In some ways, Justin Wilson should be content with his lot. Hugely respected by his rivals, admired by IndyCar fans, loved by the media…and one of those drivers who earns a wage and doesn't bring sponsorship. But, says RACER editor David Malsher, Wilson's results do not yet reflect his talent. It's time for this potential champion to have a ride worthy of him.
Earlier this year in RACER magazine's “Heroes II” issue (No. 250), we asked the IndyCar drivers for their racing idols, either when they were growing up or now. Justin Wilson selected Nigel Mansell not only for his ability but also for introducing him to the whole sport by coming over to race Indy cars. But Justin added, “I was always a big Gerhard Berger fan because he was kind of the underdog and no one really talked about him.”
Last Friday, Justin spent the day with RACER, primarily to test the McLaren MP4-12C Spider at Auto Club Speedway's road course at Fontana (report next week), but that evening, we asked him to expand on his selection of heroes, particularly Berger.
“Well, everyone's focus was on guys like Ayrton Senna and Nigel Mansell,” said Wilson, “but when I started to learn through the media how the various drivers are as personalities, what they're like to work with, what they're like as teammates, I really came to appreciate Berger and Riccardo Patrese. They were just good guys, got on with the job, no fuss, and on their best days they were as good as Mansell or Senna, weren't they? They'd have three or four races a year where they were just absolutely on it, when everything went right, and they'd win.”
It was hardly a surprise to hear that Mr. Wilson tends to support the guys who gets on with the job, no fuss. That could be his epitaph. But a couple of hours later, something struck me: I hope no one regards Wilson in IndyCar in the same way as F1 fans regard Berger and Patrese from the driving point of view – a very quick No. 2 driver who's occasionally great. Even aside from his height, Wilson stands in the shadow of no one in IndyCar.
Following the Grand Prix of Sonoma in which the lanky Brit finished second, Oriol Servia was here on RACER.com explaining again why he'd originally dubbed Wilson “Mad Dog” – the guy who you can't shake off. And Will Power is another who puts Justin right up in the top class. He once remarked, “I tell you, Wilson is the guy you do not want to see in your mirrors. You know he's not going to let you rest and if you make a mistake, he's gonna be all over you. But I suppose from another point of view, he's good to have there because he's fair and he knows what he's doing; he's not going to pull a wanker move and take you both out.
“Isn't it stupid that guy's never had a top ride?”
Ah, but he did…for one race. Remember that Champ Car finale at Long Beach in 2008 (ABOVE)? Wilson had taken over the Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing seat of reigning four-time champion Sebastien Bourdais, and rapidly discovered what he'd been missing for the previous three years at the very young RuSPORT team. That weekend, he set pole and was filling the mirrors of eventual winner Power when his engine let go.
Even though Bourdais' ace race engineer Craig Hampson took the year off and even though Power (then at KV Racing) would have doubtless been a frequent thorn in his side, it seems reasonable to assume that, had U.S. open-wheel racing remained split for one more year, Wilson would have won the final Champ Car title. Newman/Haas had been the team to beat since the tail end of 2001 and in only its second year running the Panoz DP01, the squad was already half a step ahead of the opposition.
“They had such a good baseline setup, and the car had so much overall grip,” Wilson ruefully recalled.
And have no doubts about the guy in the cockpit, either. I've never seen any evidence to suggest Wilson isn't at least on Bourdais' level. Graham Rahal, who spent the first two years of his top-level open-wheel career partnering the 2002 and 2001 Formula 3000 champions, goes further than that. Ask him who's quicker and his response is, “Wilson, no doubt. Bourdais is good if things are spot on, but when the car isn't perfect, he can't carry it like Wilson.”
And that's precisely the circumstances Justin found himself in for the bulk of '08, post-U.S. open-wheel merger. Newman/Haas was probably the best ex-Champ Car team to be with for the transition to the IRL Dallara, but Justin and race engineer Mike Talbot were still drinking from the fire hose, race in, race out, trying to learn the car's setup subtleties. However, they played it smart: knowing they didn't have a hope in hell of matching the likes of Penske, Ganassi and Andretti cars on the ovals, their modus operandi was to maximize the car's potential on the road and street courses.
Which is exactly what they did. The race results didn't always reflect it, but Wilson produced a series of consistently excellent qualifying performances that year, and finally he and Newman/Haas/Lanigan were rewarded with a win at Belle Isle. It would be the 107th and final victory for this legendary team, and it's still a source of pleasure to know that team co-owner Paul Newman was able to watch it on TV, despite being too ill to attend the race. He died less than a month later.
Wilson and NHLR went their separate ways at year's end when the money ran out and the team felt obliged to take a pay driver. Ever since, Justin has been cast in the underdog role, with Dale Coyne Racing (2009, '12 and '13) and Dreyer & Reinbold Racing (2010-'11). Famously, he scored Coyne's first road course win (Watkins Glen '09) and first oval win (Texas '12), and at DCR he's also formed a strong bond with race engineer Bill Pappas (with Wilson, BELOW) – another tall guy of huge talent who's overlooked by big teams.
Wilson has always been able to launch midfield cars into the front-running throng, and can be relied upon to show up anyone who's underperforming at Ganassi, Penske and Andretti. At the Glen in '09 and in qualifying at Toronto a year later, he beat all of them in a straight fight. And so the media have had cause to thank Wilson in recent years, because that sort of thing makes great copy and great TV. But isn't it time he was able to fight these guys on an equal footing and prove he's up with the best of the best?