Exclusive INDYCAR Nation News

Wilson standing tall

by
Kyle Lavigne
| Jul 18, 2011

 

It’s hard to beat the emotion Stefan Wilson experienced after his maiden win in Firestone Indy Lights at Toronto. The 21-year-old Englishman, younger brother to Justin Wilson, is somewhat of a veteran of Indy Lights at this point, with 24 starts to his name over the last three years. That first career win had been a long time coming, and Wilson was beside himself about it.

“I’m so thrilled to get my first win, especially at Toronto,” Wilson said enthusiastically. “It’s a track I really like, a city I really like, it’s the 25th anniversary of the race, and it’s the place where my brother (Justin) got his first win in North America. Just very pleased that I could get my win.”

The manner in which it came makes it all the more impressive. Wilson was at or near the top of the speed charts all weekend and, at one point, held a 13 second lead before the race ended under a caution. “It’s a sense of relief to do it the way I did,” he explained. “I think I was quickest in most of the sessions. Practice one we were quickest, practice two we were P2, qualifying we were quickest but I had taken away so we were second quickest there, and in the warm-up we were quickest. So, it was really a dominant weekend. And, then in the race, I felt like I was quick enough to get by Esteban (Guerrieri) regardless of his mistake. To pull out a 13 second lead before the (final) caution was really pleasing to me.”

What’s more, a problem with the anti-roll bar added some unexpected drama to the accomplishment, with the car’s handling somewhat compromised early on. “We were really strong in those first five laps and I made an adjustment on the roll bar, and sometimes it doesn’t quite stick into position and if it doesn’t quite do that, it softens off and goes full-soft,” he said. “I knew that around lap four or five I had made an adjustment with it and I guess it went full-soft. I noticed I wasn’t able to put much pressure on (Guerrieri) as I was able to before. Even after he spun, my lap times weren’t that great and I was getting pressure from behind which I had not happened earlier in the race. I looked down, noticed it was in the wrong position, put it to its right position and the car came back to life.”

The emotions of the day are highlighted when you look at Wilson’s career. With funding hindering his efforts the last two seasons, 2011 is the first year for him competing full-time. “This is my third season contesting Indy Lights, but when you look back at the races, this first year I only did (six) events. The second year, we did (11) events. So, this is the first ‘full season.’ When you add up the races all together, it adds to being one season and the current season I’m running right now,” he said of his Indy Lights career.

Even before his transition to the U.S., Wilson was met with adversity. Standing 6’4”, his height hampered his ability to move up the European ladder, just as older brother Justin had experienced, despite the talent he displayed. “I’d witnessed all the stuff that went on with Justin when he was making his way up the ladder in Europe and his height held him back. They don’t really tolerate taller drivers in Europe as they do in America,” said the Englishman, who is the tallest driver on the grid. “They build the cars to be as fast they can and then they find a driver who fits that car. I wasn’t really going to get much opportunity in Europe and I saw how much fun (Justin) was having in America. I came over and witnessed that and that was it. I knew I wanted to race in INDYCAR and to race in the Indy 500.”

His first experience at the Indy 500 left an indelible mark on the young man from Sheffield. “The first Indy 500 I went to I was just blown away, it’s such an amazing event with so many people, it’s just amazing to see. The history behind the Indianapolis Motorspeedway, 100 years of tradition, it’s something I want to put my name on and be involved with.”

The transition to the U.S. was made all the more easier with Justin serving as a mentor, something Stefan indicates has been very important to his career. “He’s such a great role model for me. He’s won races in INDYCAR, he’s won quite a few. The way he carries himself and how committed he is to his racing career, it’s just a great role model for me to try and emulate. He’s achieved so much and if I can achieve half of what he has I think I’ll be pretty good.”

As the 2011 season goes, Wilson has seen his ups and downs. Leading a 1-2 for Andretti Autosport at Toronto was a high point, but bad luck set them back earlier in the year. “The first race really hurt us. We were taken out on the first lap,” he recalled. “Straight away, we lost so many points in the championship. We ended up with a DNF so we lost at least 30 points in the championship right there. So we’ve had to come back from a deficit like that and we were making that up.”

