(via INDYCAR.com) – One of the few things faster than Robert Wickens early in the Verizon IndyCar Series season may be the rising expectation of success for the 29-year-old rookie.
He won the pole position at St. Petersburg, finished second at Phoenix and led 113 of 360 laps in the opening two races. He followed that up with a fourth-place finish in Monday’s rain-delayed completion of the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama presented by America’s First.
Wickens has gone from a driver who could make an impact to one who surely will, in the minds of many, even though every turn of the wheel this year is a new experience in this form of racing.
Who wouldn’t have lofty expectations after a start like that?
Well, Wickens for one.
One of the keys to his success is that he doesn’t climb into his No. 6 Lucas Oil Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda counting on it. He’s fast, no doubt, and embraces a podium finish as much as the next driver. But Wickens knows that success can lead to great expectations, and he has learned not to let that get into his head.
“That’s the dangerous recipe,” Wickens said. “It’s so hard to keep results out of your mind. We’re in such a results-based industry and if you don’t get results, you could lose your job. So it’s tough not to think that way. But ultimately, it’s trying to find that sweet spot where you have your level of expectation but try to manage that.”
There’s a cerebral method behind that thinking. Wickens once stressed about results to the point it wasn’t healthy. Then he hooked up with an expert in mental strength three years ago during a stretch of tough luck in the DTM touring car series in Europe. He learned that racing with passion doesn’t mean he has to drive with high hopes.
Wickens won’t identify who he works with – “I don’t want to give anyone else my advantage,” he said – but admitted it’s a former Austrian alpine skier he met while racing in Europe.
“We started working together and he changed my outlook,” Wickens said. “I learned working through him that if you have expectations, you’re already setting yourself up to fail and you’re putting too much emphasis on things. You’re not in the moment. You’re expecting something.
“It’s such a weird mental thing. It took me a long time to really get it and it’s a work in progress. There are still times I’m too focused on results and expecting good results. You’re a competitive guy and you want to win.”
His success in the DTM series, where he won six times and had 15 podium finishes in six seasons, spiraled in the wrong direction in 2015. He often qualified well but suffered any sort of malady during the races. It ate at him.
“Random stuff,” he called it. “I had started the year well – fourth or fifth in the championship, and then it just tanked. It was one thing after another.”
Instead of blaming his misfortune on racing luck that might change with the next race, Wickens looked deeper.
“I’ve always believed that you make your own luck,” he said. “Sometimes it’s wrong place, wrong time. But when it happens again and again and again, there’s one consistent thing, and it’s that I’m involved in it.”
That winter, he worked with the mental strength coach and learned to approach his job with a different mindset – lay off the expectations and focus on the moment.
“For some reason, in racing for the longest time it was considered a weakness to have a coach,” Wickens said. “But they’re in every other sport and athletes are coached to the 10th degree. Look at a tennis player. In my opinion, it’s the most mentally challenging sport in the world and they have like six coaches.
“In motorsports, it’s so hard to switch off the results side of things and just drive for the passion and self-fulfillment. Are you fulfilled when you win the championship? Yes, because you put so much into it. But ultimately is it going to change who you are as a person and change your life?”
It won’t for Wickens. He embraces two separate lives – his work life and his private life – and nothing clears his head like getting away from racing.
“I don’t live and breathe motorsports,” he said. “I like switching off. I have a cottage north of Toronto and I love getting up there, putting my phone on airplane mode and just being out there, out on the water relaxing with friends. Some people are such huge motorsports fans and that’s all they do. It works for some people and it doesn’t work for others. I work hard and I train hard, but I like getting away from it every now and then.”
When Wickens gets back to the track, his mind is in a good place. That never was more valuable than at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in March, where he won the pole position and led 69 laps so impressively that victory seemed likely. Then, Alexander Rossi nudged Wickens’ car on the final restart and all expectations went up in tire smoke.
Wickens ended up in 18th place in his Verizon IndyCar Series debut. Disappointed, but not distraught.
“I was so happy with the job we did as a team that nobody had to peel me off the floor,” he said. “But you do go through mental swings. You’re kind of like, ‘All right, I’m over it,’ and then 10 minutes later you’re furious again. I’m a competitive guy at the end of the day, but it was a morale boost for the whole team because we showed to ourselves and I showed to myself that we can compete here.”
Wickens felt so secure after the St. Petersburg race, despite the way it finished, that he didn’t discuss it with his mental strength coach.
“I didn’t call him because I felt like I didn’t need him,” Wickens said. “I feel like we’ve hit the ground running and everything is going smoothly. I’m in a very good place right now.”
Tonight, Wickens will participate in another kind of racing. He will join Schmidt Peterson Motorsports teammate James Hinchcliffe and Andretti Autosport’s Rossi and Zach Veach for “Celebs in the Sulky,” a charity harness horse racing event at Hoosier Park Racing & Casino in Anderson, Indiana.
The event, sponsored by Flat 12 Bierwerks, pairs the four INDYCAR drivers with experienced harness drivers for the race. The winning INDYCAR driver will earn $1,500 for his favorite charity, with the other three INDYCAR drivers each netting $500 for the charity of his choice.
The race starts promptly at 6 p.m. ET. Drivers will be available to sign autographs following the race.
The next Verizon IndyCar Series race is the INDYCAR Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course on Saturday, May 12 (3:30 p.m.), followed by the 102nd Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil on the 2.5-mile oval on Sunday, May 27 (11 a.m.). Both races air live on ABC and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.