(via RACER) – The numbers contained on the time sheets from Friday, June 23, 2017, weren’t particularly impressive.
Based on cold lap time data alone, there was no reason to believe last-minute stand-in Robert Wickens would become an almighty force in the NTT IndyCar Series the following year with Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.
Presented in 20th following his first practice session at Road America, the Canadian wasn’t last among the 21 cars entered, but with a gap of 2.3 seconds to the fastest driver, the Mercedes DTM driver was anything but a talking point in the paddock afterwards.
As the team dealt with questions of whether Mikhail Aleshin, the regular pilot of the No. 7 Honda, would be able to resolve the visa issues that stranded the Russian in Europe and drive his car in Wisconsin, Wickens prepared for the second practice session. Like the first, the 28-year-old would complete the session in 20th position, one spot from last, but the deficit to first was cut by a half-second.
Progress was on display for the IndyCar rookie, but he knew the only benchmark that mattered — his close friend and teammate James Hinchcliffe — closed the session in fifth place, 1.2 seconds ahead on the stopwatch. A chance to sleep on all he’d learned and draw down the gap on Saturday was quickly forgotten as Aleshin’s travel problems were resolved.
It was one day, two 20th-place results, and in theory, not much else to use as a bargaining tool to lobby for a second chance in the series. And that’s where, in looking back two years after Wickens’ first official IndyCar outing, the fallacy of using nothing more than lap times to judge a driver’s full potential is revealed.
A pre-season media event at Sebring International Raceway where Hinchcliffe and Wickens partook in a ride swap — one where Wickens spent a half-day in his countryman’s No. 5 Honda on Sebring’s short course — was enough to pique Arrow SPM’s interest. Despite the lack of competition to judge Wickens against, or enough time to run through a standard set of test items, a remarkable impression was made during a private outing that was never meant to showcase Wickens’ talent to the team.
“It’s funny; when we did the ride swap, we knew that Robbie was special,” Arrow SPM general manager Taylor Kiel told RACER. “We had a lot of time to marinate on that. Fast forwarding to Road America, it all came together so quickly. We knew that Mikhail had some visa issues that he may encounter coming back from Le Mans and, certainly, he did. Piers Phillips, the GM at the time, hopped on the horn and called Robbie and said, ‘Hey man. Are you interested…and how quickly can you be here?’
“He had to check with the bosses at Mercedes and they signed off on it. He was on a plane the next day. I think behind the scenes, we were all pretty excited because this was a real bona fide opportunity for us to throw him right into the fire and see what he could do. Looking forward from that event, we knew that Mikhail was on a one-year deal. We were going to be looking for a secure future in that seat, some good momentum with Arrow.”
Driven by that half-day sample of the Robert Wickens Experience at Sebring, Kiel viewed Aleshin’s travel delays as a rare chance to get a head start on planning for 2018.
“We were going to be able to put ourselves in a position to secure funding to get a guy like Robbie in the car,” he said. “That weekend was a lot bigger than just him coming in and filling in for a couple of practice sessions. It was a really great opportunity for us to see him live, in action. Honestly, when the weekend was over, I think we knew right then and there, we needed to do whatever it took to make sure that he was driving for us the following season.”
The expected decision for Arrow SPM’s leadership would have been to call a familiar Indy car driver who was on the sidelines at the time, a Gabby Chaves, Sage Karam or Oriol Servia, perhaps, to deputize for Aleshin.
“It may have been a bold decision to call Robbie,” Kiel continued. “I think it was pretty easy for us. I think we had a lot of faith in James Hinchcliffe as a leader of this team. He vouched for Robbie. As you can imagine, they’re friends but he said, ‘Man, this guy is legit. You give him an opportunity, you won’t be disappointed.’ Even though it was a half a day and it was fairly informal in Sebring, we knew the kid had talent. When you start to look at it in terms of securing your future going forward, we’d already seen what some of the available guys had done. They already had IndyCar resumes.
