OPINION: Justin Wilson, IndyCar's overlooked underdog

OPINION: Justin Wilson, IndyCar's overlooked underdog

IndyCar

OPINION: Justin Wilson, IndyCar's overlooked underdog

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In some ways, Justin Wilson should be content with his lot. Hugely respected by his rivals, admired by IndyCar fans, loved by the mediaand 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 didfor 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?

It’s probably of little solace to Justin that his refusal to lapse into a subservient role has also increased his popularity. He’s many people’s favorite driver, but he’s also second- or third-favorite among those who primarily support Scott Dixon, Power, Dario Franchitti, Ryan Hunter-Reay, James Hinchcliffe, etc.

Off track, too, he’s a great ambassador for any sponsor. It wouldn’t be correct to say that public speaking comes as naturally to Wilson as driving to the limit of an Indy car, but nor is it a struggle for him. When talking into a microphone, you’ll never catch him trying too hard to be cool or clever or funny; he’s just Justin. And I’ve heard the top dogs from two of his principal sponsors in recent years use phrases such as, “The perfect guy for us,” “A class act,” and “I’m proud he carries our brand,” when speaking of JWil.

It’s not hard to see why. Wilson has an ability to connect with sponsors’ guests on a level that explains the sport but without sounding patronizing. Nor, at the end of these meet-and-greet sessions, does he scurry away, leaving those behind thinking, “We were just an obligation to him.” He’ll sit and sign autographs, answer questions one-on-one, make people feel special, make them want to come back, make them realize why their company sponsors this team and this driver. (There are other unfairly undervalued drivers who are like this, too Oriol Servia, Alex Tagliani and JR Hildebrand.)

I can also assure you that the sincere and polite Wilson you’ll meet at the track or see interviewed on TV is exactly how he is at most other times; he genuinely struggles to be rude about people, his criticisms always coming across in a constructive manner. Now and then you can tell from his body language that he’s upset but there’s little point in bothering him on these occasions because he’ll still have too much self-control to say anything controversial. Among all of the current IndyCar drivers, Wilson is the best at avoiding histrionics.

The best at avoiding excuses, too. When he spun away second place at Toronto in 2010, he immediately claimed responsibility: he’d gone off-line while warming his tires up, picked up too many marbles, and arrived at a heavy braking zone that suddenly felt like black ice. And this year, after Detroit, he was quick to praise his temporary teammate Mike Conway, who blew into town and blew everyone away.

“Mike was immediately comfortable with the setup we had,” Justin said on the phone a few days later. “I think he made one minor wing adjustment the whole weekend! But I wasn’t happy when my car was set up the same as his. He likes a really stiff, over-reactive car, whereas I like mine more docile, and then I sort of provoke it into reacting, if you see what I mean. Also, the steering felt too numb for me, I couldn’t feel what I want to through the front tires, so when I decided to ignore my instincts and power through the problem, I almost stuck it in the wall!”

When Conway rejoined the team for the next double-header in Toronto, it was a very different story. There, Dale Coyne’s two cars lined up eighth and 20th for the first race, 13th and 23rd for the second each time with Wilson ahead. Justin has comfortably eclipsed every teammate he’s had since Allmendinger eight long years ago, so I wondered if Conway’s Detroit performance had been a bit of a wake up call to a driver who’d gotten used to having teammates who weren’t in his league. Typically, Justin’s answer was more a defense of his compatriot’s underwhelming performance north of the border.

“It’s hard on double-header weekends,” he said, “because there’s so little track time to try out changes if you don’t like the basic setup, which is the problem I had in Detroit. Plus, Mike’s not doing the whole season, which makes things even harder. So I’d say Toronto was more typical of how you’d expect anyone to struggle if they’re only doing three or four races a year. Detroit was an exception, and he wrung everything out of it he could. Good on him.”

That honesty and that way of thinking there’s a rational explanation for every situation I’m sure also accounts for Wilson’s ability to face career frustrations with equanimity. But that’s not to say he relishes being cast as the permanent dark horse rather than the favorite, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he were looking around for alternative options.

No one, surely not even Coyne himself, could expect his Plainfield, Ill.,-based team to tackle Penske, Ganassi and Andretti over the long haul of a championshipand especially not from 2015, when IndyCar opens up those tech boxes, body kits are introduced, and a little more innovation is allowed. It took the considerable talents of Wilson and Pappas for Dale Coyne Racing to break into the winner’s circle in 2009, after 23 years of struggle (BELOW). With the considerable help of Wilson, Pappas and a near-frozen technical rulebook since the introduction of the Dallara DW12, DCR is now regularly in the top eight, sometimes contends for podiums and very occasionally has race-winning potential.

 

Now that would be fine for a 22-year-old Indy Lights grad, but Justin no longer has that luxury. While Dario Franchitti (40 years old) and Tony Kanaan (39 in December) appear to be driving as well as ever, which would imply that 35-year-old Wilson has another five or six seasons left in IndyCar, he needs a seat with one of the potential title-winning squads. Feeding off their scraps can no longer satisfy his hunger.

So where’s better than DCR? I threw a couple of team names out there, and Wilson’s sarcastic return was, “OK, so all I need is $5 million” And that, of course, is the largest problem. Dale pays and doesn’t expect Justin to bring sponsorship. Others are not so generous.

And there’s also that “better-the-devil-you-know” factor. Justin’s been fooled once already into believing that another team’s grass was greener than Coyne’s. At the end of ’09, he left DCR to join Dreyer & Reinbold, thinking it was a step up, and soon discovered it was no more than a sideways shuffle. As a result, during the next two seasons, you’d see occasional traces of desperation in Justin’s driving, as if he was trying too hard for the few long shots thrown his way, then snatching and fumbling them. They weren’t usually huge errors, but just instances where overdriving in search of those last couple tenths of a second actually lost him a few. Interestingly, his longtime rival Bourdais appears to have gone through that same phase over the past couple of seasons.

“Yeah,” Wilson agreed, when I compared his traits then with Seb’s now. “The experienced guys should know better, but when you’re in a midfield team, it’s easy to start getting frustrated and overdriving when you’re getting near a good result, because you’re thinking, How often is this chance going to come along?’

“So it’s important to keep things in perspective and just carry on driving in the way that got you into that position in the first place, not start driving even harder.”

The truth is, someone of Wilson’s caliber shouldn’t ever need to be that desperate, to feel that he’s got only one or two chances to score a victory in a 19-race season. The record book shows that Bourdais scored four Champ Car titles and 31 race wins, whereas Wilson has twice finished runner-up in the points table, and has seven victories to his name. No one can convince me that’s a fair reflection of their respective abilitiesand I don’t mean that Seabass is overrated.

I’m not being unreasonably idealistic here; I’m well aware that since racing began, there have been imbalances like this in the talent/result equation. A couple of weeks ago, I asked Robin Miller to name the three Indy car drivers of the past half-century whose talents are most poorly served by their stats and he quickly responded with Mike Mosley, Lloyd Ruby and Don Branson. Confine it to the last 25 years, however, and Wilson has to be in such a selection, and maybe stands alone.

And the most absurd aspect of this situation is that Justin is not underrated by his peers, and his talents are appreciated by the fans, as well as the media. Unfortunately, though, he is spectacularly undervalued by the few team owners who could, if they hired him, make a significant difference to his and their win ratio.

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