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IndyCar Driver Profile: Justin Wilson

Editor’s Note: Open Wheel Wednesday has been pushed back one day for this week only. You can see your favorite IndyCar writers debate the latest topics in the sport on Thursday.

Driver: Justin Wilson
2014 Primary Ride: No. 19 Dale Coyne Racing Dallara DW12
2014 Primary Sponsor: Boy Scouts of America

Career Verizon IndyCar Series Statistics: 100 starts, 3 wins (Detroit, 2008; Watkins Glen, 2009; Texas, 2012), 11 podium finishes, 2 poles, 271 laps led.

Career ChampCar World Series Statistics: 54 starts, 4 wins (Toronto, 2005; Mexico City, 2005; Edmonton, 2006; Assen, 2007), 6 poles, 409 laps led.

Career Formula One Statistics: 16 starts (11 with Minardi, 5 with Jaguar), 0 wins, 0 podiums, 0 poles, 1 point. Best finish: 8th at U.S. Grand Prix (Indianapolis, 2003)

Career Highlights:
Winner, 2012 50th Rolex 24 at Daytona with AJ Allmendinger, John Pew, and Oswaldo Negri, Jr.
Second in ChampCar World Series, 2006-2007
2001 International Formula 3000 Champion

Biography:
Wilson was born in South Yorkshire on July 31, 1978 and was raised in Woodall, a small town of less than 2000 in Northern England, the son of a former amateur racer who had to give up the sport after suffering career-ending injuries prior to Justin’s birth. Like most open-wheel racers, Wilson started in karting at the relatively young age of nine. There, Wilson found some success, earning a fifth-place finish in the British Championship Formula A, the highest level of karting in England.

In 1994, Wilson graduated to a full-size open-wheeled racer when he entered the Formula Vauxhall Winter Series as a tune-up to a full campaign in 1995. Potential was shown when Wilson claimed a quick victory early on. Wilson’s form resulted in him being hired by the John Village Automotive team for the full 1995 season. He did not disappoint, earning four victories and finishing in a tie for third in points with Ben Collins. Collins today is a well-known sports car racer who also worked as the mysterious “Stig” on TopGear and recently released an autobiography about his life entitled, The Man In The White Suit.

1996 saw Wilson move to the main Formula Vauxhall Series in a car fielded by Paul Stewart Racing (Note: Paul Stewart is the son of Sir Jackie Stewart). The success continued with a win and a second-place finish in points to Peter Dumbreck. A second year, saw Wilson drop to fourth in the standings behind future Formula One driver Luciano Burti, but score two more wins and two poles.

1998 saw Wilson signed to race in the then-brand new Formula Palmer Audi (FPA). This now-defunct series was set up by former Formula One driver/TV commentator and current race track owner (via MotorSport Vision) Dr. Jonathan Palmer as a more cost-effective alternate to Formula 3. From Day One, the cars also had a feature on the 1.8 liter turbocharged 4-cylinder Audi engine that recalls Wilson’s current ride in the Verizon IndyCar Series. Each car was equipped with a turbo boost button that could be pushed a certain number of times per race for 60 extra horsepower. Sounds a lot like “Push-to-Pass,” doesn’t it?

In this case, it’s more like Push to Pass times two and change. The Audi engines provided to FPA put out 300 horsepower. Those 60 extra horses accessed via the turbo boost represent a 20 percent boost in overall power. Current IndyCar Push-to-Pass is similar in the amount of extra horses on tap, but the cars are putting out more than double the horsepower (700 or so on road courses). Therefore, it is nowhere near the game changer that it would be in FPA. Also of note, the cars were quite fast without the extra boost.

Here, Wilson came into his own, winning half of the 16 races and winning the championship with ease over current Aston Martin factory driver Darren Turner. Wilson is probably the most notable champion of the series. Other notables in the series included Bjorn Wirdheim (formerly in ChampCar), Ian James (currently in TUSCwith Alex Job Racing/Team Seattle), Damien Faulkner (currently in TUSC with GB Autosport) and Roger Yasukawa (formerly in IndyCar).

