This feature with Justin was among the first I wrote on IndyCar and the Indy 500 after covering sports cars almost exclusively through 2008, and it might have been our first proper interview. The big man will be missed from the 100th running of the great race.
Originally posted in May, 2009.
Low on money and looking for a series to give him a shot at the big time, Justin Wilson used his Formula Palmer Audi title to reach F1 and the Indy 500.
For those that watched him drive, most would agree Justin Wilson was an animal in the Champ Car series.
The combination of the Lola chassis and Cosworth’s turbo engine just made sense to the lanky Briton, and the “push to pass” button, a tool used to provide an extra shot of power on demand for a limited time, was one of his favorite toys.
The jump from 750 to 800 horsepower at the press of a button was used to great effect, but it wasn’t the first time he’d had such a tool at his disposal.
That came earlier in his young career – in the Formula Palmer Audi series, to be exact (Right).
“I was with Paul Stewart Racing and racing in Formula Vauxhall,” Wilson said. “That year didn’t go as well as the year before when I was with them so my options were somewhat limited. We basically didn’t have the money to progress to Formula 3 and things just weren’t going as planned.
The Palmer Audi series was being set up back then and had a lot of skeptics. “My father and I liked the idea of everybody having the same equipment and the same car all run by the same organization. And that obviously had a big effect on the budget — to me, that seemed like the perfect place to prove myself. And the ‘push to pass’ button was a new idea back then too. That made things VERY interesting.”
Wilson’s Formula Vauxhall car, a popular but somewhat slow race car, was nothing like the proper “wings and slicks” cars the Formula Palmer Audi series (FPA) were commissioning Van Diemen to build.
Not only did they provide superior grip and downforce, the turbocharged 1.8L Audi engines made serious power – approximately 250 – with up to 300hp available with the use of the overboost button on the steering wheel. Through the car’s electronics, the series limited the number of times the button could be used and fixed the duration of the overboost delivery. For Wilson, the FPA cars were a perfect training ground for his eventual move Stateside to drive Lola-Ford Cosworths.
“They were like miniature Champ Cars in that sense,” he said. “They were fun to drive and had more power than grip so it made it entertaining.”
Wilson found the cars more than entertaining – they fit his driving style perfectly. Nine wins and the first FPA title in 1998 during the first season of the championship set into motion the career Justin has today. An International F3000 title in 2001 and a year in F1 with Minardi and Jaguar in 2003 would eventually earn Wilson a shot with the Conquest Racing Champ Car team in 2004. He’s made his living in America ever since, earning a reputation for spirited drivers and a strong technical aptitude for setting up his race car.
But that wasn’t always the case. His Paul Stewart Racing team was known for its polished and refined programs, but with his move to FPA, Justin soon found he needed to know more about how racing cars worked.
“To me, the biggest stress was the fact that all the cars started each weekend off with the same baseline setup,” he said. “My first year with Paul Stewart was great. I just relied on my engineer and sat back and worked well with him. The following year, he wasn’t there and things didn’t go as well with my new engineer.
“That’s when I realized, ‘Okay, I need to have more control of my destiny.’ And that meant fully understanding and knowing the process of developing a car’s setup. So for me, the Palmer Audi series allowed me to apply everything I just learned the hard way and use that to progress and learn more about the setup and more about understanding the car. It ultimately allowed me to get more out of myself.”
As he found later in F1, Champ Car and IndyCar series, the higher the quality of the competition he was surrounded by, the faster he developed his own skills. FPA provided a tough but valuable initiation for Wilson.
“There were a lot of guys to be concerned about in that first Palmer Audi season in ‘98,” he said. “I mean, back then, the extent of the competition was the biggest part of wanting to run in the series. My main competitor all season was Darren Turner. Darren’s gone on to win two 24 Hours of Le Mans races with Aston Martin, and there were others. Damien Faulkner was one of the drivers. He came across and won races in Indy Lights. Bjorn Wirdheim went on to win the (2003) International F3000 championship and also came across and did Champ Car a few years ago. Roger Yasukawa was there and he’s been in the IRL. Andy Booth was there. It was a tough crowd.”
Wilson was attracted to many aspects of the FPA series, but one point stood out above all the others.
“One of the big attractions was not only was the quality, but the winner actually won something — a free drive in Formula 3000, which was no small prize.
“For me, that was a huge motivation to go after.”
Series founder Jonathan Palmer (RIGHT) would take an interest in Wilson. As the inaugural series champion, not only was Justin the perfect promotional tool to attract future drivers, he also saw a rare talent that deserved his assistance to move up the open-wheel ladder.
“Obviously Jonathan wanted to help whichever driver won the series. He wanted to be involved to help drag them through all the little traps that you can fall into. So when he gave me the prize, he asked me if he could become my manager and we jumped at the chance because with his experience and with his contacts, it proved invaluable.” Wilson’s thankful not only for what FPA did for his career, but for continued impact it has had on his family.
“I’m very fond of those times. It’s all good memories and I met some great people: mechanics and engineers and everybody who was involved. I mean, obviously winning races makes you feel good, so I enjoyed it. And when I went back 10 years later to watch my younger brother Stefan compete in Palmer Audi, it was a very strange feeling, deja vous almost!”
While the distinction of becoming the first Formula Palmer Audi champion has long since faded, another title Justin earned in FPA lives on today.
“I was winning races and things were going well, but a few of my friends — guys I was working with at the race school, thought that I should have gotten more publicity for the job I was doing by winning all those races,” he said. “They said I was too nice and said I needed to ‘mean-up’ my image and maybe that would help me get more coverage.
“From that day on, they just decided to start calling me ‘Badass’ and it just stuck.”
Badass starts 15th in the 93rd running of the Indianapolis 500 this Sunday.