“It was an opportunity for us to just turn over one more stone. It was a big shiny stone that we liked, so we wanted to see it in action, so it was a no-brainer for us. We had seen what the other guys had done. We wanted to see what one more guy did, and we’re glad that we did obviously. I think that there’s a lot of things to take away from that.”
Due to the limited time to prepare for Wickens’ arrival, Friday’s activities at Road America weren’t as smooth as Kiel had hoped for, nor was the No. 7 Honda as sharp as expected.
“My first impression was it was a thrashed-together thing,” he said. “Robbie had showed up that morning. We kind of cobbled a seat together for him. The pedals were close, nothing was perfect. When he came in at the end of that first session and rolled the car back and went up into the debrief, it was like he was almost upset, a sense of, ‘S••t. I’m 20th. I’ve got to figure out how to move up the grid.’
“We were like, ‘Hey, let’s keep in context what we’re doing here.’ Then, you start to dig into the data and he’s line on line with James everywhere. We were later to discover, there was a bit of a straight-line issue. I’m not going to get too deep into it, but he was losing all of his time in the straightaways. At Road America, that’s a lot of time.
“When you dig into the data and you see from turn of the brake on point all the way through to the exit of the corner, he was on par with James everywhere. I know that he hopped in in basically his first live-fire session, and should have been a top-10 guy. That right there was like, ‘OK, that’s impressive.’ Also, given the fact that he still wasn’t completely up to speed with the car controls and the steering wheel buttons and the comfort of just having some time in the car, it was really good. After the first session, you see him in 20th and you’re like, ‘Wow.’”
If they weren’t all the way there before, Kiel recalls the Arrow SPM team being absolute believers in Wickens after June 23, 2017.
“You start to actually pull back the layers, and you see just how good of a job that he actually did,” he said. “It was really impressive. Then, from that point on, it’s just, man, his feedback and the direction that he’s able to give to his race engineering staff on his side of the table from the jump was pretty impressive. We were hoping that’s what we were going to get out of him. It was awesome to see it firsthand. After that weekend was over, we knew we had something pretty special if we were able to secure a deal long-term.”
Leaving Road America, the pursuit and acquisition of Wickens to take over the second Arrow SPM car the following season was a central focus for the team. It would represent a major change in approach for the Sam Schmidt- and Ric Peterson-owned outfit. Where sponsors paid for the No. 5 entry driven by Hinchcliffe, the team’s business model for many years had been to place a driver who brought personal funding in the second car. In chasing Wickens, Arrow SPM would need to find the budget to pay for both of its drivers to the tune of $6 million or more per program.
Among the greater declarations that can be made about Wickens’ talent, his half-day at Sebring and two practice sessions at Road America convinced Schmidt and Peterson that receiving millions of dollars to place a lesser driver alongside Hinchcliffe was no longer acceptable; to sign him, they’d need to find their own money and sponsors to pay for the privilege of running the rookie. Provided they could sign him.
“I think we were mixing the ingredients at the ride swap, and then we put the cake in the oven at Road America and at that point, Robbie had expressed to us that they were facing some headwinds with Mercedes in DTM and wasn’t quite sure about their future,” Kiel said. “It was later to be found out that Mercedes was withdrawing, obviously. He had a bit of an inside line on that. But he had expressed to us and our leadership that, ‘Man, I want to go IndyCar racing. To me, Formula 1’s not an option and I want to come and compete here.’
“He had heard from James how exciting it was and how close the competition was and all of those things that he thrives on existed here at IndyCar, and the timing was perfect. There was an opportunity for him to come join us, come race with his buddy and be in a competitive entry right off the bat. So it was something that we started to work on almost immediately following Road America. How can we really make this thing happen and the conversations went all the way down to the end of the season.”
Sealed and delivered
Negotiations and sponsor hunting would continue between Road America and the 2017 season finale in September at Sonoma Raceway. Although the deal was announced in late October, Kiel and the rest of Arrow SPM’s leadership knew they had their man prior to the checkered flag waving in California.
