(via Toronto Sun) — Living in a tiny town in the Austrian Alps without a car, Robert Wickens was forced to get creative.
“I was more less trapped,” the 28-year-old Guelph-raised auto racer said of one of many challenging situations he endured while plying his trade in Europe.
A race-car driver without a car? Who’d a thunk it.
Thankfully, a local hotel in Fuschl am See — the region where The Sound of Music was filmed — had a motorized scooter it lent out. So Wickens, racing for Red Bull in the Champ Car Atlantic series in 2007 and needing to get to Red Bull’s athletes’ training headquarters each day — 20 minutes outside of town, near Salzburg — scooted up the mountains, essentially reprising a famous scene from the comedy Dumb and Dumber.
“One hour each way, up through the Alps,” said Wickens, who has spent the past decade pursuing racing opportunities throughout Europe, while working odd jobs. In England, he tended bar in a pub until, “they realized I didn’t have a Visa to work, so they fired me.”
Wickens is back on North American soil now, with a full-time gig and a new teammate — who just so happens to be one of his best friends.
Schmidt Peterson Motorsports announced this week they’ve added Wickens to their driver lineup and he’ll team with 30-year-old Oakville native James Hinchcliffe to form the first all-Canadian IndyCar team since Paul Tracy and Patrick Carpentier in 2004.
Indianapolis-based SPM also announced it has extended Hinchcliffe’s contract in what the company said is a multi-year deal for both drivers.
It’s a reunion of sorts for Wickens and Hinchcliffe, who first met on the karting circuit when the former was 13 and the latter was 15. While Wickens eventually crossed the big pond to race — and spent the past six years in the German Touring Car Series — Hinchcliffe landed in the top North American open-wheel circuit, where he has become one of the series’ fan favourites with five career wins under his belt, a pole-victory at the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500, a near-fatal crash during practice ahead of the same race a year prior, and an appearance on Dancing With the Stars in 2016.
To hear both drivers describe it, however, they have never really lost contact and, in fact, have regularly picked each other’s brains on Monday morning phone calls after race weekends, with the elder Hinchcliffe often serving as a mentor.
“Our friendship is not smoke and mirrors,” Wickens said, adding, “it’s amazing that it all worked out. The stars aligned.”
Hinchcliffe, a seven-year IndyCar veteran who surely had put his bargaining power to work considering his free-agent status prior to re-signing with Schmidt Peterson, acknowledged that he lobbied hard to have Wickens join his team, but insists it was purely from a racing merit standpoint.
“I didn’t want to just lobby for my friend,” Hinchcliffe said, noting it was about finding the “most capable” driver and “I knew what he was capable of.”
Both Hinchcliffe and co-owner Ric Peterson said chemistry is an area the team has focused in on and there’s no doubt the two Canadian drivers share that. Wickens got his first taste of IndyCar when the friends organized a ride swap in Rome last off-season and filled in briefly for one race weekend when Hinchcliffe’s former partner, Russian Mikhail Aleshin, ran into Visa issues. He is no stranger to open-wheel racing and brings a wealth of technical knowledge considering his European-based racing background.
“The friendship thing is probably going to go further than we counted on,” Peterson said, adding the fact Wickens is Canadian is “just a bonus.”
Added Hinchcliffe: “There’s a level of respect and trust that exists. It’s not about the car, tires, engines. It’s about people. If you can have the right people in place … it’s a big piece of the puzzle.”
That the puzzle now includes a couple longtime friends from Ontario racing together professionally is not lost of those involved.
“It’s the cherry on top,” Hinchcliffe said, while Wickens added, “IndyCar has been on my radar. I grew up watching Greg Moore, Patrick Carpentier … I’ve always followed it closely. It’s pretty incredible.”
HINCH STAYS PUT
James Hinchcliffe could have moved, but chose to stay.
“Nine times out of 10, if you have the opportunity to stay put, that’s what you want,” the Canadian IndyCar driver said on Thursday. “It wasn’t that hard of a decision.”
The 30-year-old from Oakville signed a multi-year contract extension with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports earlier this week that will keep him in the No. 5 Arrow Electronics Honda for the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season and beyond. He had previously driven for Newman-Haas Racing and Andretti Autosport and acknowledged he had been approached by several other owners about jumping ship.
Ultimately, a solid foundation and a few additions – including new teammate, longtime friend and fellow Canadian Robert Wickens – convinced him Schmidt Peterson was the outfit he wanted to drive for.
“One less thing to worry about,” said co-owner Ric Peterson, who is optmistic his team can improve in 2018. “We want to have a chance to win at every track we go to.”