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Justin Wilson obituary: 1978-2015

Tuesday, August 25 2015

By MSV Chief Executive Jonathan Palmer:

Three weeks ago I was talking to a delighted Justin Wilson after his second place at Mid-Ohio with Andretti Autosport and now, barely believably, he is gone, due to an accident in which he was an innocent victim, having been hit on the head by debris from someone else's crash on the Pocono oval.

Justin Wilson was a quite remarkable driver.  From the outset I believed in his ability and potential for the very best reason - he had proved it.  I created Formula Palmer Audi in 1998 to provide drivers with modest funding a route towards F1 if they deserved it.  Equal cars, equally operated.  Justin's talent shone through - he became a dominant champion that his adversaries respected and won the unprecedented prize of a fully funded season in F3000.

JW1The simple career summary is that Justin won the FIA European Formula 3000 championship then achieved every driver's dream of racing in F1 with first Minardi and then Jaguar, before moving to the US where he established himself as one of the most highly rated drivers over ten seasons of Champ Car and IndyCar racing.  More career detail follows later, and it's worth reading.

When he was in even a reasonably competitive car, Justin was awesome.  Whether in FPA, F3000, F1 or Champ Cars and IndyCars, he could do great things.  Brilliant race craft and overtaking ability was his forte.  Even now I can remember watching the first lap of a Grand Prix when he was with Minardi and thinking he must have stopped on the first lap out of my sight.  But he hadn't - he'd just carved his way up to P13 or something from the customary Minardi back grid position and I'd missed him come through!

JW2But Justin achieved far more than just being a brilliant race driver.  He was the most outstanding human being.  Never have I known a more popular driver. With everyone - the fans, media, and team personnel.  But also with the hardest challenge of all - rival drivers.  Somehow Justin managed a steely determination in the race car with the most chilled, amiable disposition outside it.  He was hugely popular and he walked tall - in character as much as physically.

As his manager for over ten years, Justin was like a son to me and working closely with his father Keith we forged a great team, as together we created opportunities that Justin always made the best of.  Of course in motor racing there were plenty of stressful circumstances too, as we together tried to scale the perilous mountain of career ascent.

JW3When Justin Wilson won my first ever Formula Palmer Audi championship in 1998 it was the start of a wonderful journey and relationship with Justin and his family, during which he earned enormous respect as an outstanding racing driver and even more importantly a wonderful and immensely popular guy - a remarkable achievement in the competitive world of motor racing.

Justin won the very first FPA race at Oulton Park and went on to become a deserving champion that none of his fellow drivers resented.  And they could well have done, because the stakes had never been higher - we gave our champion a fully funded drive in F3000, the equivalent of GP2, and I commenced a 14 year period of managing Justin's career.

Despite the big performance gap Justin made the transition superbly, and driving for the Astromega team was one of the most impressive rookies at a time when F3000 was so competitive the enormous field of often 40 cars qualified in two groups for one of the coveted 26 grid places.  And Justin always made it.

JW4His performances inspired the Nordic team, which he joined for 2000, where he progressed well, finishing fifth in the championship with two podiums.  Nordic retained him for 2001 and their confidence in Justin was superbly rewarded: Justin totally dominated F3000 that season to be champion with three wins, six seconds and a third on his way to a record breaking 71 points.

Formula 1 was the goal for 2002 and Justin came close to joining Jordan after a test, but sponsorship issues meant a season in World Series by Nissan whilst we re-grouped for another assault on Formula One.

For 2003 we had a team that wanted Justin - Paul Stoddart of Minardi was a great talent spotter and saw huge potential in Justin, as he did with Mark Webber and Fernando Alonso.  Of course some funding was required and with sponsorship virtually non-existent we had to be innovative to raise the money to launch Justin in F1.

JW5Justin Wilson plc was the first ever public share offering in an F1 driver.  It was an enormous amount of work but in just two months Justin's father Keith and I led the team of accountants and lawyers to launch the prospectus on 7 March, just two weeks before Justin's first Grand Prix in Melbourne.  It needed to raise £1.5m - and we hardly dared think about how we'd fund it if the scheme failed.  But such was the faith in Justin, his popularity and the professionalism of the share offering, that it was a resounding success, with the shares being oversubscribed. 

