DiZinno: Justin Wilson’s enduring legacy, positive spirit loom as large as his frame


It’s more than an hour after the checkered flag at this year’s Milwaukee IndyFest. It’s been even longer since Justin Wilson’s engine went up in flames, with a late-race mechanical failure sabotaging what could have been a runner-up finish to old Champ Car sparring partner Sebastien Bourdais at the classic one-mile Milwaukee Mile.

Most drivers would have been out of the premises by then. But not IndyCar’s gentle giant, fast giraffe, and benevolent badass. Pick your nickname de jour.

Wilson, who’s still there at the Andretti Autosport transporter and still in his firesuit, tells me he’ll get to my relatively inane and pointless questions about the race as soon as he fulfills the wishes of a couple kids standing outside awaiting an autograph and a picture.

He walks outside and the smiles surpass the sunshine on that Sunday afternoon.

He makes their day, and I’m happy to wait the extra few minutes for him to answer my questions.

“So, the sad saga of Justin Wilson’s 2015 rolls on, because it’s Bourdais-Wilson 1-2 like old times and of course the motor seizes up. What was it exactly that knocked you out?” I ask, as Wilson laughs and chuckles noting how he’s happy to be in this position even after a failure to finish.

The DNF comes as a microcosm of Wilson’s 2015 season.

Wilson’s 2015 season comes as a microcosm of Wilson’s North American open wheel career.

Opportunities dashed throughout, but still with an enduring smile and a persistent positivity that provides an uplifting spirit in the paddock.


You see, Wilson was never meant to become a star in North America to begin with. The Sheffield, England native could have emulated some of his countrymen as Formula 1 stars, as eventual World Champions.

He emerged as champion of a crowded F3000 field in 2001 that also included these names: Mark Webber, Tomas Enge, Sebastien Bourdais, Antonio Pizzonia, Giorgio Pantano, Patrick Friesacher, Stephane Sarrazin and Zsolt Baumgartner. And those were just the eight other drivers on that year’s grid who made it to F1.

Wilson made his Grand Prix debut with Minardi in 2003. Photo: Getty Images

Wilson did too, but only after investors pulled out the stops to ensure the lanky 6-foot-4 driver would eventually have a seat on the grid.

When he did, it was with Minardi, the team with the fewest level of resources on the grid.

The legend of Justin Wilson was born from the moment he made his Grand Prix debut in 2003.

Wilson’s on-track trademark carried throughout the last dozen years was his tendency to outperform less than stellar machinery. His only point? It came with Jaguar, the team now known as Red Bull.

Throughout it all, he never made excuses, never threw his team under the bus, and yet always persevered.


Wilson immediately made waves in Champ Car. Photo: Getty Images

He did it in Champ Car from his arrival in 2004, with a similar underdog in Conquest Racing. Armed with a less-than-stellar package, Wilson was qualifying in the top-five on a regular basis. The fact he only had two top-five finishes wasn’t an indictment of his ability; it just spoke to bad luck.

Once at the better-financed RuSPORT team in 2005, the results finally came. His first podium was a win at Toronto that year, which was somewhat overshadowed in the face of an on-track dustup (one of many at the time) between Bourdais and Paul Tracy. He added a dominant win from pole at Mexico City ahead of teammate AJ Allmendinger to cap off the season.

Wilson and ‘Dinger’s 1-2 for RuSPORT in 2005. Photo: Getty Images

Wilson and Allmendinger could have made a reality show or sitcom in their own right: Allmendinger as the diminutive but dynamic Californian, with Wilson playing the all-too-kind and yet significantly taller Brit.

While Allmendinger was jettisoned from RuSPORT after four races the following year and went onto his best open-wheel success with another team, Wilson continued on as RuSPORT’s team leader.

He kept the team focused and kept morale high after a severe accident for “Dinger’s” replacement Cristiano da Matta in a testing shunt at Road America, when the likable Brazilian known as “Shorty” hit a deer.

Wilson’s most heroic drive likely came in the 2006 season finale at Mexico City. Despite breaking a small bone in his right wrist, Wilson left would-be substitute Adam Carroll waiting in the wings and made a triumphant, surprise return. He damn near beat Bourdais with one hand, losing out only by several tenths at race’s end.

He won only once in 2007 after successive runner-up championship finishes, but with Bourdais off to Formula 1 in 2008, Wilson was the natural – and perfect – replacement for him at Newman/Haas Racing.


