(via Toronto Sun) – They weren’t exactly empty celebrations, but each time Robert Wickens celebrated a race win in victory lane, he did so somewhat anonymously.
Wickens, the former karting sensation out of Guelph, Ont., enjoyed immense success throughout a decade-long sojourn in Europe, capturing race victories in various series, including a Formula Renault 3.5 Series championship in 2011, as well as half-dozen wins with Mercedes in the German-based DTM touring car series.
Wickens had his crew and he had his wins, but it always felt like something was missing.
“When I was racing in Europe, I had a lot of races that were regarded as a very important race, but for me it was just another race because I didn’t have support with me,” the 29-year-old said. “I had a lot of races where, say, in the past, Mercedes had won there the past 10 years and there was kind of some added pressure to keep that streak alive. And, fortunately, I could rise to the top and get that result. I won consecutive years in a row for them. It was all a great time, but for me it was just another race because I didn’t have that hometown feel. I was living in Germany at the time, but Germany never felt like my home. Where I was living, we never had a race in that town, so there was never a home race.”
On Sunday, Wickens will finally get his wish. The series rookie will race in IndyCar for the first time at home — and, in his enthusiastic words, “nothing is going to relate to what Toronto is going to feel like.”
Indeed, while his Schmidt Peterson Motorsports teammate, eight-year IndyCar veteran James Hinchcliffe, has overcome many obstacles along the way — namely coming back from a near-fatal collision at the Indianapolis 500 in 2015 — Wickens has taken the long road to IndyCar.
Having earlier in his career been passed over in Formula One, Wickens packed his belongings and bided his time in Europe before an opportunity finally came to fruition this past fall that saw him join SPM, thanks to some heavy recruiting help from Hinchcliffe, his childhood friend.
With that, dreams are about to come true.
“All year, the whole winter when I signed to come to IndyCar, there were three races that I was really looking forward to. The first one was (the season-opening race in) St. Petersburg, just because it was going to be my first ever IndyCar race. The next one was the Indy 500, because, well, to be frank, it’s the friggin’ Indy 500. Pretty self-explanatory,” Wickens said. “And the next one, it’s racing in Toronto. I was born in Etobicoke, lived in Guelph my entire life. It’s just going to be special.”
It won’t be Wickens’ first time on the Toronto street course. Aside from regularly attending the event as a youngster, he raced along the lakeshore in 2007 with the Champ Car Atlantic series.
“But, you know, you don’t really get that same vibe,” Wickens said of that lower-series race, adding, “I’ve been racing in Europe for so long that, for a lot of friends and family this is going to be their first opportunity to see me work, to see me race.”
As to whether he feels any added pressure from the hometown aspect of the race, Wickens said his “cool and calm” nature allows him to control his emotions and he doesn’t allow outside pressures to affect him negatively.
But, “I think there’s definitely some added pressure to try to get a good result for your team, your supporters,” he said. “There’s only one Canadian race on the calendar, so there’s maybe a little bit of extra pressure, but the thing is, the second you start trying harder to do things is when things stop going as planned.”
Does Wickens, who enters the weekend sixth in the overall driver standings with five top-fives and a season-opening pole win at St. Petersburg, feel he has what it takes to capture his first IndyCar win on home soil in what he called a “bucket-list” race?
“We’ve been fast at every race this year. As long as everything goes smoothly, Toronto isn’t going to be anything different,” he said. “As long as we do everything we’re supposed to at the Toronto race weekend, there’s no reason that we can’t compete for a good result in Toronto.”
PALS GIVE POSITIVE PUSH
Robert Wickens and James Hinchcliffe were besties growing up, a couple of Ontario kids competing together on the karting tracks by day and following it up with video game marathons well into the wee hours.
That competitive relationship hasn’t changed now that they are Schmidt Peterson Motorsports teammates competing in North America’s top open-wheel racing circuit, the Verizon IndyCar Series. According to Wickens, the familiarity has helped both drivers succeed.
“We have a friendly competitiveness. We even had it growing up as kids when we were racing go-karts together. It was always that kind of, anything you can do I can do better,” explained the rookie Wickens, who is currently sixth in the driver standings, two positions ahead of Hinchcliffe. “We’re constantly pushing each other through everything. It it’s trying to get the best out-lap on cold tires … every little aspect of our game, we’re pushing each other and, so far, it’s been amazing.
“That’s what you need as a team to get good results. You need that person pushing yourself, because the second you become complacent in a championship like IndyCar is the second you’re not in the top five, your’re not in the top 10.”
The transition from touring cars to Indy cars has been seemingly seamless for Robert Wickens, who has so far flourished in his rookie season.
Through 11 starts, the Guelph native has earned five top-five finishes, been inside the top 10 on eight occasions and captured one pole, at the season-opener in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Not a bad opening Indy chapter for the 29-year-old, who spent nearly a decade racing in Europe before signing with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports in the fall, joining teammate and good friend James Hinchcliffe of Oakville.
But as any athlete will attest, complacency is a dangerous thing, and Wickens is far from satisfied.
“In ways I’ve exceeded, and in ways I’ve been disappointed,” said Wickens, who drives the No. 6 Honda. “We’ve kind of thrown away a lot of very good point finishes, and when you think about how good the year has been already.”
Wickens enters the Toronto race sixth in the overall driver standings. He hasn’t given up in his quest for a season championship, but the battle is of the uphill variety with five races remaining before the season finale Sept. 16 at Sonoma.
“Honestly, it’s going to be tough, but nothing is impossible,” he said. “The series really rewards winning and that’s what we’re going to have to start doing if we want to stand a chance.”
He can find encouragement from veteran driver and former overall series champion Will Power, who had this to say about Wickens: “He’s obviously been racing at a high level for a number of years now. He’s just an absolute professional and I’m convinced that he’ll be a champion at some point in his career.”