Lewis Hamilton has hailed Sheffield’s Justin Wilson as motor racing’s “ultimate gentleman” following his tragic death on Monday.
Wilson, the 37-year-old former Formula One driver, succumbed to the head injuries he sustained in an IndyCar race at Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania on Sunday.
With 21 laps of the ABC Supply 500 remaining, Wilson was struck on the crash helmet by debris after American rookie Sage Karam slammed into the concrete wall at the oval track.
The debris, reported to be part of the nose cone of Karam’s car, catapulted high up into the air after hitting the helpless Wilson on the head. The Sheffield-born racer was knocked out instantly.
Wilson was left in a coma fighting for his life after being airlifted to Lehigh Valley Hospital in Allentown, but it was a battle which he would lose. The grave news that the sport feared came through in the early hours of Tuesday morning.
It meant the motor racing community was once more mourning the death of one of their own. Jules Bianchi, the talented French Formula One driver, succumbed to the devastating brain injuries he sustained at last October’s Japanese Grand Prix only 37 days ago.
“I woke up this morning feeling positive in my heart until I read the news,” said Hamilton, who is on course to become a triple world champion after winning Sunday’s Belgian Grand Prix.
“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.
“Whilst I only knew him a little, I will miss him. We will miss him. May God rest his soul and keep his hands over his family. My thoughts are with the Wilson family.”
Wilson, popular throughout the motor racing paddock, leaves behind a wife Julia, who he married in 2006, and two daughters, aged seven and five. Julia was at his bedside after flying in from the family home in Colorado, Denver when he passed away.
A family statement read: “With deep sadness, the parents of Justin Wilson, Keith and Lynne, his wife Julia, and his brother Stefan share the news that Justin passed away today after succumbing to injuries suffered during the Verizon IndyCar event at Pocono Raceway on Sunday, August 23. Justin was a loving father and devoted husband, as well as a highly competitive racing driver who was respected by his peers.”
Wilson won the Formula 3000 title in 2001 before raising £1.2million through a crowd-funding scheme to secure a seat with Minardi for the 2003 Formula One season.
He competed in 11 races for them before taking part in the final five grands prix of the campaign for Jaguar. On Tuesday, the flags at Red Bull Racing - the team which emerged from Jaguar’s ashes in 2005 - flew their flags at half-mast in honour of the Englishman.
Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said: “There are many sad faces at the factory today. Justin left his mark on many who worked with him during the Jaguar days; he is remembered fondly for the kind and humble person he was.
“Having known Justin since his karting days on the British circuits, it was always obvious to me that he was destined for great things in motorsport. His progress through the lower formulas was impressive and he absolutely flourished in F3000.
“I followed his successful career with interest over the years. Justin will be remembered not only as a talented driver but also as quite simply one of the nicest blokes in motorsport.”
Wilson sealed the only point-scoring finish of his Formula One career at America’s Indianapolis Speedway after he finished the race in eighth - and it was across the pond where he achieved his greatest professional success.
Undeterred by his gangly 6ft 4in frame, which made him Formula One’s tallest-ever driver, he moved to America shortly after being dumped by Jaguar.
He started 174 IndyCar races in a career that spanned more than a decade. He won on seven occasions - the most recent in 2012 at Texas Motor Speedway - and had eight pole positions to his name. Wilson, also an ambassador for dyslexia, was winding down his career when Sunday’s tragedy hit.
Jenson Button, who competed against Wilson in Formula One as well as in motor racing’s junior categories, joined Hamilton in paying tribute to his countryman.
“The motorsport world comes to a standstill once again,” Button said. “Justin Wilson was a great person and racing driver. I raced with Justin as far back as 1989 in karting and remember his smile was infectious, such a lovely guy. My thoughts are with his family. â?ªRIP Justinâ?¬.”
Wilson’s death comes less than four years after the last fatality in IndyCar. Briton’s Dan Wheldon lost his life in a devastating 15-car pile-up at the Las Vegas Speedway in October, 2011.
His sister Holly posted a picture of her brother and Wilson on Tuesday. “May these two gorgeous British boys rest in peace together. #BadassWilson #Lionheart,” she wrote.
Question marks will again be raised over the IndyCar’s safety record - Wilson is the eighth driver to die in the series in 20 years - as well as the inherent dangers associated with open-cockpit racing.
It was reported on Tuesday that the FIA, motor racing’s governing body, will hold closed-cockpit tests in September.