The Best Of The Free-Agents?
It seems that all of the attention of the silly season has been focused on free-agents Tony Kanaan, Graham Rahal and Dan Wheldon. It’s justified because this group represents two past series champions, an Indianapolis 500 winner and a second-generation American star in the making. Flying under the radar is one of the best road/street course drivers in the series, as well as what may be the most under-rated driver among the current free-agents – Justin Wilson.
The affable Brit has been plagued with lower budget teams, poor timing or flat-out bad luck throughout his open-wheel career. Unlike most sports where an athlete’s height is usually considered an advantage, open-wheel racing is different. Wilson’s 6’4” frame is considered quite a liability when trying to cram into the cozy confines of an open-wheel cockpit. This was never more evident than in 2002, when Wilson was denied a ride with Minardi in Formula One simply because he couldn’t fit into the car.
That changed in 2003, when Minardi actually designed the car around his height. As was usually the case for Minardi, the car was underwhelming, but Wilson still outpaced his more experienced (and lighter) teammate Jos Verstappen. He finished the last five races of that season with Jaguar and scored a championship point in the USGP at Indianapolis, but was not retained for 2004 when Ford mandated that Jaguar must hire a paying driver that brought funding and sponsorship.
With no other options in the highly political world that is Formula one, Wilson turned his attention to the Champ Car World Series that raced predominantly on road and street courses – save for the Milwaukee Mile. He signed with the perennially under-funded Conquest team, which curiously ran a Lola for Wilson while his revolving teammates were placed in a Reynard. Wilson scored eight top-ten finishes in a fourteen race season, on his way to finishing eleventh in points; with his best finish coming in the last race of the season – a fourth at Mexico City.
For 2005, Wilson moved on to Carl Russo’s RuSPORT team to be paired with AJ Allmendinger. That season, Wilson scored the first win for RuSPORT at Toronto and added another at Mexico City. He also had ten top-ten finishes in a thirteen race season and finished third in the points behind Newman/Haas drivers Sébastien Bourdais and Oriol Servià. He improved those results the following year by scoring eleven top-ten finishes along with seven podiums and one win, to finish second in points behind Bourdais.
It was more of the same for 2007. Wilson netted twelve top-ten finishes that resulted in a win and five podiums on his way to a repeat second-place in the point standings. But again, Wilson ended up trailing Newman/Haas driver Bourdais.
When Bourdais announced after the 2007 season that he was leaving Champ Car after giving Newman/Haas four straight championships, Wilson was the obvious choice to replace him. He had proven his skills by providing the main competition to Newman/Haas for the past three seasons. It looked like Justin Wilson was finally going to get the break of his career. He had earned his way to the top seat in the series – paired with promising newcomer, Graham Rahal. All he needed to do was perform as he had for the past three years and surely he would be sitting atop the Champ Car standings for 2008.
But a funny thing happened on the way to securing that title. In February 2008, Champ Car “merged” with the IndyCar Series. The merger, unification or whatever you want to call it amounted to more of a takeover. Aside from cherry-picking a few of the Champ Car races and adapting a few of the Champ Car rules (i.e. alternate tires for street/road courses); the teams that made the transition from Champ car to the IndyCar Series were forced to accept equipment they had no familiarity with whatsoever. They would be going up against teams that had been perfecting these chassis for five seasons on mostly oval tracks that none of these teams had ever raced on – a tall order, for even the best of teams.
Newman/Haas had the decided advantage. Having been around for close to twenty-five years, they had raced on many of the ovals – including the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Although the Milwaukee Mile was the only oval he had ever raced on – he raced there three times, finishing eleventh, fourth and second respectively – Wilson began this new phase of his career at the season opener at Homestead. It was unspectacular, at best. Wilson finished fifteenth and seven laps down.
