For many the world over, motor racing begins and ends with Formula 1.
It becomes almost ritual to take note of a driver as they enter the higher echelons of motorsport, only for their names to to slip should they step out of the light.
Truthfully, Formula 1 is just a singular peak in a mountain range – a wider view of the valley reveals drivers of equal measure competing hard in the likes of the IZOD IndyCar Series, the World Rally Championship or the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Indeed, just below those peaks sit championships such as DTM, AutoGP, Superleague and multiple Touring Cars series’.
For example, after Juan-Pablo Montoya parted company with McLaren in 2006, his career did not end – in fact, the Colombian walked straight into a drive with Chip Ganassi’s NASCAR squad.
Even Ralf Schumacher and David Coulthard have found racing seats beyond Formula 1’s hardened glamour.
Thus when Sheffield’s Justin Wilson parted company with Jaguar’s beleaguered Formula 1 team at the tail end of 2003, the Briton suddenly found himself at the wheel of a Champ Car with Conquest Racing.
After one year with Eric Bachelart’s small squad, Wilson moved to RuSport where he won four races in three seasons, that saw him a title contender in two of them.
Following the realignment of the IndyCar Series at the beginning of 2008, Wilson picked a further two victories – the first for Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing in Detroit (2008), before securing Dale Coyne’s first ever win as a team owner in dominant style at Watkins Glen (2009). Wilson joined Dreyer & Reinbold Racing for the 2010 season and recently announced that he will be staying with the squad for the upcoming year.
So with 2010 slowly grinding to a halt as Christmas approaches, I got in contact with Justin to see how he was getting on.
Formula 1 Archive: You recently re-signed for a second year with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing – how much of a benefit is that in terms of season preparation and building relationships with engineers and other team members?
Justin Wilson: Rejoining DRR (Dreyer & Reinbold Racing)for a second season should be a huge advantage as it means we can concentrate on some of the finer details that really make a difference in the IZOD IndyCar series.
I’ve already met up with the team and we have started to focus on those areas we know we need to work on. We are analysing each race from this season and working out what to do better.
One of the things that I’ve learned with the Dallara is that the car set-ups are very track-specific. You have to develop a Toronto set-up year after year at Toronto – you can’t just bolt on a Long Beach set-up that worked well earlier that season just because it’s a similar kind of street course.
And it’s not just the road courses, the ovals are the same. Staying with the same team means we have an opportunity to start where we finished last season and find more speed at every track.
F1A: In May, your 2010 team-mate, Mike Conway, suffered a horror crash at Indianapolis.
For the rest of the season, you had five team mates – was that ever a destabilising factor in the team?
JW: Having a rotating team mate really didn’t help our season, but that’s not something that you can control.
It’s obviously not something that was planned, or even wanted, but after Mike’s accident the team just had to do what it could to keep the 24 car on track. The main thing was that Mike was able to make a full recovery after that terrible accident.
F1A: You seem to have a very good commercial partnership with Z-Line Designs – how crucial has a company like Z-Line Designs been in supporting your exploits these past couple of seasons?
Of course, there is also the Justin Wilson Investors Club – what exactly is that and how is it coming along?
JW: Z-Line have been a great supporter and I have been very fortunate to have driven their car for the last few years. DRR has a lot of other really good sponsors too, and from the commercial side it’s a really interesting team to be involved in.
The investment arrangements made through Justin Wilson PLC still have their formal AGM each year and we normally have those at Brands Hatch. It’s good fun to meet up with investors each year to talk about how things are going and if the track’s free Jonathan lets us take a spin round the Indy circuit.
In between AGM’s, Justin Wilson Investors Club is a more informal way of keeping investors up to date with how things are going. It also organises trips if people want to come out and see what IndyCar racing’s all about.
F1A: Something that struck me following the final race at Homestead, is that the 2011 was nearly 5-and-a-half months away.