Wilson won Newman/Haas’ last race. Photo: Getty Images

As ever, Wilson’s timing was the opposite of impeccable. He finally got the best ride, and of course it came when Champ Car folded and the Indy Racing League (now INDYCAR) acquired its assets.

As a so-called “transition driver,” Wilson had to make due with a car that his team had five years fewer experience with than the Penskes and Ganassis of the world. The one time he had the best car, the Champ Car finale at Long Beach in the turbocharged Panoz DP01-Cosworth, his engine blew after 12 laps.

But a win at Detroit in the Dallara-Honda was no less than he and the team deserved, and ultimately proved the last in Newman/Haas’ incredible history. Paul Newman died the next month, September 2008.


First of two wins for Coyne. Photo: Getty Images

Budgets being what they were, Wilson found himself sidelined when Robert Doornbos replaced him at NHR in 2009. Wilson though found his way to Dale Coyne Racing, and delivered IndyCar’s biggest underdog its first ever win at Watkins Glen. It stands in IndyCar annals as one of the biggest upsets, as it was the only non-Penske/Ganassi win of the year.

Successive struggling seasons with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing in 2010 and 2011 didn’t produce any wins, while a back injury from a practice accident at Mid-Ohio cost Wilson the second half of 2011.

Back at Coyne in 2012, Wilson delivered a popular win at Texas, and then produced a series of giant-killing performances in 2013 – arguably his best season everto enter the final race in Fontana fourth in points. But Wilson endured yet another injury to cap off 2013, when he sustained pelvic fractures and a pulmonary contusion in an accident there. It was typical Wilson – courageous but luckless.

His 2014 season was an odd one, without any podiums and an odd balance of luck in races where speed was required, and speed when luck was needed. Typical Justin being Justin though, he remained introspective and focused – even if internally, he wanted a new direction.


source: AP
Wilson always had top team-talent, but never a shot until 2015. Photo: AP

Where Wilson was most incredible – in a career where he had been incredible – was this year. Even though the results showed it as statistically, one of his worst years.

Wilson and Coyne had done what they could together over parts of four years but realistically, both needed to break. Wilson needed a team worthy of his talent and Coyne needed to give Wilson the freedom to find one.

The team targeted all winter was Andretti Autosport. Yet as Wilson related to me in a November 2014 interview, it was always going to be a question of when.

“Dale’s a great guy, and the team has made some nice improvements,” Wilson said then. “But I have to see what’s best for my future and what works for me. It’s one of those things, where I could find out tomorrow, or it could be in another month or two months.”

It wound up being four-plus months. Wilson didn’t have a ride – any ride – until mid-March, when he was confirmed back with Michael Shank’s team aboard the team’s new Ligier JS P2 Honda as a third driver for the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring.

Ozz Negri crashed out of the race in the opening hours. Wilson never got to drive.

Only at St. Petersburg was Wilson confirmed at Andretti, and even then only for two races – the month of May with the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis and the 99th Indianapolis 500.

I bumped into Wilson in pit lane right before race start.

“I’m bummed you’re not out there, man,” I said.

“Me too. But it’ll be soon enough, and I can’t wait,” he replied, still smiling.

We get to the month of May. Wilson’s first race, despite qualifying best of the four Andretti cars, is sabotaged by a damaged front wing at the Turn 1 mess, a bad pit stop and a mechanical woe that put him out.

His Indy 500 sees him now adorned in a special one-off Rolling Stones livery ahead of Mick and the gang’s upcoming July 4 concert at the Speedway.

“It has to be pretty cool being a Brit, promoting the Stones, ahead of their concert here,” I said.

Wilson smiles, and I think he may have stuck his tongue out in the quick interaction before he put his helmet on and prepared for the Carb Day practice.

He leads the race in the final laps courtesy of a fuel gamble. He is unable to make the finish without a splash and ends 21st.

“I want to thank Andretti Autosport for this opportunity, looking forward to hopefully working with them again,” he said, graciously, not knowing his next race.

It comes in an Andretti FIA Formula E car in Moscow in early June.

His next race attempt was supposed to be in the HPD ARX-04b prototype at Pikes Peak. True to form, something went wrong. Turbocharger issues prevent Wilson and the HPD from a crack at the mountain.

The smile still lives.

Finally, the news comes he’s back in an IndyCar – with Andretti Autosport – for the rest of the season.

He returns at Milwaukee. I ask how nice it feels to actually have five days before his next race weekend, instead of this year-long question of wondering when exactly it’s going to be.

source: AP
Wilson’s final podium came after spirited fight with Rahal at Mid-Ohio. Photo: AP

“It’s nice! It’s nice to know you’re working towards something,” Wilson told me. “So next weekend, let’s go faster. Let’s sort it out and make it better.

