out-qualifying his team-mates in all races but one, Wilson’s pace was seriously undersold by his total of no podiums and an 11th place in final standings.
RuSPORT owner Carl Russo saw behind the results, and signed Wilson up for 2005. With his new team-mate A.J. Allmendinger who had pipped Wilson to the Rookie of the Year honours in 2004, Wilson spent the winter topping the time-sheets, and hopes were high for the season. Having opened the season with a three-race string of P4’s, the RuSPORT boys seemed to find another gear at Portland. Wilson took the pole position ahead of Allmendinger and sprinted off to dominate the race – only for his fuel pump to break on lap 35.
Consolation came in Toronto. A race initially dominated by Sébastien Bourdais and Tracy turned around entirely when the bitter rivals clashed while exiting the pits. Wilson suddenly found himself on P3 with fresh tyres, a light fuel load and 28 laps to go. A quick pass on Alex Tagliani was followed by a perfectly-timed lunge on the inside of Oriol Servià.
(1:31:52) “That’s Justin….Justin and A.J., the best in the world, baby!”
Very soon after, A.J. crashed, causing a caution – but also effectively ensuring Justin’s (and RuSPORT’s) maiden Champ Car victory. As the season approached the halfway point, it appeared that Wilson had crept into the title hunt, with Bourdais and Tracy both still within his sights. At Edmonton, the RuSPORT boys again posted a one-two in qualifying. Entering the final restart with nine laps to go, Russo must have felt giddy – the “best in the world” were still one-two.
However, within the space of two minutes Justin dropped back due to spinning under a yellow, and then A.J. put it into the wall from the lead, allowing Bourdais to score an easy win, and continued running away in the championship by winning both San José and Denver too. Wilson had a strong race in Montreal to a P3, but the rest of his races were marred by inconsistency – until the final race at Mexico City, where Wilson was only four laps not led away from scoring a perfect grand slam. In the final standings Wilson finished 3rd, eventually losing out to the Newman-Haas drivers Bourdais and Servià, but at least beating the even less consistent Tracy.
The RuSPORT pair of Wilson and Allmendinger also became friends off-track and teamed up for the 2006 24 Hours of Daytona for Michael Shank Racing, finishing 2nd and proving Wilson’s worth in sportscars further. Prior to the 2006 Champ Car season, Wilson was considered one of the favourites to win the championship – however, in the first four races, Wilson’s respectable finishing record of 2-5-2-2 was overshadowed by Bourdais, who looked well on the way to his third title by winning all four races.
Before Portland, RuSPORT unexpectedly fired Justin’s team-mate Allmendinger, who moved to Forsythe and promptly took the next three victories, while Bourdais suddenly started looking human. Therefore, the 2006 Champ Car series developed into a three horse race between the consistent Wilson and the aforementioned part-time steam-rollers. As the series headed to Edmonton, Bourdais was still leading, but Allmendinger and Wilson were looming less than 30 points behind. Wilson started from fourth behind both of his title rivals, but passed Allmendinger during the pitstop cycle and made a clean pass on Bourdais, allowing him to grab his third ever Champ Car victory at a vital stage of his season.
But Justin’s traditional slump in form was beckoning, while Bourdais re-found his steam-rolling pace. He already had the title in the bag before the final round at Mexico City, where the duo traded the lead multiple times in a race ending in a final four-lap showdown, where the Briton did everything he could to defend from the Frenchman’s attacks – despite having a broken wrist and only honour at stake.
(1:45:00) Watch this battle.
At the end of 2006 Wilson married his wife Julia, but on the sporting side of things, it was a less pleasant time. Russo decided to concentrate on his businesses, so RuSPORT was sold to Dan Pettit and merged with Rocketsport Racing to become RSPORTS. Initially struggling to adapt to the new Panoz DP07 chassis the series had adopted, Wilson’s title hunt was over before it began. It took until Portland for Wilson to challenge for a win, and even there Bourdais got the better of Wilson in another straight battle, anyway. However, a late upturn in form and a victory at Assen eventually allowed Wilson to celebrate another 2nd place in the championship. Bourdais, though, was untouchable on his way to his fourth championship in 2007, which rewarded him with a seat in Formula One the following season.
Newman/Haas Racing saw Wilson as just the right man to fill their former champion’s shoes, and naturally, the Englishman became the odds-on favourite to win the 2008 title. But this time, it was politics that conspired against Wilson. During the 2008 off-season, the bickering Champ Car and Indy Racing League finally merged, in what was good news for most people – apart from the Champ Car survivors. The cars, the engines and even most of the circuits that were going to be used for 2008 were inherited from IRL, meaning that Newman/Haas were never going to be powerhouse they had been in Champ Car.