The FPA campaign opened some eyes at all levels of motorsport and for 1999, Wilson moved up to the International Formula 3000 Series. At the time, this was the final step before moving up to Formula 1 (The GP2 Series replaced it in 2005). Wilson signed with the Astromega team and struggled through a rookie year where he finished 20th in the standings. In fairness to Wilson, the class was stacked at the time. No less than nine drivers in the series that year eventually started Formula 1 races. In addition to Justin Wilson, Max Wilson, Bruno Junqueira, Nicolas Minassian, Franck Montagny, Norberto Fontana, Gonzalo Rodriguez, Enrique Bernoldi and Gaston Mazzacane have all made starts in American Open Wheel series (CART/ChampCar or IndyCar).

A move to the Nordic team for 2000 saw an improvement all the way to fifth in the standings behind Junqueira and Minassian (right before they were sent to Chip Ganassi in a trade by Williams for Juan Pablo Montoya’s services), Mark Webber and future World Champion Fernando Alonso. Wilson managed a second-place finish at the A1-Ring (now Red Bull Ring) in Austria behind Minassian and a third at Silverstone behind Webber and Darren Manning. A second year with Nordic saw Wilson go on a tear, winning races at Interlagos (Brazil), the A1-Ring (Austria) and the Hungaroring (Hungary), and earning seven more podium finishes on the way to the title.

All the way through feeder series, drivers race in spec cars in Europe. Those cars are designed to fit drivers of all types. However, since teams design their own cars in Formula One, they tend to be designed for smaller chaps. Even drivers of slightly above average height have severe issues with either fitting into race cars, or being able to get the most out of them. Jean-Eric Vergne’s recent hospital visit due to border starvation is a sad example of this.

The size issue was, and continues to be, an ongoing problem for Wilson, who is nearly 6’5”. It meant that he had serious trouble being able to ever fit in a car. Wilson’s first F1 test was with Jordan after his championship season, and it was a real struggle for him to even drive the car at all.

Normally, winning the Formula 3000 title would mean a near-guaranteed seat in Formula 1. Not when you’re almost 6’5”. Wilson’s height essentially made it impossible to get that coveted ride. As a result, Wilson spent 2002 essentially exiled to the Telefonica World Series by Nissan. There, he finished fourth in points and won Race No. 2 at Valencia (Spain) and Race No. 2 in Interlagos (Brazil). In addition, Wilson made his first foray into sports cars, racing at Sebring for Team Ascari in the team’s self-built Ascari KZR-1 Judd. The Ascari would finish sixth overall.

During 2002, Wilson tested for Minardi, but the size issues still kept him from racing, even when Alex Yoong was replaced for a couple of races. However, team owner Paul Stoddart liked what he saw. Provided that Wilson could provide 1.2 million British pounds Sterling, Wilson would get a race seat in Minardi’s 2003 challenger, the PS03.

An unusual tactic was devised to get the money. Wilson’s management created the Justin Wilson Investors’ Club, where members of the general public could buy shares in Wilson’s career. Approximately 900 people spent a minimum of £500 each to purchase shares. Once Wilson supplied the funds to Stoddart, the PS03 was designed so that Wilson could fit in the car and race. Wilson’s forte in the Minardi was a series of strong starts that would see Wilson drag the slowest car in the field up as high as ninth at times. Ultimately, his best finish with the minnow team was an 11th in Spain. Generally, he was just as quick as his veteran teammate, Jos Verstappen.

The pace in the Minardi led to Jaguar Racing signing Wilson away late in the season as a replacement for Antonio Pizzonia. Here, Wilson was the No. 2 driver to Webber. After three retirements, Wilson finished eighth in Indianapolis to claim his one and only point in Formula One.