Do you do any racing during the off-season to keep the cobwebs off and if not, what do you do to get back into it?
JW: We have a long gap between the end of each season and the start of the next but I stay busy. I probably won’t be in the car testing until February, so from now until then the only driving I will be doing is on iRacing.com which is a very realistic online racing simulation.
You can practice on your own as well as race online against other members, and I’ve had a lot of fun since October hosting a few races at different tracks and in different cars. It definitely helps to keep you sharp.
The rest of the time I will be with my family and training for next season. I go to the gym several times a week and do a lot of road cycling and mountain biking whenever the weather’s good enough.
Another benefit of having my deal sorted this early is to be able to put some good foundations in with my training for next year.
F1A: I’ve heard from many fans of their excitement of multi-aero kits and the return of engine competition in 2012.
As a driver how do you view such major changes to the formula and how does you feel as motor racing enthusiast when you see such names as Chevrolet and Lotus getting back into IndyCar?
JW: Like everyone I think that it’s great news to have Honda, Chevrolet and Lotus building engines and body kits for the new car.
It’s just another sign that the series is on the right road to recovery and it will create a lot of excitement for the fans and the teams.
This is exactly what we need t grow the sport, but I’m sure it wont be too long before we hear people complaining that they don’t have the strongest engines or the best aero kits! But that’s racing!
F1A: With your time in Formula 1, Champ Car and IndyCar (and not forgetting your 2004 attempt at Le Mans), you are one of the very few drivers that has been involved several periods of top-level motorsport in a relatively short time.
Have you had to develop a special versatility as a driver to adapt to each formula or is it just about making slight adjustments in vaguely similar cars?
JW: I’m can’t think of anything I’ve consciously done to adapt, but like most drivers I just focus on trying to extract the most from any situation I’m in. I love driving different types of cars and learning what they can do.
After switching back and forth a few times you gain confidence and that allows you to adapt more quickly. It’s been great to have the opportunity to race competitively in some of the world’s biggest events from Sebring 12h, Daytona 24 Le Mans 24h as well as the Indy 500. Not forgetting Monaco of course.
F1A: When you drove for Minardi in F1 during the 2003 season, I am led to believe they designed car to cater or your height. Is that a luxury that you have also had in IndyCar or is it a case of one tub fits all?
JW: I was fortunate that Minardi was able to modify the car to allow my knees to fit. That was the only time I have had to have a tub modified, Since then it’s usually been a case of moving pedals and steering columns around to squeeze me in. The 2007 Panoz was a larger car and that made me more comfortable and I’m hoping that the new Dallara will do the same thing.
F1A: Thinking of comfort, you would be considered primarily a road or street racer. How have you found ovals since your move to the US, especially the likes of Texas Motor Speedway and its high banking?
What do you make of the pack racing that we see at Kentucky and previously, at Chicagoland?
JW: The ovals have been a challenge to find speed on when you’re flat out, but I really enjoy them.
We only had a couple of oval races each year in Champ Car, so it’s been a steep learning curve since coming over to IndyCar and the rate of progress hasn’t been helped by the change of teams each year. I’m hoping that the continuity with DRR will help us to focus more on the ovals in 2011.
The last few years the teams I’ve been with have put 90% of the effort into the road courses and spent most of their testing miles on those track. That was the right thing to do given where they were at with their road and street course development, but now that we’ve got some continuity there’s an opportunity to spend more time on our oval performance.
We had a great car in Chicago where I was able to get in the middle of some crazy pack racing action. And we had some pretty quick qualifying cars at Indy and Homestead. So I feel it’s not out of reach, we just need some tweaking.
F1A: Finally, what is the difference between Justin, the 2001 Formula 3000 Champion and Justin the 2011 IndyCar driver?
JW: About 10 years! No, seriously, I feel that I’m the same now as I was then, but with a lot more experience. I have more confidence too which is always a huge factor in driving.
F1A: Thanks Justin. Best of luck in 2011.