Justin was back at square one, left unable to demonstrate his skills in genuine top team equipment – apart from Long Beach, where the old Champ Car teams and drivers were given their one last farewell race. As a sign of what might have been, Wilson dominated that race, right until his engine expired of course. In all other races of 2008 they struggled against the IRL teams, far more experienced with the spec Dallara-Honda’s and especially the numerous ovals on the schedule. On them, Wilson found himself placing near the bottom ten more often than not, never finishing better than seventh. Wilson didn’t have a pleasant debut at the Indy 500 either, as his unremarkable race ended in a solo spin on lap 132.
However, on the few road courses on the schedule Wilson was at least able to remind the world of his existence. Finally, in the last road course race of the season at Belle Isle, a questionable blocking penalty to Hélio Castroneves gave Wilson his first IndyCar victory. In the final standings Wilson was 11th, the second-best Champ Car refugee only behind Servià, who was 9th. However, despite the relative success Wilson was having, the financial world entered turmoil prior to the 2009 season and so McDonald’s decided to downscale their Newman/Haas sponsorship. The young American Graham Rahal was preferred by the sponsor, which meant that Wilson now found himself without a ride!
Dale Coyne came to the rescue – but at first glance, they didn’t seem to be exactly the best lifeboat for WIlson to board. Like Newman/Haas, Coyne was also a Champ Car refugee, who had been fielding his cars for a staggering 25 years without scoring a single victory in the sport, and was facing the effects of the economic depression to boot. Wilson was to be his only full-season entry for 2009 – and even that, Dale was going to have to fund out of his own pocket.
Regardless of these handicaps, Wilson turned up at the season opener at St. Petersburg appearing confident, qualified P2, and spending most of the race day in the lead. Only 14 laps before the end, the Penske driver Ryan Briscoe was the latest of the late brakers and passed Wilson for the race win. However, despite the promising start, Wilson’s season went on to be more of a struggle, and he failed to score further good results – until July the 5th at Watkins Glen International.
There, Wilson started P2, hounded the leader Briscoe for the first laps, and executed a pass on him on the back stretch in a sweet revenge for what happened in St. Petersburg. It had taken Dale Coyne Racing 515 starts, but that day their driver was the hero, led 49 of the 56 laps and finally took Coyne to the Victory Lane. Considering that in 2009, Ganassi and Penske hoarded the 16 other race wins that season, Justin certainly produced the most classic David vs Goliath story imaginable!
(1:40:33) “It took too long”, the Illinois team owner remarked in the interview after an emotional celebration.
However, after the Glen, the rest of Wilson’s season followed a familiar note. His performances remained strong on road courses but anonymous on the ovals. In the final standings, Wilson finished 9th, which must have been better than what most dared to expect – but regardless, Coyne was struggling with funds and opted for two pay-drivers for 2010 instead, leaving Justin without a ride yet again!
Soon, Chip Ganassi hired him – but only for the 24 Hours of Daytona, where Justin’s team finished 2nd. On the IndyCar side, it took Wilson until February to clinch a deal with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, who were another low-key outfit. It didn’t hinder Wilson’s endless optimism, though: “I believe that we will be very competitive and my aim is to win the championship; I know that may seem steep but I feel that we have a very good chance”. Granted, the IndyCar calendar had more road course races introduced for that year – but considering that DRR’s only victory ever had been scored in their debut race back in 2000, and that Wilson still had a less than impressive record on ovals, the title objective did seem rather steep.
Anyway, the 2010 season began with four road courses, where Wilson finished a strong second place at both St. Petersburg and Long Beach. Having also improved at the Indy 500, where he even led towards the final stages of the race (albeit that was due to gambling on cautions and staying on track when others pitted), his respectable 7th place finish meant that he was still sixth in the championship after the Month of May ended. However, the other ovals in the schedule remained a struggle, and his season dwindled down, resulting in a 11th place finish in the standings.
2011 with DRR was not a good year for Wilson. During his time in America, Wilson had turned into more of a qualifying specialist rather than the race charger he used to be in the early stages of his career. The first four races were again on road courses, where Wilson scored four top six qualifying positions, but no top six finishes. Indeed, the best result he scored all season was a P5 at Edmonton, and his campaign ended early when he broke a vertebra in his back during Mid-Ohio practice.
“Strangest incident I’ve ever had”, described Wilson.
Hence, Wilson was merely a spectator at the fateful final race in Las Vegas, where Justin’s former karting rival Dan Wheldon lost his life in a gigantic pile-up. On the night before the race, Dan had told his friend Justin that he was “lucky” not to be racing that day.
