Justin Wilson 1978 – 2015
When you work in motorsport it’s a sad fact that, for all the massive safety advancements that have happened in the last few decades and continue to improve the sport now, the presence of death is never that far away.
The motorsport fraternity was reminded of that painful truth this week, with the news that British driver Justin Wilson had succumbed to head injuries sustained in Sunday’s IndyCar race at Pocono in the USA.
By all accounts, it was a freak accident in which Wilson had been struck by flying debris. Accidents will always happen and that is something that all of us who work or have worked in motor racing must accept – more can always be done of course but, short of sanitising the sport to such a degree as to make it pointless, accidents will always happen.
That said, however many times we go through these heart-wrenching days, it never ceases to amaze me how fresh the shock and upset is when it happens again.
On this occasion, the outpouring from people within motorsport on social channels was universal – Justin Wilson was not only an incredibly gifted, viciously fast driver with bags of natural ability; he was just one of the nicest blokes you’d ever hope to meet. With the competitive streak that racing drivers almost necessarily have, it is very rare to find a great driver who is also just as great a bloke.
I remember being despatched, as a young Autosport magazine reporter, to the press conference in which Justin was being unveiled as a Minardi F1 driver. Having worked his way up through the junior ranks and won the F3000 title, for any other driver it would have seemed obvious that he was destined for Formula 1.
But Justin was 6 ft 4, unusually tall for a single-seater driver and it had proven to be a challenge for him to find a car he could fit into. In fact, at one stage, Justin had been told after testing an F1 car in Italy that he’d never make it to the sport’s pinnacle on account of his frame.
Make it he did, but I had been instructed to ask him some tough questions about the journey he’d been on. As a young reporter, I was nervous but I asked my questions and Justin made it easy. He could have branded my questions impertinent and told me to sod off but the man nicknamed ‘Badass’ (on account of the fact that he was anything but) answered each of my questions with grace, humility and intelligence.
Justin Wilson built his reputation as a driver on the track. He built his reputation as a man off it. And the UK has lost one of its very finest sporting ambassadors.