“The balance is everything. Getting the right balance, is so, so sensitive. I can’t explain how sensitive these aero kits are, and how extreme it is. You say it’s sensitive and if you miss by just a fraction, you’re a second off. Maybe it’s not quite that extreme but that’s how it feels. It’s crazy!”

The passion is clearly there.

On August 2, the result he’d been working all year finally comes. Wilson made one spirited passing attempt for the win on Graham Rahal, but came up short.

A day where he could have won sees him happily take second, knowing it was the best possible result for Honda behind its lone IndyCar championship contender.

Wilson is at peace, and back on the podium where he rightfully should be.


It’s at this point in this missive where I note that Wilson played an integral part of my own career, dating to my first season in motorsports journalism in 2006.

I didn’t cover a ton of races on site between 2006 and 2009, and Wilson’s 2006 Champ Car race win at Edmonton was among those I followed remotely and wound up writing a report on.

Work like that laid the groundwork for an incredibly healthy and positive working, professional relationship, which I have to say was nothing but class, all the time.

After a tough Road America weekend the following year, my dad and I wound up seated only a few tables away from him at a Cheesecake Factory. Ordinarily a driver would not be pleased by a kid approaching him when he’s “off hours” but Wilson was so polite, so gracious even from my saying hi to him at that location.

I think I knew what I was doing? Wilson and I at our first Indianapolis 500, in 2008. Photo courtesy Tony DiZinno

As I quickly found out, you don’t take pics with racing drivers once you’re covering them… but as he and I went through our first Indianapolis 500 experience together in 2008, he was all too happy to take a quick photo with me that year. Yes, this was pre-selfies.

There were moments where Wilson acknowledged a frustrating race yet was gracious enough to chat about it, notably after Long Beach in 2012, when he felt slighted by an awkward pit strategy. A solid 20-minute phone conversation later, he’d been as insightful as ever in explaining what happened that took him out of winning contention.

Then there were the times where it was just us simply laughing about our height disparity. Every “Hi, Justin!” I offered saw me kink my head and neck back in the process, to ensure I could properly make eye contact with him. I’m not that short, but the 5-foot-9 to 6-foot-4 disparity is a solid seven inches.

Whether it was an interview I wanted, a smile in the paddock I sought or an inevitable quip about how he was doing the best he could, regardless of the circumstances, I knew Justin Wilson was someone special.

He brought joy and light to everyone he touched. He made an indelible impression on the paddock. He was a tireless advocate for charity, and he never let his dyslexia affect him outwardly. Never once did he offer a bad word about anyone.

He was truly a special individual, one who like some others in racing, we’ve lost all too soon.

I pray for his kid brother Stefan – may he continue the legacy of the “bromates” behind the wheel.

I pray for his wife Julia, their two daughters, Justin’s parents Keith and Lynne and the rest of their family.

Rest in peace, Justin Wilson. May heaven be better – and taller – upon your arrival.

source: Getty Images
Wilson’s 2012 Texas win was his last. Photo: Getty Images

NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E and Ian James set to race ahead of electric motorsports’ curve

James McLaren Formula E
NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team

As Formula E enters their ninth season and McLaren Racing is set to compete in last year’s championship winning car, Ian James is passionate about pushing electric motorsports forward at a critical stage as race technology begins surpassing that of the street cars.

Midseason, McLaren acquired the assets of the Mercedes-EQ team as they were already on their way to winning a second consecutive championship. With those assets in place and coming off a successful debut in the Extreme E series, James is set to usher in a new era in electric car racing.

Last week’s announcement that Jake Hughes will join Rene Rast behind the wheel of the NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team was the last piece of the puzzle.

McLaren’s electric portfolio is building with the Formula E team coming one year after they entered the Extreme E rally series in 2022 with Tanner Foust and Emma Gilmour. There were a lot of lessons to learn in that series with growing pains during the first three of five rounds. Rounds 4 and 5 were a completely different matter with the team crossing the finish line first in Chile before being assessed a time penalty.

In the final round in Uruguay, they scored an elusive podium.

“McLaren kicked off the season in Extreme E at the beginning of this year, so our first [electric] race took place Neom, actually out in Saudi,” NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team Principal James told NBC Sports. “At the time, we were in very early discussions about opportunities with the Formula E team. I actually went out there to meet with Zak [Brown, CEO McLaren Racing] and that was my first taste of Extreme E.