Of course Minardi was an underfinanced back end team, so performance and reliability were challenging, but at least Justin was in F1.  And impressing.  Whilst Justin was performing very favourably against his experienced team-mate Jos Verstappen, Antonio Pizzonia was struggling at Jaguar, and so I negotiated a deal for Justin to move to Jaguar and replace Pizzonia mid season.  It should have been a great opportunity, but lack of any testing meant it was hard to match the experienced Mark Webber and already Jaguar were losing the appetite for F1 so reliability was poor too.  Nevertheless Justin took a season best of 8th in the US Grand Prix at Indianapolis.

JW6Justin had a contract to drive for Jaguar F1 in 2004 but increasing focus by Jaguar on maximising revenue meant they took a big cheque from Christian Klien instead.  With no opportunities in F1 we looked to the US and Justin started his Champ Car career driving for the Conquest team.  He adapted rapidly to a very different environment and showed his potential by being second best Rookie driver with a best of a 4th place.

This led to a hugely successful three year period racing in Champ Car.  Joining the new RuSPORT team, Justin was sensational, finishing third in the championship in 2005, second to Sebastian Bourdais in the dominant Newman Haas car in 2006 and again second to Bourdais in 2007. 

Newman Haas wanted Justin to join them in 2008 and we agreed terms for what should have been a period of total Wilson domination in Champ Cars.  Sadly it was not to be, as from the amalgamation of Champ Cars and IRL it was the IRL car that was kept in use for the 2008 season - and this disadvantaged the former Champ Car teams.  Nevertheless Justin still had some strong performances with a brilliant win at Detroit.

JW7Paul Newman's death and the deepening economic crisis meant drivers with funding were needed by the team and so we needed to look for pastures new for 2009 and Justin's move to the underfunded Dale Coyne outfit brought the team's first ever victory, at Watkins Glen.  On moving to Dreyer and Reinbold for 2010 Justin once again proved his talent with a second on the streets of St Petersburg, though 2011 with the same team was less successful and indeed Justin missed the last five races with a back injury. 

Justin moved back to Dale Coyne when the new Indycar launched in 2012, scoring a magnificent win at Texas Motor Speedway.  2013 saw Justin yet again punching above the little team's weight, and he finished sixth in the standings with seven top five finishes including four podiums.  2014 with Dale Coyne was less successful, though Justin still achieved a fourth at Belle Isle.

After a challenging few seasons, the future was finally looking bright again for Justin this year.  With his talent recognised by Andretti Autosport, he joined for a part-season and was impressing, qualifying sixth for the Indy 500 and actually leading two laps, though ultimately he got unlucky with full course yellows and pit stops.  Justin's final result of 2015 was his best for several years - a fantastic second at Mid-Ohio.  His season and career was blossoming once again...

JW8Away from the track Justin was always such a popular figure.  He was not just one of the lads but always a really fun and hard working one too.  Justin was an instructor on our PalmerSport events right back from 1998 when he was racing in Formula Palmer Audi, and continued to be part of the instructor team through his F3000 and even F1 years before heading off to the US.  We have the Wilson Suite at Bedford Autodrome named in celebration of his magnificent achievements.  The PalmerSport team have always been immensely proud of their luminary Justin Wilson.

The creation of the innovative and unique Justin Wilson plc share scheme provided the opportunity to move into F1 - but also at a price.  Justin would not be able to retain all the income his driving brought until ten years had elapsed.  Many would have soon become frustrated by the burden of being governed by a plc, but not Justin, who respected his investors and rewarded them with his attendance at every Brands Hatch AGM when his Stateside commitments would allow - and if not he would appear via a live link from the US. And when at Brands Hatch he would always chat to attending shareholders enthusiastically about his season and even drive some around the Brands Hatch circuit.

JW9I am absolutely devastated for Justin's lovely family, who were all so important to him.  His loss will be colossal to his father Keith, mother Lynne, brother Stefan, wife Julia and his precious daughters Jane and Jessica, to whom I extend my deepest sympathies.

For Justin to lose his life as an innocent victim is an absolute tragedy and it is vital that further work is done to progress motor racing safety.  It has been an enormous privilege for me to have been so close to both such an exciting race driver and inspirational young man who will forever remain an example to all racing drivers.  The world and particularly motorsport will be a poorer place without Justin but he leaves a legacy of being the epitome of a true sportsman.

Jonathan Palmer.