For the second time in as many months, the motorsport world is in mourning. British Indycar driver Justin Wilson tragically lost his life as a result of head injuries sustained in Sunday’s 500-mile race at Pocono.
The ex-Formula 1 driver was hit on the helmet by the detached nose-cone section of the Ganassi car of Sage Karam, who had crashed out the lead of Sunday’s race. Wilson was immediately airlifted to Lehigh Valley Health Network Cedar Crest Hospital with ‘severe head injuries’. He never woke and succumbed to his injuries a day later.
Standing at 6ft4″, Wilson was a prominent figure in motorsport and a much loved personality wherever he drove. Growing up with dyslexia, there would be plenty more hurdles along the way to a hard-earned, solitary year in Formula 1. Once claimed to be ‘too tall’ to be successful in single seaters, Wilson won the inaugural Formula Palmer Audi championship in 1998 before claiming the FIA Formula 3000 title in 2001.
This feat was a far distance from his upbringing in Sheffield and after a year of racing in the World Series by Nissan in 2002, Wilson finally made it to the top level, securing a Minardi F1 spot for the 2003 season.
In a poor car, Wilson had few chances to impress at the back, but his performances were good enough to catch the attention of Jaguar who had parted company with Brazilian Anotnio Pizzonia, who Wilson raced against in F3000 two years before.
He was paired with Mark Webber, and after getting to grips with the new machinery, he scored his first and only point at the United States Grand Prix at Indianapolis. A circuit he would return to many more times in his career.
That was because Jaguar had chosen to replace Wilson for the 2004 season, instead taking on Austrian Christian Klien, who brought substantial financial backing from Red Bull. Wilson was now an F1 reject, with just a single point to show for an immense talent and potential.
He ended up in ChampCar (formerly CART) with Conquest Racing. He raced the full season and showed enough speed to land him a competitive ride in the up-and-coming RuSport team for the following year. Despite failing to get the plum seat at the right time, Wilson finally showed the racing world his worth by taking his first win in the series in Toronto. He added a second by season’s end in Mexico City and finished third in the series behind Oriol Servia and title winner Sebastien Bourdais.
Bourdais was dominant in 2006, but Wilson finished best-of-the-rest in second. He took another win – this time in Edmonton, Alberta – and finished second five times, his most consistent season in the series to date.
More wins came in the following two years as Wilson made his Indycar debut as Champcar finally merged with its open-wheel cousins in 2008. Now driving for Newman-Haas-Lanigan, he took a popular win in Belle Isle, Detroit. His most popular win though came in 2009 when he took the unfancied Dale Coyne Racing team to victory at Watkins Glen, against the odds. Another, final victory came in Texas three years ago with the same team.
Justin Wilson was a fierce, honest and fair racing driver. Kind and humble, he was appreciated by almost every motorsport personality who had the pleasure of meeting him. Despite approaching his 40s, Wilson never lost his speed and this was proven by finishing second to Graham Rahal in Mid Ohio, the last race before his death.
He was also very versatile and competed in a handful of different categories, notably winning the 2012 Daytona 24 Hours alongside former ChampCar team-mate AJ Allmendinger. Additionally, he raced in FIA GT, Formula E, Le Mans 24 Hours and V8 Supercars in Australia.
Wilson will leave an irreplacable void in the sport, and along with compatriot Dan Wheldon, his death will be hard to accept and his life, even harder to forget.
All thoughts are with Justin’s family – his wife Julia, his two children and his brother Stefan.