(via USA Today) – What a wild ride it’s been for Robert Wickens. A year ago Sunday, he was rushing up to the Honda Indy Toronto podium to celebrate with James Hinchcliffe, his best friend, after the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver’s third-place finish.
At that time, the Verizon IndyCar Series had just begun to blip on his radar, as Wickens had only recently been informed by his employer, Mercedes, that it would be shuttering its DTM program after the 2018 season. Wickens later revealed that he showed up in Toronto — about an hour outside of his hometown of Guelph, Ontario — mostly to cheer on his friend and fellow Canadian but also to kick the tires on an IndyCar future.
One year later, and what a future the SPM rookie has ahead of him. On Sunday, it was Wickens standing atop the podium celebrating a third-place finish and his third podium of the season, proving once again that he has all the makings of an IndyCar superstar.
“It’s amazing,” said Wickens, who has astounded just about everyone with how quickly he has adapted to the rigors and nuances of IndyCar’s diverse calendar. “Honestly, 365 days ago I was rushing to the podium to watch Hinch. It’s crazy full circle I’m here now. It was a great day.
“And to be Canadian, to just embrace the whole thing, to get out of the car, hear the grandstand roar, it brought me goosebumps. Hopefully it’s those feelings that you wake up tomorrow morning to go to the gym to be better and to try to improve your position.”
Wickens and company didn’t make it easy on themselves Sunday after qualifying 10th. Truth be told, SPM team manager Piers Phillips confessed after the race, while the team found a little speed in the Sunday morning warmup, they didn’t think either the No. 5 or 6 cars were going to be able to contend.
Just before the race, Phillips instructed Wickens and Hinchcliffe, who qualified ninth, that Sunday wasn’t exactly going to be a salvage-job, but they’d both need to be on top of their games to turn their starting spots into something more in front of their home fans.
Both of them delivered. Hinchcliffe endured a wild day but managed to overcome a bent front toe link after an incident with Takuma Sato to deliver a fourth-place finis, his third consecutive top-five finish at Toronto. Wickens, meanwhile, picked his spots to show some improved aggression, Phillips said.
Among the highlights of the Honda Indy Toronto was a mid-race restart that saw Wickens daringly attack the inside of the track and pass at least four drivers to vault up the field into second place.
“I think it was four, but I had my eyes closed,” Phillips joked aftewards. “No, we gave him a heads-up it was going green and that he needed to get on it. He did. He’s a racer, and that’s what it’s all about. You take advantage when guys are maybe a little more tentative. That’s what he did.”
Following a sensational debut at the season-opener at St. Petersburg, where he nabbed the pole and led the majority of the race before a late run-in with Alexander Rossi cost him a victory, Wickens has impressed just about everyone inside the IndyCar paddock. He nearly won at Phoenix, scored rookie of the year honors at the Indianapolis 500 and looked destined for podiums at both Texas and Iowa before those days went sideways due to circumstances outside of his control.
Still, it didn’t take long for those inside the series to recognize his immense talent. Reigning Indy 500 winner Will Power deemed Wickens a future series champion after the IndyCar Grand Prix, just five races into his IndyCar career.
Wickens himself admits there’s still much to learn — he is still a rookie after all — but his time is coming, Phillips said.
“It’s been a nice natural progression for him,” Phillips said. “He had nine or 10 years in Europe, and the racing’s different. It’s just taken him a little while to get accustomed to it, to get his thermostat regulated to it.
“I think he’s at that point where he knows what he has to do. Every weekend is a learning experience for him; every weekend is another box ticked, and if we keep ticking boxes at the rate we are, then watch out 2019.”