After a break of six months, Wilson returned to the wheel in time for the 24 Hours of Daytona. His Michael Shank Racing squad spent the race battling for the lead with another Riley-Ford DP entered by Starworks Motorsport, gained the lead when the opponents hit minor trouble just a few hours before the end, and didn’t let go of it despite intense pressure Ryan Dalziel put on Wilson’s old friend A.J. Allmendinger during the final laps. After 24 hours, the margin of victory was only six seconds!
Oswaldo Negri, A.J. Allmendinger, Justin Wilson and John Pew celebrating the victory of the 24 Hours of Daytona in 2012. Photo: LAT Photographic.
DRR’s new Lotus engines seemed questionable enough that Wilson chose to play it safe and returned to Dale Coyne Racing, who had the Honda units for 2012. At Coyne, Wilson would also get to reunite with Bill Pappas, the engineer with whom Justin achieved the 2009 upset at Watkins Glen. Even though Coyne had some teething problems with setups, it was soon evident that Wilson had made the right choice – the few Lotus engines that arrived were rubbish!
On the second oval of the season, Texas, Wilson started from a lowly position, but climbed up throughout the attrition-riddled race. Smartly, he was taking special care of his tires and as the race was approaching the end, hounded the race leader Rahal. With only three laps to go, Rahal succumbed to the pressure, went up on the marbles and had a minor touch with the wall, allowing Wilson to shoot past to a wholly unexpected oval victory, certainly silencing doubts about his oval racing skills!
However, the rest of the season was again a struggle with no better finishes than 9th, but even this one highlight meant that Coyne was happy to keep Wilson for 2013 anyway. That season saw a consistent if unspectacular start for Wilson – best results being P3’s at Long Beach and Detroit and P5 at Indy. Wilson then entered a weaker patch, dropping him out of contention from the championship that was still wide open between multiple drivers, but a good streak of 2-4-3-4 finishes late in the season on road courses helped Wilson climb back up to 6th in final standings.
Slightly annoyed that despite the evident potential to fight for a title Coyne wasn’t ready to spend extra to take the final step, Wilson spent the following off-season hunting for a better ride – unsuccessfully. Perhaps fatigue and frustration were kicking in, as his 2014 was a season to forget, as despite some fine drives – such as Long Beach where he got taken out from the lead – he failed to score a single podium and only finished 15th in the standings. For 2015, Wilson kept hunting for other rides but none materialised, however only at the opener at St. Petersburg it became apparent that Wilson, tired of their economically-run racing operations, wasn’t going to be racing with Coyne either. On an open wheel career spanning over 20 years, it marked the first time that Wilson didn’t have a full time ride to open a season with.
In a 2015 interview, Wilson admitted to being frustrated with his lack of IndyCar opportunities, “I’ve spent too many off-seasons trying to find a new team or watching whichever team I’m with letting go of the good staff,” he said. “In my career, someone keeps hitting the reset button… and sometimes it’s me, out of choice! I’m not blaming anyone in particular. That’s the way it is.”, Wilson reflected on his career, and shrugged.
“But you know, maybe I’m stupid; there are a lot of drivers in my situation in open-wheel, and the smart ones eventually give up and go to sportscars. And the really smart ones switch early when they’re still young and get themselves good manufacturer deals in prototypes or GTs, like Oliver Gavin or Tom Kristensen”, Wilson continued.
Indeed, at this point Wilson was gradually turning his sights towards other categories than just American open wheel and endurance racing. Wilson entered the Moscow round of the inaugural Formula E season with Andretti Autosport, instantly scoring a point for 10th place; he also took part in the Aussie V8 Supercars invitational race at Surfers Paradise in 2012 – and as perhaps the most curious experiment, good relations with Honda also allowed them to hire the Englishman to enter the 2015 Pikes Peak hill climb event with a LMP2 car! Sadly, mechanical woes before the race proper didn’t actually allow Wilson to participate.
But despite all this, Wilson’s passion for open wheel racing never went away. In another 2015 interview, he was quoted to have been pleased to have reached F1, and while still annoyed that his F1 bid fell through, he said that later on he had grown to love the American version of open wheel racing almost more than F1.
“I don’t think I’d have dealt well with all the political bullshit in F1. I’ve always wanted to put my effort into driving and helping a team to move forward, not stabbing my teammate in the back!” (Photo: justinwilson.co.uk)
Hence, when Andretti Autosport offered Wilson a part-time ride for 2015, covering the Indy GP and the 500, he grabbed it with both hands and returned to the sport, performing impressively enough to land an Andretti ride for the last five races of the season. This deal was going to turn into a full-time ride for 2016. Even the actual results on track were looking increasingly bright, as Wilson grabbed a fine P2 finish at Mid-Ohio in the third-last race of the 2015 season.
