Wilson, 37, who at 6ft 4in was the gentle giant of Formula One in 2003, suffered serious head injuries in freak circumstances after being struck by flying debris towards the end of Sunday’s Pocono IndyCar 500 race in Pennsylvania.
Former Red Bull driver Mark Webber, who drove in the Jaguar Formula One team alongside Wilson 12 years ago, said: “This is a tough day, not just for Justin’s family but for everyone in motor sport.
“Justin was a great guy, an absolute grafter who would have loved to have been the right size for single-seaters. The cockpits were a real task for him but he still gave it everything, often in sub-par machinery, in his attempt to establish himself in F1.
“He was a formidable overtaker, gutsy, determined but always fair, the kind of guy you wanted to race against us. He had zero politics and he wasn’t a crasher – he had to look after his cars because he didn’t have unlimited funds.”
With 21 laps remaining of Sunday’s race the American rookie Sage Karam crashed into the concrete wall of the oval track and part of the reinforced nosecone of his car struck the following Wilson on his helmet. The Yorkshireman was airlifted to Lehigh Valley hospital in Allentown, but never emerged from a coma.
Wilson’s death followed that of Formula One driver Jules Bianchi last month. Bianchi was fatally injured in a bizarre incident in last year’s Japanese Grand Prix, when he crashed into a recovery vehicle that was removing another car from the track.
The 20 drivers who inhabit the global village of Formula One are relatively well known, while those who compete in Nascar and IndyCar are often unknown outside the US. But that was not the case with Wilson, from Sheffield, who was the tallest driver to have competed in Formula One. His death comes four years after that of another British IndyCar driver, Dan Wheldon – twice a winner of the Indianapolis 500 – in the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Mark Miles, the chief executive of IndyCar’s parent company, Hulman & Co, said: “Justin’s elite ability to drive a race car was matched by his unwavering kindness, character and humility – which is what made him one of the most respected members of the paddock.”
BBC Formula One commentator and analyst Allan McNish said: “Justin was a fierce competitor on the track. But you could not meet a more gentle giant off it. He didn’t look a racing driver type, but when you put him in the cockpit he was extremely determined, very focused.”
McNish, who was beaten into second place by Wilson in the 2012 Daytona 24 Hours, added: “The thing other people appreciated was that he was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He grafted for everything he got. He always felt fortunate when he got opportunities and breaks, and he really appreciated it when people supported him. And to be honest, that quality sets him apart from 99% of people in motor sport – in all sport – who are usually much more selfish.
“His size hindered him in every form of single-seater racing, no question. He had to be levered into cars, he was so tall. Having such a big body crammed into such a small space and then drive to the limit is very difficult. But he had a real feel for overtaking. He was decisive and committed and got the job done. He didn’t make half-moves, like some drivers do in Formula One. A lot of people have a big lump in their throat right now – including myself.”
Wilson was spotted in his karting days by Paul Stewart, the son of three-times world champion Sir Jackie Stewart. He then came under the wing of another British Formula One driver, Jonathan Palmer, and won the Formula Palmer Audi series.
After investors had raised £1.2m, Wilson competed in the first race of the 2003 season in a Minardi, run on a shoestring budget rather like today’s Manor team. He moved to Jaguar later in the season and was eighth in the US Grand Prix.
He moved to the US in 2004 and competed in Champ Car before progressing to IndyCar, where he had seven victories. He said just two weeks ago: “I don’t change the decisions I make. I pride myself on the decisions I make in the race car. Sometimes it goes for you, sometimes it doesn’t. You have to be prepared. Racing is dangerous, we know that but it something you learn to live with and try to calculate the risk.”
He is survived by his wife, Julia, and two daughters. In a statement his family said he was a “loving father and devoted husband, as well as a highly competitive racing driver who was respected by his peers”.
The Formula One world champion, Lewis Hamilton, said: “I am so devastated to hear of another passing of a great man and driver. I’d met Justin Wilson a few times growing up and he was the ultimate gentleman.”
Jenson Button, the F1 champion in 2009, tweeted: “The motorsport world comes 2 a standstill once again. @justin_wilson was a great person & racing driver. My thoughts are with his family RIP.”
Charles Bradley, the editor in chief of motorsport.com, was someone who knew Wilson particularly well. He said: “People were prepared to move heaven and earth to give him a break, and that wasn’t just about his driving talent – which of course mattered – it was because he was such a great guy. For example, Palmer was crowdfunding him years before it became a thing.
“They nicknamed him ‘badass’ in the States, partly because of his speed and tenacious driving, but partly as a joke because he was such a genuinely nice bloke out of the car.”
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