Justin Wilson, 1978-2015


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Thanks to his qualities as a racer, Justin Wilson overcame the significant obstacle posed by fitting his 1.9-metre frame into the cockpit of a single-seater racing car.

He made it all the way to the top, arriving in Formula One with Minardi in 2003. Despite piloting the slowest car on the Wilson distinguished himself with rocketship starts and sheer grit.

He demonstrated both in the Malaysian Grand Prix, his second F1 race, where from 19th on the grid he propelled his Cosworth-powered car into an improbable eighth place by the end of the opening lap.

However shortly afterwards the straps worked loose on his HANS Device – a recently-introduced safety feature. Wrestling his car around in the Sepang heat without power steering, his arms increasing numbed by the loose HANS frame, Wilson plugged on in spite of the pain as long as he could. After 41 gruelling laps he headed into the pits: his arms were by now paralysed, and it took several minutes to extract him from the car and take him to hospital for treatment.

Flying starts became something of a trademark for him – he produced another in Spain, rising to ninth – but the shortcomings of the Minardi invariably limited his potential finishing position. However Wilson had done enough to impress bigger teams, and when Jaguar sacked Antonio Pizzonia with five races remaining they turned to Wilson.

His spell at Jaguar got off to a difficult start: a start-line crash ended his first race in Germany, and technical problems sidelined him at the next two events. With limited running in the team’s car he struggled to match the pace of regular driver Mark Webber, who Wilson had comfortably beaten to the Formula 3000 crown in 2001.

However in a rain-hit race at Indianapolis Wilson was at his best, getting his R3 as high as third before his tyres began to drop off. Eighth place yielded the single point of his F1 career.

By now Jaguar’s parent company Ford was beginning to complain about the cost of running its F1 team. For 2004 the team sought a driver with backing, which was bad news for Wilson, who had already resorted to an unconventional share issue scheme to raise the money to reach F1. Red Bull eventually stumped up $20 million to put Christian Klien in the car.

That spelled an end to Wilson’s F1 dream, but he was soon welcomed into America’s open wheel racing scene. Wilson was a major force in the final years of Champ Car, keeping Sebastien Bourdais and the top Newman/Haas team honest with his young RuSport squad.

For 2008 Bourdais had left for F1 and Wilson finally had a top drive. But the 13-year split between America’s two single seater series had finally run its course, and ChampCar merged into IndyCar. Racing a new car on mostly unfamiliar tracks, Wilson nonetheless followed up his four ChampCar wins with his first IndyCar triumph, at Detroit.

Dale Coyne could be compared to Wilson’s first F1 team Minardi in terms of the success they achieved in IndyCar racing. So Wilson’s victory for them at Watkins Glen in 2009 – ending their 25-year wait for a win – must rank as one of the all-time great underdog triumphs. Seeking to move up the grid he moved to Dreyer and Reinbold the following year, but it 2011 he injured his back at Mid-Ohio and missed the last seven races of the season.

Back with Coyne in 2012, he took his final IndyCar victory at Texas Motor Speedway: his first win on an oval. Earlier that year he also triumphed in one of America’s great endurance sports car races, winning the Daytona 24 Hours with Michael Shank Racing.

Wilson’s 2013 IndyCar campaign was arguably his most impressive, despite being win-less. Super-consistent points scoring for Coyne saw him end the year sixth in the points standings. But a disappointing 2014 season left him without a regular drive.

In 2015 Wilson appeared to on the verge of a break. He secured a part-time race deal with the top Andretti team, which also included a one-off outing for their Formula E team.

Off the back of a second-place finish at Mid-Ohio Wilson qualified seventh for the 500-mile race at the Pocono superspeedway. In a hectic, crash-filled race he had slipped towards the rear of the field when race leader Sage Karam hit the wall.

A piece of Karam’s car struck Wilson’s crash helmet, inflicting severe head injuries. Wilson was rushed to Cedar Crest Hospital in Allentown, Pennsylvania for treatment but passed away the following day.

Before his crash, Wilson’s performances for Andretti had raised hopes that a full-time return to IndyCar racing might be on the cards for 2016. The last time he saw the chequered flag, at Mid-Ohio, he finished in second place after an audacious pass around the outside of championship leaders Juan Pablo Montoya and Graham Rahal.

Remember him this way:


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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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19 comments on “Justin Wilson, 1978-2015”

  1. It’s been a heavy year, too many heavy crashes resulting in people in hospitals and sadly also worse. My thoughts are with all victims of casualties in motorsport and road accidents. A crash like this must remind us research and develoment for safer cars is never finished.

  2. It has been a very bad couple of years for motorsport regarding crashes and injuries. It just goes to show we can never take our eye off the safety ball.
    RIP Justin

  3. A month ago: https://www.racefans.net/2015/07/18/jules-bianchi-1989-2015/. Now this. What a sad summer
    I think we’ll see a minute of silence at Monza & Sonoma.

  4. Very sad news.. The other day when Guy Ligier died I felt that the sport had lost one of its good guys, but today we lose another great guy and a great racer. It’s just so cruel..

    Rest in peace, Justin. My thoughts are with his family and friends during this difficult time..

