(via INDYCAR.com) – Yes, it’s only two races into the Verizon IndyCar Series season, but it’s already pretty clear that Schmidt Peterson Motorsports is a force to be reckoned with in 2018.
What else can fans deduce from a team that’s been the one to beat in both races, with drivers James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens leading 37 percent of the race laps so far (133 of 360), collecting one pole and one podium. Neither driver has qualified worse than seventh in the first two races, all of which has put both drivers in the thick of the championship mix.
Although they haven’t reached victory lane yet, only a dive-bomb takeout of leader Wickens in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg season opener and a failed attempt by both to make used tires work on a late restart in Saturday’s Desert Diamond West Valley Casino Phoenix Grand Prix stood in the way.
It’s only a matter of time and a bit of better luck before Hinchcliffe or Wickens scores a win. That win could come as soon as Sunday’s Toyota Grand Prix Long Beach, where No. 5 Arrow Electronics SPM Honda driver Hinchcliffe arrives as the defending winner and brimming with confidence after the team’s speed out of the gate.
“We are only two races in at two very different tracks, and it’s great to see our competitiveness at two different types of circuits,” Hinchcliffe said.
“We are back to a street circuit and hopefully that’s good based on what we saw in St Pete, and then we’ll see at the road courses and speedways. There’s still a lot of racing to go, but definitely a strong start for the whole team.”
The eyebrow-raising element is that SPM has excelled after making major changes to the team over the offseason, bringing in many new faces to shake things up and boost performance.
With some key people, such as Hinchcliffe’s race engineer, Leena Gade, arriving from endurance racing without any Indy car experience, many expected SPM would need time to find its feet. After the drivers struggled in the preseason, it seemed to confirm the idea that the team might not be at its best early on. Wrong.
“It was a huge change in the offseason through every department really – drivers, engineers, mechanics, commercial, the whole deal,” Hinchcliffe said. “There’s been a lot of change and obviously something’s clicking and something’s working.”
SPM made a conscious decision to look for a new teammate for Hinchcliffe who would fit into the long-term plan to give the team an effective 1-2 punch on race weekends. Enter fellow Canadian Wickens, one of Hinchcliffe’s best buddies and a successful open-wheel and touring car driver.
Wickens has been the revelation of early 2018, dominating the season opener from the pole until he was spun into the wall by Alexander Rossi’s overambitious passing attempt. In Phoenix, he raced at the front with Hinchcliffe all night before the late gamble to not pit under yellow backfired. Shod with fresh Firestone tires, Josef Newgarden snatched the victory with three laps to go and Wickens settled for second.
While classified a rookie, Wickens brought impressive credentials to the Verizon IndyCar Series. He’s won two open-wheel championships (2006 Formula BMW USA and 2011 World Series by Renault 3.5), spent time as a Formula 1 test driver and excelled for the past five years in the highly competitive German touring car series called DTM.
Those who have followed Wickens’ career closely over the past decade aren’t surprised by his performances so far in 2018, although the No. 6 Lucas Oil SPM Honda driver insisted that most of the credit for his fast start goes to Hinchcliffe and the SPM crew.
“I think the team is doing such a great job getting me up to speed,” Wickens said. “They’re carrying me. It goes from my teammate Hinch, both car crews, the (Nos.) 5 and 6, are doing such a strong job.
“James is taking the brunt of the work for us because he’s the one basically setting up the car because he has a lot more oval experience than me. I’m kind of doing the basic stuff, but he’s taking the job list of the tough things. He’s building us a great car. I’m just reaping the benefits of driving a well-balanced car. Hats off to him.”