At the next race in St. Petersburg, Wilson’s teammate stole the spotlight when Graham Rahal became the youngest winner ever in American open-wheel racing. Wilson drove to a forgettable ninth-place finish. Engine troubles plagued him at the Champ car finale in Long Breach, as he lasted only twelve laps and was credited with a disappointing nineteenth place finish.
He did surprisingly well at the next oval, by finishing ninth at Kansas. But the month of May was not kind to Wilson. He qualified sixteenth and hit the wall on lap 132 en route to finishing twenty-seventh. His familiarity with the Milwaukee Mile paid off as he patiently drove to a respectable seventh place finish. From that point on, inconsistency plagued Wilson’s season until he put it all together at Detroit – giving Newman/Haas their second victory of the season, making them the only transition team from Champ Car to score a victory. Wilson almost won the IndyCar Rookie of the Year award, finishing four points behind Hideki Mutoh of the well-established IndyCar team of Andretti-Green Racing.
Funding woes dictated that Wilson would lose his ride for 2009. Wilson took a major step backwards from Newman/Haas, which had won many championships over the previous twenty-five years; to Dale Coyne Racing – a team that had been around as long but had never won a single race. In a season that saw all but one race go to either Penske or Ganassi, Wilson bucked all odds at Watkins Glen, and gave Dale Coyne his only win as a team owner.
This past season, Wilson moved on to Dreyer & Reinbold Racing – a team that was expecting to take a giant step forward. They had paid a lot of money to beef up their engineering staff and had an improved driver lineup that featured a proven race winner in Wilson and another Brit with a large upside – Mike Conway. It never really came together for Dreyer & Reinbold. Although Wilson finished second in two of the first four races, Conway suffered season-ending injuries in a frightening crash at Indianapolis, resulting in a revolving door of drivers in and out of that car for the rest of the season – leaving Wilson as the only driver expected to give engineers consistent feedback.
After a seventh place finish at Indy, Wilson had an inconsistent season. He had dominated the weekend at Toronto and was leading, when he made a mistake and ended up seventh. Wilson ended 2010 a disappointing eleventh in points, after ending 2009 in ninth with the under-funded Dale Coyne Racing.
But in my opinion, Justin Wilson’s 2010 results are not indicative of his driving talent. Curt Cavin tends to short-sell Wilson’s oval track talents. He says if you want to win road races, hire Justin Wilson. If you want to win ovals – don’t. I disagree.
His oval track results are comparable to Will Power’s, whose best oval performance was this season – a third at Motegi. Wilson has a second at Milwaukee. Power has eight top-tens in his oval career, while Wilson has nine. Power’s best finish at Indianapolis is fifth in 2009, Wilson’s in seventh in 2010. Power’s results came with KV Racing Technology and Team Penske, while Wilson’s were with a sliding Newman/Haas, Dale Coyne and Dreyer & Reinbold.
Justin Wilson also brings something that a sponsor craves – a personality. Last May, I listened to an early morning Indianapolis radio show that featured the odd combination of Justin Wilson and bloggers Monica Hilton and Roy Hobbson. Speaking with Hobbson afterwards, he said that Justin Wilson was now his new favorite driver. As nice as Justin Wilson sounded on the air, Hobbson said he was even nicer in person. Of course, that early in the morning, Hobbson may have been too hungover to know any better. IZOD IndyCar drivers are far more approachable than their NASCAR counterparts or athletes in other sports, but Justin Wilson may be one of the most approachable and genuine personalities in the IndyCar paddock.
It is believed that Graham Rahal will be driving for Chip Ganassi this season. I’ve expressed that I would love to see Tony Kanaan team with Dan Wheldon at Panther Racing, although it doesn’t look like that will happen. Many say that these first few dominos will have to fall before Justin Wilson knows his destination for 2011. Justin Wilson is the same age as Wheldon, a little younger than Kanaan and a lot older (wiser?) than Rahal. If I were a team owner, I would jump up and sign Justin Wilson regardless of who else goes where. He is a talent that a team can build around for the future. He’s that good.