Funding added to the difficulties, with the Andretti operation unable to field a second car for James Winslow at the Milwaukee and Iowa rounds. Wilson struggled in each of those, finishing eighth both times, possibly because there was no teammate to share data with. “Unfortunately, we went down to a one-car team for Milwaukee and Iowa. That really made it difficult,” he explained. “I don’t doubt my ability on the ovals. I raced well at Iowa last year and had the second quickest race lap and was quickest in some of the practice sessions. But, for whatever reason, we weren’t quick there this year and didn’t gel very well. The team has had good cars so we’re very confused about why we were off the pace at Milwaukee and Iowa. That’s something we’re going to work on and we’re going to test to try and make it better, for sure.”

Having Peter Dempsey as a teammate (Dempsey was left without a ride when O2 Racing Technology was suspended) made the Toronto weekend much more manageable according to Wilson. “I think it’s great that Peter (Dempsey) is on board. It’s nice having a teammate who can run through some more setup information and give you twice as much track time to make changes and improve the car. At Toronto, that took a little pressure off me so we could focus on some of the things that on previous weekends we wouldn’t have gotten a chance to try. We knew that Peter was going to be able to try some things himself. It spread out the workload a little bit and enabled us to improve the cars twice as fast. And, look at the result! We ended up 1-2.”

He is hopeful that Dempsey will see out the season with Andretti Autosport. “I think Peter’s a great driver and we work really well together actually. We have similar driving styles, which is why it works so well. We both have got a lot of respect for each other. Our team is hoping that Peter will be able to get back in the car. I think that’ll help us carry on this big trend of improving the car during the weekend and being the two fastest cars on the track.”

In terms of the Firestone Indy Lights Championship, Wilson, who is 46 points back of leader Josef Newgarden, is focused on running up front and trying for more wins. The points, he believes, will take care of themselves. “I’ve tried looking into the points and it’s just not worth looking into,” he said matter-of-factly. “We’re 46 points back. All you can do is go out and try to win every race you can and (the points) will sort themselves out. The next three are a good opportunity for me to take some points out of that gap.”

In order to contend, though, he acknowledges that they need to keep improving. “On the ovals, we’ve just got to make sure we get our stuff is sorted out and we’ve got to be performing well on the ovals to make a push for the championship. Like I said, right now, it’s just a case of performing well and showing my driving ability. That will go a long way for next year. If we get some race wins, that will help us in the championship so that’s what I want to focus on now: getting race wins.”

And, even though his experience is Indy Lights is fairly extensive, he isn’t in a rush to jump into IndyCars. “I’m still only 21 years old, which is pretty young in some standards. I’m not in a hurry to move up. If all goes well and I can finish in the top two in the championship, then I think I’ll have to make that choice and try to move up. I’d definitely try to move up into IndyCar and at least do a few races next year. But, I wouldn’t be opposed to another year in Indy Lights. I just want to make sure that I learn as much a possible in Indy Lights because that’s what it’s there for. It’s a training ground.”

Wilson points out that he wants to be as polished as possible before jumping into the “big cars.” “My opinion is that I want to make sure that I’m kind of a complete driver when I move up to IndyCar. I don’t want to have to do the bulk of learning there because once you get that opportunity in IndyCar, you’ve got to make it count. You’ve got to shine straight away. When you look at drivers who moved up rather quickly, they’re not shining so much. Drivers like James Hinchcliffe and Charlie Kimball, who have done their time in the junior formulas and then move up, they’re really shining and are doing a good job this year, James and Charlie and J.R. (Hildebrand), they’ve done a great job this year.”

Regardless of how soon he makes the jump into the Izod IndyCar Series, he is certain that his future lies in the United States. “I was committed the first year,” he said emphatically. “When I did the first (six) races in Indy Lights, I had the option of going back to England. I could have probably done a bit more racing in Europe, but I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to stay here in America. I wanted to race and move up the ladder into INDYCAR. It’s INDYCAR or nothing!”

And, there’s also the goal of racing on the same grid with his older brother. “I think it’ll be really cool for both us to be racing in the Izod IndyCar Series and having two brothers (on the grid) again would be kind of special for the Indianapolis Motorspeedway,” he added. “There have been a lot of families racing together at the Indianapolis 500, the Andrettis, the Unsers, and it would be really cool if, in the next couple of years, we could have the Wilson brothers.”

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