  5. Yes, lets remember him with that lovely pass in mind, thank for the article Keith. And thank you very much Justin Wilson for the great racing moments you gave us in your sadly shortcut life. RIP

  6. Evil Homer (@)
    25th August 2015, 15:26

    Very sad news!
    I was talking to a Swiss journalist in Suzuka in 2012 and he made the comment “its impossible to kill yourself in F1 these days!” I cringed at this comment- look at Massa in Hungary, Alonso in Spa and now this (not F1 but same point being made). All three incidents had very different outcomes to the driver but the same common denominator- a driver being stuck in the head by an object cant be fixed with how good the cars are with head-on or side ways collision chassis safety.

    I have left the Jules incident out as the above three are racing incidents where the drivers have little or no time to react, not when an object has no business on a race track.

    RIP Justin – thoughts with wife and kids!! Also to Guy Ligier!!

  7. I remember how far he went just to drive in F1.
    Almost passing out in his Minardi because of a seat belt or Hans issue, yet driving on in spite of the pain. He had the dream in his eyes.
    An unfortunate accident indeed.
    Sad for the family.
    Rest in peace.

  8. Goodbye Justin :{

  9. If Justin was an F1 driver the UK media would be in an unbearable frenzy right now.

    As I pause and reflect on that I think it’s probably more dignified that he competed in a, quote-unquote, ‘less important’ category.

    I have fond memories of Justin as I have with most drivers who raced at the tail end of the grid when I was growing up. This is sad news. Like everyone else my thoughts are with his brother and the rest of his family.

    1. @f1bobby hardly, it’s been all over the radio station sport bulletins – even Radio One had a good five minute segment explaining his career and what happened on their lunchtime show where they dwell deeper into sport.

      Yes, that’s right. He was enough of a star for Radio One to care!

      1. Oh come on if it was Hamilton would on BBC straght away. Ws not a single mention till atleast 4 am in uk on bbc and sky news.

  10. Peppermint-Lemon (@)
    25th August 2015, 20:12

    I remember Justin coming into F1, and the brilliant drives he did. I was gutted he was dropped by the embarrassment that was the Jaguar F1 Team, and was delighted when he carried on racing in the US. I had a tear in my eye this morning upon hearing news of his passing. RIP JW.

  11. The joy has gone out of racing again. From all accounts Justin Wilson was a really good person as well as being a fine racer. I was so glad to see him racing more this season in IndyCar when it looked like at the start of the season he might not even have a ride. I did read a news report that his donated organs saved six lives. Bittersweet.

    Things like this sometimes make me wonder why I love racing so much. Even racers probably wonder the same thing at times. This tweet from Tony Kanaan explains it better than I could.

    Tony Kanaan – Verified account ‏@TonyKanaan 18h18 hours ago
    Why do we do this? Because we love it, don’t want to be anywhere else but a race car. We will keep your legacy my friend. Racers race.


    1. Oh dear another vile day in racing. As @bullmello says “the joy has gone out of racing again”.
      Justin was lovely fellow who loved his wife and family very much. A worthy life cut short. We will all gieive for him privately.

  12. When i saw his head fall to the side of his cockpit on Sunday i almost instantly burst into tears. The images of Roland, Senna and Bianchi in near identical positions all came rushing back and something inside me just knew what was coming next.

    I had the pleasure of meeting him and was shocked by how nice he was to me…far nicer then some other drivers (particularly Nick Heidfeld) He was just such a gentleman and so so so fast. Mucher faster than people realized i think.

    I do have a question for the forum though. Have the last 2 British drivers signed by Andretti Autosport been killed shortly after signing? Dan Wheldon had just signed for the following season before his accident and now Justin…

    RIP Big man

  13. Justin Wilson supposedly saved 6 lives today through organ donation. If only half of this is true than it made my day.


    1. Yes, mine too.

  14. I met Justin at a Minardi 2-seater event at Rockingham back in 2003. First F1 driver I ever saw in person. I still have an autograph, and somewhere I have a wonderful photograph of him smiling as he signed it. I’ll also remember him for those epic first laps in that Minardi and his unlikely successes for Coyne. Rest in peace Justin. I’m going to miss you…

  15. The fact remains, as some pointed out back in 2011 after Wheldon was killed, racing open wheel race cars on ovals will always be one of the most dangerous aspects of racing. When asked, even the legendary Michael Schumacher declined the challenge of racing on oval tracks. His reasoning, it was too risky!
    I am all for enclosed cockpits, for anything that can help prevent another crash like the ones Dan Wheldon and now Justin Wilson have endured. But the speeds these Indycars are doing at places like Pocono and Fontana for example are beyond insane, pure and simple. Only a few months ago, current champion Will Power criticized the series for returning to pack racing, one of the main causes in Wheldon’s crash but not
    What is so hard to take is that we have been here before. Only last month we lost Jules Bianchi, and there was a debate on this site about enclosed cockpits. My solution would be to install a hatch on the underside
    of the car that both the driver or an emergency team could open incase the canopy became jammed, or if the driver was unconscious. The greatest tribute to these drivers and the their memories would be to put an end
    to this argument, one way or another.

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