From vacation to racin’, Wickens loves INDYCAR opportunity

(via — With a weekend off between DTM touring car rounds, Canadian driver Robert Wickens initially expected to remain in Europe. A welcome change in plans gave him the opportunity to fly home and the Toronto native was headed for a relaxing few days at the lake.

Then came the call Thursday afternoon from childhood friend James Hinchcliffe. Hours later, Wickens was headed to eastern Wisconsin and Road America, preparing for his first experience as a Verizon IndyCar Series driver on a race weekend.

With Mikhail Aleshin dealing with travel complications returning from the 24 Hours of Le Mans on June 18, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports was in a hurry to find a driver to fill the No. 7 SMP Racing Honda’s seat until Aleshin’s return. That’s what prompted the call from Hinchcliffe, Aleshin’s teammate and Wickens’ longtime friend and former karting and A1GP teammate.

It also helped that Wickens tested Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 Arrow Honda at Sebring International Raceway in February. After a few phone calls Thursday to Europe to secure approvals from his DTM team and manufacturer Mercedes and a brief night’s sleep, Wickens participated in his first competitive Verizon IndyCar Series practice session this morning at the KOHLER Grand Prix.

“I’m excited to be here,” said Wickens, who sits ninth in the DTM championship – one of Europe’s premier touring car series – through six races. “I mean, it’s definitely a last-minute trip. I found out basically yesterday at 2 p.m. (ET) that this (was) going to happen, got on a flight last night, got to the hotel about 10 last night, sleep, here as soon as the gates opened. It’s been a bit of a ride.”

The rushed assembly of Wickens’ debut – which, for now, is only for today’s two practices in hopes that Aleshin will be in the car Saturday – required the help of several drivers to gather the right equipment. It included an old SPM seat used by Simon Pagenaud when he drove for the team.

“It’s been a mess,” said Wickens, 28. “Josef Newgarden lent me a pair of shoes, I have Conor Daly’s Nomex underwear on, I’m using Mikhail’s spare firesuit, so it’s all a bit of a mess.”

But Wickens wouldn’t trade the experience for anything, even if it lasts only a day.

“From the outside, I’ve always envied this of INDYCAR, is that the driver community is really strong,” he said, “and something that we don’t really see that much where I am in DTM. It’s actually really cool that everyone kind of pulls together and helps out when possible. So far, it’s just been a blast.”

Wickens’ February test came as part of a ride swap that with Hinchcliffe during preseason testing. Wickens drove the Indy car in late February and Hinchcliffe tried out Wickens’ Mercedes-AMG C63 at Autodromo Vallelunga, about 20 miles north of Rome, in mid-March. Wickens stayed in contact with SPM team members and Hinchcliffe. When Aleshin’s visa issues arose this week, the 2011 Formula Renault 3.5 champion was thrilled to substitute.

Being paired with Hinchcliffe fulfilled a dream the Canadians have shared since childhood.

“James and I, we’ve been teammates since – well, we met in like 2001 when we were both teammates together in karting back in Toronto. We were always joking around, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we make it pro?’ He always wanted to go to INDYCAR, I always wanted to go to Formula One. We already knew at a young age we wanted to go different ways.”

Wickens drove in Formula BMW, A1GP and Formula Atlantics in North America before his career path veered to Europe for stints in British Formula 3, GP3, FIA Formula 2, Formula Renault 3.5 and a season as an F1 test/reserve driver before moving to touring cars. That didn’t stop the shared dream, however.

“But the whole time, our whole childhood, we were saying, ‘Once we make it pro, we should always do a car swap,’” Wickens said. “He always wanted to try a Formula One car, I wanted to try an INDYCAR car. We were able to do it. Sure, it wasn’t a Formula One car, but the DTM car is a great car to drive. He got to drive the pinnacle of a touring car, which not many people get the chance to.

“But, yeah, the fact that I’m here today, definitely didn’t expect that.”

Wickens was 20th in the opening practice, turning 11 laps. His quickest was 1 minute, 45.6823 seconds around Road America’s 4.014-mile, 14-turn permanent road course. While Aleshin hopes to arrive in Wisconsin in time to practice and qualify Saturday, Wickens won’t be disappointed if he gets to continue driving after today.

“I’m going to be blunt,” Wickens said. “Yes, I will be disappointed if I don’t do the race. But at the moment, I’m just going day by day. Yesterday, I was on my way to a relaxing weekend, now I’m in Road America, so we’ll just have to wait and see.”

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