IndyCar season review: Justin Wilson

IndyCar season review: Justin Wilson

IndyCar

IndyCar season review: Justin Wilson

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A year of frequently fantastic on-track action ended with 10 different winners from 19 races, a worthy champion, a heart-warming result in the Indy 500 and?yes, some troubling incidents, too ” mainly, but not exclusively, off-track.

The fact that the ?500? winner finished outside the top 10 in the championship compelled us to extend our more in-depth assessment, and 11 seemed such a weird number?so we went for the top 12 finishers in the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series. In the coming days, Marshall Pruett will do a mop-up of the almost-made-its, which include winners such as Takuma Sato and Mike Conway, as well as drivers who grabbed runner-up places, such as Graham Rahal, James Jakes, Simona de Silvestro and Josef Newgarden. For now though, Robin Miller, David Malsher and Marshall Pruett are counting down the dirty dozen. Today, it’s?

6th ” JUSTIN WILSON
Dale Coyne Racing Dallara-Honda
Best finish ” 2nd, Sonoma
Best qualifying ” 4th, Baltimore

Marshall Pruett writes?Justin Wilson, his engineer Bill Pappas and team owner Dale Coyne had the No. 19 Boy Scouts of America Honda holding fourth in points heading into the final race of the season at Fontana?what else is there to mention? After 18 of 19 rounds, one of the smallest teams in the paddock, if not the smallest, had put its boot up the backside of more than 20 full-time entries. What an amazing accomplishment!

From a short-term historical perspective, and it’s an odd thing to say about a former CART/Champ Car team, but everything about the Wilson/Pappas/Coyne combination in 2013 felt like a classic Indy Racing League underdog performance. Buy a spec car, acquire a capable engine, and even with a modest budget, a team with limited financial resources could take the fight to the Goliaths with a rock star driver and engineer.

DCR’s 2013 campaign was the modern version of multi-hundredaire Jim Guthrie and Blueprint Racing beating billionaire John Menard and his driver Tony Stewart at Phoenix in 1997. It was Jeff Ward and the unheralded ISM Racing splitting Kelly Racing and Panther Racing in the 1998 standings. It was?astounding. Wilson managed to score more podiums (four) than in any of his five previous IndyCar seasons (he had seven total from 2008 to ’12) and had just six finishes outside the top-10. (By contrast, champion Scott Dixon had seven, Will Power had 10.)

Wilson’s year was most similar to Helio Castroneves’ in terms of consistency. Like Helio, Wilson wasn’t a threat to win at most rounds, but with a fraction of Team Penske’s resources, that wasn’t a surprise. The surprise, in fact, came from where and when the Wilson/Pappas/Coyne combo made its presence felt.

Prior to Indy, the driver known as ?Badass? had three top-10s, including a podium (third) at Long Beach. He was the first Honda home during Chevy’s rout of the ?500,? placing fifth, and followed that with another podium (third) at Detroit 1. Smaller teams tend to start the season on a gradual climb and can take a while to catch up to the bigger teams that have had an off-season to develop new setups and damper programs, yet Wilson/Pappas/Coyne were in the mix from the opening round.

Ninth at Milwaukee, 11th at Iowa and seventh at Pocono was another strong spell for the No. 19, but Wilson’s defining stretch came late in the 2013 season. Sonoma, Baltimore and both Houston rounds produced a second-fourth-second-third performance, elevating Wilson/Pappas/Coyne to fourth in the standings entering Fontana.

A spin and crash ended Wilson’s marvelous season, but it shouldn’t diminish just how high he and the team managed to fly in 2013. They weren’t able to score a win, but the work done by the No. 19 was more impressive than anything a win (outside of the Indy 500) would have delivered, more impressive even than the wins at Watkins Glen in 2009 or Texas Motor Speedway in 2012. By virtue of running with and beating those who’d previously been slightly out of reach, Dale Coyne Racing became part of the establishment?and Wilson even beat reigning champion Ryan Hunter-Reay in the points standings.

In those terms, then, this writer would argue that finishing sixth in the points standings with DCR in 2013, especially against the caliber of drivers he had to face, is a greater accomplishment than his pair of seasons as runner-up in Champ Car. With a few seasons of oval racing under his belt, Wilson’s become the total package, not just a road and street course specialist.

Pappas, and DCR’s John Dick, can be credited for much of the success Wilson achieved this year, making Pappas’ departure for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing a bitter pill to swallow. Pappas, whose decades of experience was used to support the team on the managerial side, with its R&D and damper programs and everything else involved with fielding a competitive effort, leaves a huge void to fill.