“I don’t think we had anything officially in place until Sonoma of that year,” he said. “I remember talking to Piers on the grid at Sonoma, getting ready for the race and him going, ‘I think we got this deal done,’ and sure enough, we did. It took us the rest of the year to get the details ironed out, but when you identify somebody with talent like that, it’s a singular focus. How do you seal the deal? How do you make this guy part of our team? So that was our focus from the day that we did the ride swap all the way up until Sonoma weekend.”
As Wickens wages his daily fight to regain full use of his legs in the aftermath of August’s harrowing crash at Pocono, Kiel is moved by the many and differing ways the 30-year-old influences the Arrow SPM organization.
“When I look back to where we were before St. Petersburg in Robbie’s rookie year, we had undergone a lot of changes,” he said. “We were doing everything that we could do as a team to turn over all the stones to try to understand where we were weak, how we could improve and how we could be a consistent front-running championship level organization and we had made a lot of really tough decisions.
“We had let a handful of people go, had a fair bit of turnover all in the name of trying to just raise our game, from presentation all the way to personnel procedure, everything. I mean, we were trying to set the foundation so that when a guy like Robbie comes along or how can we give James the support that he needs, the car that he needs under him to go in on a regular basis.
“So we had spent a good year and a half, two years in making all of these changes happen and then enter Robbie and what he did almost overnight was between his level of skill coupled with his relationship with James, his communication skills, his kind of forthright nature and what he needs, what he sees almost overnight, man, it took the level of the team and ratcheted it up a handful of notches.”
Wickens was minutes away from winning his debut IndyCar race in St. Pete before he was taken out by a rival. He’d rebound with a second-place finish on his first oval race, and add three more podiums leading into Pocono.
“We took a different mindset in testing,” Kiel added. “We focused very hard on race pace and trying to become a better all-around team. Robbie was excellent in his feedback. Him and James together were able to bounce ideas off of each other in a way that I’ve never seen before and it was just a dynamic that you hope to create. But man, those types of things, you can’t coach, you can’t teach, you can’t buy. It just happens organically. You have to have a group of guys that all work together like that and they certainly did. So I would say that we had worked really hard to put a solid foundation down pre-Robbie, and he raised the game of everybody around him when he got here.”
Rise and endure
Kiel is among the millions who would love to have Wickens back in an Indy car tomorrow. As his rehabilitation process continues away from the track, Arrow SPM’s GM is confident the fruits of Wickens’ efforts will continue to grow and benefit Hinchcliffe, new teammate Marcus Ericsson and, hopefully, the man whose infectious smile and prodigious talent have elevated the team.
“He let the guys know on the team that had put in the hard work and that had survived some peaks and valleys that, man, we’re on the right track, we’re doing the right things,” Kiel affirmed. “That group of guys that was on his car had been on Mikhail’s car, and been on James Jakes’ car before him, had been on Tristan Vautier’s car before him, and when you go through that many years of average results and then you show up at St. Pete and knock the socks off everybody, it took that group of guys and turned them into race-winning contenders overnight, that lifted the entire team. It validated everything that we were doing and it motivated everybody to work even harder. It was a good feeling and it brought James to a different level.
“Him and Robbie were constantly competing on and off the track and bringing the best out of each other, and likewise with the guys and the engineers and everybody — just made everybody want to push harder. I could also say that the post-Pocono era of Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, there’s a lot of that. That’s still exists with us. We’re doing everything that we can to keep pushing the envelope and keep raising our game. We’ve kept Robbie close to the situation. He still has his eyes and ears on everything because that feedback is so valuable. It’s taken us so far.
“We still want to work together and continue to get better. So you can’t go on and easily define what he’s brought to the team. But you’d certainly like to and you’d like to know what the magic sauce is. But it’s just something that’s within him that he brings to the table. We’re lucky to have him so close still to keep pushing us forward.”