“Since the transition, I joined them in Chile in Atacama Desert, and then Uruguay last weekend. [The second-place finish was] a lovely way to round out the season. The fact that they got that podium. It was very well deserved. It’s a great team and a great series actually. It’s just so very different from anything else. The team’s done a great job in getting set up, and it’s nice now to, we’re trying to use that momentum that we’ve got from Uruguay to get us into next season when it kicks off next year, which will be great. I think we’re mid-March is looking like the first race, so a little bit of time to get things prepped for that.”


James McLaren Formula E
The NEOM Mclaren Racing Formula E Team was created through the acquisition of last year’s championship team from Mercedes-EQ. – NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team

Synergies exist between the single seater and rally series. Lessons learned about battery power and sustainability in the electric SUV carry over so long as one is mindful of keeping focus on the individual needs and nuances of each series.

Especially now that electric racing technology has caught up, and is ready to surpass, the existing technology that has gone into building street cars.

When internal combustion engines gained the upper hand soon after automobiles were invented, racing paced alongside. The pressure of competition pushed the development of their commercial equivalents. The same has not necessarily been true of electric cars. Street cars were not designed to undergo the same stress as racecars – and that vulnerability showed up on the racetrack.

“Formula E has come along a long way,” James said. “I think one of the most notable developments is in the battery technology. In Gen 1, you had the drivers jumping from one car to another car midrace because the battery technology and capacity simply wasn’t where it needed to be to do the full distance. That obviously changed in Gen 2 and we saw a power increase as well to the 250 kilowatts.

“Now going to Gen 3, we have 350 kilowatts in a smaller battery. But that means that we’re relying on the regeneration of energy and for that reason, we’ve got also the opportunity to regenerate on the front axle as well as the rear axle now. So, there’s all sorts of things that are developing in the right direction.

“In terms of throttle response, actually, we’re now in a situation with electric racing and the motors that it’s instantaneous. And one of the advantages of electric over combustion engine is that the torque is instantaneous as well, so that gives you a lot more room to play with.”

No matter the power source, racing has always been about resource management. Drivers and teams select tire strategies they believe produce the fastest elapsed time and fuel conservation comes into play.

On one hand, electric racing is the same, but there is a critical difference. With the battery as both the power source and an integral part of the engine, there are multiple reasons to manage it.

In electric racing, the brain of the car is the software – and that is where James sees the greatest room for advancement.

“As we are working with our drivers and engineers – and start to look at functionality to improve our efficiency and our performance, that’s something we’ll continue to push because that development is open throughout the season,” James said. “That’s going to be our focus going forward and provides enough of a challenge for us to get our teeth into.

“What’s going to be fascinating is as Formula E continues, is to really look at which areas of development on the car are going to be the most relevant and ensuring that we can focus on those together with the manufacturers so we continue and use the series as a platform for technical development that can then feed back into the road car side of things as well.

“At the end of the day, that’s what motorsports always been, a very powerful tool for, and I see Formula E as no exception.”

James McLaren Formula E
Jake Hughes and Rene Rast were chosen for their ability to drive fast and execute the necessary strategy for energy management. – NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team

Selecting Rast and Hughes as McLaren’s Formula E drivers was not simply because they know how to drive fast. James believes both drivers have the mental aptitude to execute energy management strategies throughout the race and squeeze maximum performance.

“As with many other motorsports, you’ve got a certain amount of energy that you’re able to deploy during the race and the management of that energy is absolutely crucial,” James said. “What we’re seeing typically in electric motorsports now is the hardware side of things. The efficiencies that we’re seeing in the powertrain as a whole, they’re getting up to the sort of 96%, 97%, 98% efficiency, so the gains that you get through that further and further become more marginal.”

With much more room for improvement, software is a different matter. To make the best decisions, the drivers need data, and that is where James believes McLaren Formula E will make their greatest impact.

“And then you really switch that focus to the software and that’s where you’re going to see the most the most improvement and the most gains,” James continued. “It’s then using that software to ensure that you’re deploying the energy in the most efficient manner during race, and thereby giving the driver the most performance. And that’s something which is incredibly complicated, but I find it a fascinating area to work in.

“The benefit of being involved in racing is you can really push the envelope in a way that you can’t do on road cars. And I think that that’s where that value comes in. It means that you accelerate the development a lot quicker. We will get ahead of the curve – and we are getting ahead of the curve now – and that will mean that the electric motorsports remain part of the overall development process.

“The key to that is also making sure that the racing’s exciting and fun for the fans. If we can, we can tick both of those boxes, then it’s got a very bright future ahead of it.”