Unfortunately, Formula One opportunities dried up after 2003 for Wilson. However, ChampCar came calling. First up was Eric Bachelart’s Conquest Racing team. Wilson was tapped to replace Mario Haberfeld in the team’s Mi-Jack-sponsored No. 34. The results were slow in coming as Wilson got used to the high-powered Cosworth turbos, but he gained momentum as the season continued. Eventually, Wilson finished the year 11th in points with a best finish of fourth in the season finale at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodridguez.

2005 saw Wilson move to RuSports, a newer team that had entered ChampCar just a year earlier, to replace Michel Jourdain, Jr., who had embarked on an ultimately unsuccessful switch to NASCAR. Wilson ended up teamed with AJ Allmendinger, then an up-and-coming talent. Here, Wilson’s talent bloomed. Over the next three years, Wilson would win four races and finish in the top-3 in points all three years. By the time ChampCar merged with IndyCar, Wilson was Sebastien Bourdais’ biggest threat on a weekly basis.

RuSPORT chose not to continue after the merger of ChampCar and IndyCar, dissolving at the end of 2007. Wilson, now a free agent, moved to Newman/Haas Lanigan to replace Bourdais, who had moved to Scuderia Toro Rosso in Formula One.

In IndyCar, Wilson quickly established himself as a road course specialist, winning at Detroit and finishing third in Edmonton. However, 11th in points was not considered good enough, so he was dropped. Wilson then moved on to Dale Coyne Racing, which had never been very competitive. On paper, it looked like a last-ditch effort to keep his career going. It ended revitalizing his career, instead.

Wilson earned his second IndyCar win at Watkins Glen driving Coyne’s Z-Line Designs-sponsored No. 18, giving Coyne’s team their first win after 25 years of trying. A series of other strong runs (third in St. Petersburg, fifth in Toronto and top-10’s at Edmonton, Sonoma, Chicagoland and Homestead-Miami Speed) resulted in a ninth-place finish in points.

Over delivering at Dale Coyne Racing earned Wilson a move to Dreyer & Reinbold Racing’s No. 22 for 2010. Z-Line Designs followed Wilson as well. Unfortunately, the results did not follow. While Wilson did earn second-place finishes in Long Beach and St. Petersburg, Wilson fell back to 11th in points. 2011 saw Wilson regress even more before an unusual injury ended his season. Wilson drove off the road at Mid-Ohio during practice and hit a bump in the grass. When the car landed, Wilson suffered a back injury that forced him out of the seat.

After recovering from the injury, Wilson returned to Coyne to drive the No. 18 Sonny’s BBQ Dallara DW12-Honda, replacing James Jakes in the car (Jakes moved to the No. 19, replacing the combination of Bourdais and Alex Lloyd). Since then, the team have rediscovered their former spark from 2009. Wilson won at Texas Motor Speedway and has earned five podium finishes since rejoining the team. Last season saw Wilson finish sixth in points, his best ever and Dale Coyne Racing’s best-ever points finish.

Off-Track:
Wilson has a younger brother, Stefan, who also races professionally. Ideally, DCRwould race both of the Wilson brothers full-time, but they currently do not have the financial backing to do so (hence Wilson’s current teammate, Carlos Huertas, who has a partial season deal thanks to his sponsorship from Café do Colombia). Stefan drove last year in Baltimore, finishing 16th in the No. 18 as a teammate to Justin.

Justin is married to his wife Julia and has two daughters. He splits time between England and Longmont, Colorado. Justin is an avid mountain biker and often takes advantage of the landscape for training purposes.

About Phil Allaway

Phil Allaway
Newsletter Editor for Frontstretch since mid-2008, Phil is responsible for the site’s Monday-Friday FREE e-newsletter that keeps fans up-to-date with the latest racing news, along with exclusive features and commentary. Our head news writer, Phil also doubles as our broadcast critic, keeping broadcasts honest for years with his Couch Potato Tuesday column. A writer for the Troy (NY) Record, Phil is also one of the lead reporters at Lebanon Valley Speedway in Pennsylvania every weekend during short track season.