Wilson should be back on his feet before Christmas and ready to test sometime after the New Year. He reportedly has an ex-Andretti engineer in place to take over from Pappas, which could bode well for DCR as they look to build upon their 2013 form. It won’t be easy, but if Coyne continues to invest in his team and fills some of the many roles Pappas played, another run deep inside the top 10 is theirs for the taking.

Robin Miller writes?

It’s easy to pull for Justin Wilson just based on his pleasant personality and professionalism. But when you consider he continues to show up for gun fights holding a cap pistol, it really makes you appreciate his talent.

For much of the decade he’s been racing in North America, he hasn’t had the top-shelf ride yet he continues to run up front. The common notion is that if he ever got in a Ganassi or Penske car he’d be an instant bully and multiple winner. But, at 35, that doesn’t seem destined to happen so he simply makes the most of what he has to work with and 2013 was another head-shaker. Driving for Dale Coyne’s small budget operation again, the gangly Brit racked up four podiums, a fourth and a fifth to steal sixth place in the IndyCar standings.

?He does more with less than anybody I’ve ever seen,? raves veteran engineer John Dick, who works alongside Justin’s engineer, Bill Pappas (with Justin, RIGHT).

The ex-Formula 1 regular has always excelled at road courses and street circuits and nothing illustrates that prowess more than what he did at Long Beach and Detroit. Starting 24th and 16th, respectively, he tore through the field to finish third in both races. He also charged from 12th to third at Houston and damn near won Sonoma ” leading 10 laps and pushing Will Power to the checkered flag.

?When Justin’s behind you, he’s like a mad dog who won’t let go of your leg!? surmised rival Oriol Servia, who knows a thing or two about over-achieving.

A technically-savvy racer who has great chemistry with Pappas, Wilson has gotten better and better at oval racing as his fifth at Indianapolis would show. He also ran seventh at Pocono.

Justin entered the finale fourth in points with an eye on third but his fine year ended in the hospital after a nasty accident at Fontana that left him with a broken pelvis. But he’ll heal and he’ll be back in 2014 for Coyne or maybe Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan, and he’ll be easy to spot. He’s the tall guy with the English accent who always finds his way to the front.

David Malsher writes?

So he spun out in Fontana and injured himself, but Justin Wilson’s championship finish, sixth, was his best since the demise of Champ Car (in which he finished 3rd-2nd-2nd in its three final years). There were no wins this year, but nonetheless the points standing is a fair reflection of how consistently he overachieved for Dale Coyne Racing.

He beat two out of three Ganassi drivers, three out of four Andretti drivers, the Indy 500 winner and his old Champ Car foe, Sebastien Bourdais. So not an unmitigated success in terms of outright statistics, but far more than could or should have been expected of him at the start of the year.

But then that’s been the story of Wilson’s career, hasn’t it? The guy who can both work with a good race engineer (Bill Pappas is one of the very best) to tune his car to its maximum potential, but also a driver who can throw the car on his back and carry it to a result it doesn’t deserve.

I recently conveyed my feelings on how underrated Wilson is in an opinion piece but it’s the respect in which he’s held by his peers that inevitably carries more weight. ?How can that guy not land a top ride?? groaned Will Power last month as we discussed the latest silly season rumors which only peripherally involved Wilson. ?I don’t know what he’s still got to prove. All of us know Wilson would be right at the front if he was in one of the best cars. I mean, he’s often a pain in the ass to us even in the car he’s got!?

And that sums it up neatly. If you consider Wilson among the top six drivers in the series (and you’d be mad not to), it’s sad to see that this season he qualified in the top 10 for just seven of the 18 grids decided by laps against the clock. Yes, temporary teammate Mike Conway blew everyone away at Detroit, but Wilson simply couldn’t get on with his compatriot’s setup and ran out of time while trying to find his own. But that was the only metaphorical bruise he took this year, and the tall guy returned the favor by blowing Mike away in Toronto.

At Sonoma, Wilson was brilliant in his very close pursuit of first Scott Dixon, then Power; his passes at Houston were hard but fair; he was one of the few drivers at Baltimore who could overtake without threatening to wipe out his or his opponents’ cars. And let’s not forget he was comfortably the quickest Honda-powered driver in the Indy 500.

It was, in other words, a typical Wilson season, which is to say, excellent. Anyone listening out there in team-owner world?

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