(via USA Today) – Happy anniversary, Robert Wickens.
The Canadian driver made his official IndyCar Series debut — albeit briefly — at Road America one year ago Friday. Visa problems held up Mikhail Aleshin in Europe, Schmidt Peterson Racing needed a fill-in, Wickens was handy, he drove in the first day of practice for the Kohler Grand Prix and that was that.
“At this time last year IndyCar wasn’t really on my horizon,” Wickens said Friday. “It was more just to tick off a bucket list.”
What Wickens couldn’t know then was where his racing future would be, given his Formula One dreams already had morphed into a career in sedans. He didn’t realize he was about to become a free agent.
And he certainly would not have imagined that 12 months later the phrase “challenging for a championship” would be associated with his name.
“I don’t know if I’m challenging for a championship,” Wickens said Friday.
Challenging for victories?
“There we go.”
Wickens, 29, quickly erased any question about whether IndyCar would be a good fit.
He won the pole for his first race, the season opener on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla.; finished second in Phoenix, his first oval-track race; has recorded top-10 finishes in six of the first nine races; and came to Road America ranked seventh in points, ahead of champions Simon Pagenaud and Sebastien Bourdais as well as James Hinchcliffe, the longtime friend who helped him land his first IndyCar ride.
“Obviously as a kid I grew up watching Indy cars and loved racing Indy cars,” said Wickens, who climbed the Formula BMW and Champ Car Atlantic steps of the North American ladder system before turning his attention to Europe in his late teens.
“I was never ‘always’ hoping for an IndyCar opportunity. I was honestly completely content where I was. But then situations changed and I had to look for some new avenues to go racing.”
After racing in Formula Renault 3.5, the Formula 3 Euro Series, FIA Formula Two, and GP3 – including the 2011 Renault title – Wikens began a six-year stint with Mercedes in the German Touring Car Series. Then that opportunity went away last July.
“IndyCar was my top prospect,” Wickens said. ‘It’s what I probably wanted to do the most this season, given the new aero kits, given like IndyCar is always on the rise, other championships are starting to struggle a bit.
“I think the timing was right. Happy to be a part of it. Even more I’m happy that the results are coming in the first year.”
Wickens had an important ally in his old friend and rival Hinchcliffe, a Schmidt-Peterson driver since 2015.
“For me, I had obviously a huge interest in Rob coming to the team,” Hinchcliffe said. “I was a huge advocate for it very early on.
“I was one of the few guys – myself and Piers Phillips (who became Wickens’ race strategist) were the ones that followed Robby’s career all through Europe, knew what he was capable of. We were the ones that put our foot down and said, ‘This is the guy we have to take a look at.’ ”
At the same time, Hinchcliffe tried to walk the fine line of getting Wickens on management’s radar without looking like he was just trying to get his friend a job.
“Honestly, once they looked at what he was capable of, I think the decision was pretty simple from everyone’s point on this side,” Hinchcliffe said.
From the first practice at Road America last June through the performance so far this season, it’s been quite a year for Wickens.
“Yeah,” Hinchcliffe said, “it’s really fun saying, ‘I told you so.’ ”