Justin Wilson: Champion racing driver who benefited from an innovative investors' scheme to flourish on the US IndyCars circuit

Gifted with the ability to get on with people via an easy-going and humble nature, Wilson was one of those rare race drivers who was universally popular

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The Independent Online

There was a moment in the first qualifying session for the German Grand Prix at Hockenheim in 2003 when Justin Wilson gave a real indication of what his Formula 1 career might have yielded. The racer from Woodall in Sheffield was the champion in Formula 3000 in 2001 with three wins and six other podium finishes but was too tall, at 6ft 4in, to fit in the tightly packaged F1 cars. Instead he drove in the World Series by Nissan in 2002, and proved himself again with two more victories.

The maverick Minardi team owner Paul Stoddart found a way to shoehorn him into an F1 car for 2003, and he scored a best finish of 11th in Austria in the uncompetitive machine. When Jaguar sacked the Brazilian, Antonio Pizzonia, Wilson was drafted in alongside the seasoned regular Mark Webber who, like Fernando Alonso, had also cut his F1 teeth at Minardi thanks to Stoddart.

That Friday afternoon Wilson lapped within three-tenths of a second of Webber despite barely having seen the metallic green car before; the Australian went on to win nine grands prix and to come within an ace of the world championship in 2010. That was the sort of talent that Wilson had.

Formula 1 didn't work out for him, for a variety of reasons beyond his control that were associated with money and politics. But the former F3 and F2 champion and F1 racer-cum-entrepreneur, Jonathan Palmer, believed in him, and came up with a unique investors' programme in order to raise the £1.2 million needed to get him into the Minardi team by offering shares in him to the public. Such was Wilson's talent and popularity that the scheme was oversubscribed, with nearly 900 shareholders each investing a minimum of £500.

In 2004 Wilson used the fund to cross the Atlantic to compete in America's open-wheel ChampCar series, and repay the investors' faith. His best finish in 2004 was fourth, but the following year he won in Toronto and Mexico City to finish third overall in a car run by a small, unfancied team. In 2006 he won in Edmonton, and five second places helped him to second position overall, a result he repeated in 2007. In both seasons he was given the coveted Greg Moore Legacy Award in recognition of his spirit and achievement.

He finally landed the ride he deserved with the Newman Haas Lanigan team, when ChampCars became IndyCars in 2008. He delivered a victory in Detroit, and won again at Watkins Glen in 2009 when he had switched to Dale Coyne Racing. Lean years followed with Dreyer & Reinbold in 2010 and 2011, yet still he managed seconds at St Petersburgh and Long Beach before bouncing back with a victory in Texas in 2012, the year in which he shared a Riley-Ford with AJ Allmendinger, Oswaldo Negri and John Pew to win the Daytona 24 Hours sportscar classic.

He struggled again in 2013 and 2014 with inferior equipment yet managed podium positions others would not have achieved, before Dame Fortune once again smiled upon him as he joined the crack Andretti Autosport team for a limited programme this year. Last time out he finished second at Mid-Ohio.

Affable, and gifted with the ability to get on with people via an easy-going and humble nature, Wilson was one of those rare race drivers who was universally popular, and whose talent was widely admired even when he was with smaller teams. The last IndyCar driver to die from an on-track incident was Dan Wheldon, who was killed in the 2011 season finale at Las Vegas after his head hit a post in the fence when his car went airborne. Following Wheldon's death, Wilson became one of three driver representatives to serve as a liaison between the competitors and IndyCar.

Wilson, whose brother Stefan also raced in IndyCars, married his sweetheart Julia in 2006 and they had two daughters, Jane and Jessica. He was dyslexic and was a supporter of foundations related to the disorder.

The F1 and IndyCar legend Mario Andretti – father of Michael, head of Wilson's team, Andretti Autosport – said he was devastated by the accident towards the end of Sunday's race at Pocono, in which Wilson was struck on the head by the nose cone from Sage Karam's crashed car close to the end of the race, and questioned why he himself had so many blessings in his own long and dramatic career. The current IndyCar champion, Will Power, added that Wilson was a "fantastic human being".

Daniel Ricciardo, lead driver of the Red Bull team from which Jaguar evolved, said: "This sport can be so damn harsh. It breaks my heart." Fellow F1 driver Jenson Button paid tribute to Wilson. "I raced with Justin as far back as 1989 in karting and remember his smile was infectious, such a lovely guy."

Dario Franchitti, four times an IndyCar champion and three times victor of the famed Indianapolis 500, once remarked, "God help us if somebody gives Justin a decent car." Michael Andretti did, and Wilson used it to lead at Pocono and to stay near the front all race. He truly belonged there – not in the wrong place at the wrong time, where he found himself through no fault of his own.

Justin Wilson, racing driver: born Sheffield 31 July 1978; married 2006 Julia (two daughters); died Long Pond, Pennsylvania 23 August 2015.

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