On this earth there are great racing drivers. And there are incredibly nice people. But it is rare to find great racing drivers who are incredibly nice people. Justin Wilson was a fine example.
They called him “Badass” in the cockpit, because he was as fearsome a competitor you could ever find. But it was a jokey nickname too, because he was the most down-to-earth, mellow driver you could meet outside the car.
His lanky 6-foot-4 frame gave Justin that cute awkwardness (as a fellow ‘beanpole’, I certainly like to think of it that way) and his outwardly shy nature belied his inner Sheffield steel.
As well as being tall, he was dyslexic too. But he simply used the condition to spur him on. “I do think dyslexia has actually helped me,” Justin once told schoolkids in a visit to a High School at Indianapolis.
“It's pushed me to work harder in everything I do.”
Fast straight out of karts
I first got to know Justin right from his first years in racing cars, in 1995. He graduated to Formula Vauxhall Junior with a great reputation from karts, where his height had been a great disadvantage.
His season started late, after he’d broken his wrist in a pre-season shunt, but as soon as he joined the series he was bang on the pace. He had a natural talent to jump in a car and be quick straight away.
I also became quickly aware that he was fast-witted, as well as rapid in a racing car. He quickly cottoned on to my nickname (and referred to me as such ever since), and possessed a very dry sense of humour in his quiet way.
He didn’t find it funny, however, when Sir Jackie Stewart suggested in public that he was too tall for F1 and would “make a great touring car driver”. Wilson proved the great Scot wrong by winning the Formula Palmer Audi and FIA Formula 3000 Championship titles ahead of his single season in Formula 1.
When he got his big F1 break, a mutual friend told me: “Justin in F1 – that will be weird. I mean, just how is such a nice guy going to survive living in that paddock?”
But Justin proved he was nothing if not adaptable, and eased his way into the so-called ‘Piranha Club’ – albeit not for long as Jaguar took a commercially-led decision to jettison him at the end of the season.
Of course, fitting in a racing car was always a challenge too – especially one as shrink-wrapped as a Minardi or Jaguar F1 car. Again, you’d never hear Justin complain, just like his dyslexia, just like an unhelpful comment about his height, it was just another challenge to be overcome.
Big success in America
And his post-F1 career lay in America. The land of opportunity gave him the chance to showcase his skills at the top level once more. He won plenty of races in Champ Car, IndyCar and the Daytona 24 Hours, but he won even more friends, hearts and minds.
Annoyingly, his chances with the top-performing outfits never fell his way at the right time, but every time he got his opportunity, whether it was with a minnow like Dale Coyne or heavyweight like Andretti Autosport, you knew you’d get a wholehearted performance and a credit to your team.
Wilson also knew the stark dangers of IndyCar racing – especially on ovals. We spoke just hours before the start of the ill-fated 2011 finale at Las Vegas, ironically within sight of Turn 2 which would turn into such carnage later. He told me he was glad he wasn’t racing (which genuinely shocked me – he was, after all, a true racer) and predicted huge crashes.
As quick-witted in humour as he was, Justin was always as sharp as a tack. I walked away from our conversation with a deep sense of foreboding of what was to come.
Wilson also once mentioned that there were tracks that he would happily leave his hotel room in a mess on the morning of a race, knowing he’d be back to tidy it up later before checking out afterwards.
At other tracks, he’d pack away everything neatly before he left for the track, so it wouldn’t be too painful a chore for someone to collect his belongings if the worst happened.
But that was Justin Wilson, always thinking of other people ahead of himself. And now the worst has happened, leaving far more than a 6-foot-4 void in our sport.
The world has not only lost a great driver, but a fantastic human being who will be missed badly by so, so many of us.
This tweet from his brother Stefan sums up a great man...