Author’s note: The original version article was written in the summer of 2015 while the subject, one of the author’s favourite racing drivers at the time, was still well and alive. Understandably, it still remains difficult to think back to August 23, 2015, for it was where the story ended. But to complete the story, I feel obliged to make an attempt, however much it pales in comparison to the many obituaries written by those who actually knew the man in person.
The triangular superspeedway in Pocono, The scene of the second-to-last race of the 2015 IndyCar season, had already hosted two IndyCar races without much drama or pack racing, but the aero-kit changes the series had adopted meant that the 2015 race would develop an entirely different character. Following cars was very easy, and it was difficult for anyone to run away from the pack. The excitement was palpable as the cars went first four-wide, then six-wide, once even eight-wide at insane speeds in a never-ending battle for the lead.
Unfortunately, the nature and excitement of racing that day did not come without its dangers. There had already been several yellow-flag periods before lap 179 of 200, when the race leader Sage Karam crashed in turn 1 at high speed. Initially, the accident scene did not look very concerning, as there had been similar crashes earlier in the race. But when Wilson’s car veered into the barrier on the straight between turns 1 and 2, halted to a stop, and the safety crew faced an unconscious driver who had to be extracted from his otherwise undamaged car, things began to look alarming. The bad news did not break through instantly, so the race at Pocono was completed, but the post-race mood was grim. Mere race wins and championships had already lost their meaning before following day, when Justin Wilson was declared dead.
What made all this even more difficult to process was that Wilson was one of those drivers one would least expect to die in a racing car. A driver with a fair reputation wheel to wheel, rarely guilty of taking unnecessary risks, Wilson had not been involved in Karam’s accident either. He was busy doing the right thing, trying to slow down for the yellow flags. But debris from the crash had flown high into the air, and a piece of the American’s nose-cone fatally struck Wilson’s helmet. No blame was put on the shoulders of the young Karam – many much more experienced drivers had crashed in the same manner earlier. Considering the open cockpits, the nature of the pack racing that the ruleset of 2015 created and the frequency of the crashes, eventually someone in the IndyCar field was simply going to run out of luck.
Justin Wilson’s untimely death at the age of 37 left behind a grieving wife and two daughters, as well as a racing community who remembered the man very fondly. The obituaries unequivocally describe him as uncharacteristically nice for a racing driver. Off the track, Wilson’s understated humour, genuine ability to consider others and a knack to downplay his own achievements even when at Victory Lane made him lots of friends, especially in America.
It was indeed a testament to Wilson’s kind nature that even his death directly helped to save the lives of five other people – he was an organ donor. His death also played a role in IndyCar taking the risk of head injuries seriously, which most probably has indirectly saved and will keep saving lives: prior to the 2016 season, concrete moves were made to eliminate pack racing from superspeedways, and in 2019, the sport adopted the new aeroscreen to protect any more drivers from suffering Wilson’s fate.
Outside racing, Wilson had lived in Northamptonshire, UK and then in Colorado, USA, spending much of his time working with Honda’s charities and promoting awareness about dyslexia, something Justin himself suffered from as a kid.
Justin’s younger brother Stefan (on the right) is also an active racing driver. He has made four IndyCar starts, the first of which was in 2013 at Baltimore, where he acted as Justin’s team-mate. Photo: Getty Images.
The lone questionable aspect of Wilson’s otherwise spotless career remained the 900 shares in him that people bought back in 2003. Despite Palmer’s vague promises to return money as soon as Wilson “earned money while racing”, the shares quietly expired in 2012, ten years after the admittedly shady scheme kicked off. Wilson had indeed earned some wages while racing Stateside, but supporters only received a fraction of their investment back, up to 40%. This left some of the shareholders bitter and threatening with lawsuits – but, to be fair, most of them seemed to accept the “charitable” nature of the scheme and thus probably never genuinely expected any returns for their money.
Most of those 900 people participating in the fundraiser, including the likes of Murray Walker, just genuinely wanted to support the Englishman who was making his Formula One dream come true despite some notable handicaps. Very few in the racing world could resist wishing well for a man who was out there to demonstrate that even a nice guy without a lot of money can leave a lasting mark in motor racing – just as long as he has Justin Wilson’s optimism, determination and skill on his side.
The writer never met Justin Wilson in person, so it is only apt to end the article by letting the late Robin Miller describe the man instead. Rest in Peace, Justin and Robin.
CORRECTION: The original article mentioned that supporters of the Invest in Wilson scheme never received any of their investment back. GPR has since been informed by one of the investors that some money was indeed returned to supporters. We apologise for such an inaccuracy.
Sources: justinwilson.co.uk, minardi.it, racer.com, autosport.com, the-race.com, racefans.net, racing-reference.info, racingsportscars.com, independent.co.uk