(via AUTOWEEK) — Robert Wickens’ path to IndyCar racing has taken a long and somewhat circuitous path.
Wickens makes his Verizon IndyCar Series debut in this weekend’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Wickens is part of a two-driver Canadian team at Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports that also includes IndyCar Series star James Hinchcliffe.
The 28-year-old rookie driver has a tremendous amount of experience in Europe. Wickens became a star in DTM driving for Mercedes-AMG Motorsport with six wins, 15 podiums and five poles in 84 starts.
But last June, Wickens got a call from IndyCar Series team owner Sam Schmidt. Mikhail Aleshin of Russia was having difficulty getting back into the United States after racing in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in France. While Aleshin was dealing with immigration, Peterson needed a driver to get into Aleshin’s car at Road America.
Hinchcliffe recommended Wickens, his boyhood racing pal from Toronto, to fill in for Aleshin. Wickens agreed and drove the Honda during Friday’s two practice sessions.
Later that night, Aleshin was allowed back into the United States and was in Wisconsin in time for Saturday morning’s practice and qualifications. Wickens’ time as an IndyCar driver lasted just one day.
“The whole Road America thing was for fun and to try something new,” Wickens told Autoweek. “I honestly didn’t have a whole lot of intentions switching over to IndyCar after that. The big change to me was when Mercedes-Benz announced it was leaving DTM for the end of the 2018 season. That made me realize I have to sort out my career pretty soon.
“I enjoyed my taste of IndyCar, started some formal conversations, one thing led to another and we put a deal together that was pretty cool. I really enjoyed the Road America practice that we had. I would have loved to have done the race that weekend and I was pretty upset that Mikhail Aleshin showed up and I had to step aside for him. I was just filling in for a day.”
That experience with Schmidt Peterson Racing proved valuable when it came to negotiating his current IndyCar deal. But he had no intentions of leaving DTM until Mercedes made its decision to depart at the end of this year.
“I was interested in IndyCar but I had such a good thing going in Europe with Mercedes that I probably wasn’t going to leave,” Wickens said.
Wickens departure reunites him with Hinchcliffe.
“Yeah, I’ve known that guy for too long,” Wickens said. “The first time we started racing against each other was in 2001 or 2002. We hit it off at the beginning and stayed really good friends through now. We were really good friends and raced against each other in karting and remained really good friends throughout our career. We raced against each other in 2007 in Formula Atlantic.
“When I went over to Europe, we continued talking to each other through texts and phone calls once a week or every other week. When we were both in Toronto we would go out to dinner and go out of our way to catch up with each other.
“We are actually closer friends than the media lets on.”
It was the 2007 season when Wickens appeared to be on a path to the Champ Car Series. He was a fresh, fast face in the Atlantic Series. At that time, it was the stepping stone to Champ Car.
Wickens was actually part of Team Red Bull June Team from 2006 to 2009. It was Red Bull’s decision to put Wickens in Atlantic. When Champ Car merged with the Indy Racing League in 2008 to form the current IndyCar Series, it was Red Bull that told Wickens he would be racing in Europe.
“It wasn’t that scenario that I was overlooked or missed out after my Atlantic campaign in 2007,” Wickens said. “It was that Red Bull had other plans for me in 2008. You do as they say, it was as simple as that.”
After building an impressive career in Europe, Wickens has returned to North America to the top level of open wheel racing in the United States.
“In 2007, Champ Car had the new Panoz and that car looked wicked,” Wickens recalled. “We shared the race shop with Forsythe’s Champ Car shop. Every day I went into the shop I saw that car and it looked like a cool car to drive. If the series continued I was going to do testing for Forsythe in Champ Car.”
Instead, the two sides merged, team owner Gerry Forsythe did not agree to move over to IndyCar, the team closed up and Wickens was off to Europe.
“If I had gotten the opportunity in 2008 to go to what is now IndyCar, I believe I would have taken it,” Wickens said.
Ten years later, the Canadian gets his wish beginning with Friday’s practice for Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
And this time, unlike Road America, he’s in the car for good.