Robert Wickens’ emergence as a Verizon IndyCar Series star may seem sudden to those who aren’t familiar with the 28-year-old driver from Guelph, Ontario. But to those who have followed him from the Atlantic Series into the German DTM Series, Wickens is far from a rookie.
Wickens, who has been paired with his friend and fellow-Canadian James Hinchcliffe at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, has been highly impressive in his initial season of Indy car racing.
“It’s a conversation we’ve had a lot over the last three years,” Hinchcliffe recalled. “He always had the desire to get back to North America and Indy car racing was a big dream when he was a kid growing up. He had a great deal going on over there and was performing very well over there, so there was no reason to look too deeply into it.
“He had one foot in the door because of the ride swap we had done, and has been up to date and up to speed on what has been happening in the series the last couple of years,” Hinchcliffe added. “He has kept up with my progress and chatting after races. He had a good head start in terms of trying to break into the series. I helped however I could.”
“Ultimately, we wanted to put the most talented driver in that car. Whether he is my friend or not, Robby Wickens was that guy. It made sense from the team perspective,” Hinchcliffe continued. “It certainly had my vote. I’m really excited to have a chance to work with him properly this year.”
Hinchcliffe wanted a teammate that was going to push him and help move the team forward. And in many ways, Wickens has carried the team, especially after Hinchcliffe’s disappointment of getting bumped from the Indianapolis 500.
“That would be the understatement of the year,” Hinchcliffe said. “I think every single member of the team and every department of the team has benefited from Robby being here. He’s pushed the engineers a lot. He’s brought a lot of insight on the mechanical side, things that he’s experienced in his career. Then I don’t think anybody has benefited as much as I have just because having a strong driver in the second car is the only way to make a team really better, having two strong drivers I should say, and Robby and I luckily enjoy very similar setups.
“I think that’s one of the big problems I’ve had the last couple seasons is my teammates have been quick at times, but we used very different race cars to achieve that,” Hinchcliffe noted. “He and I like very similar cars. We’ll come in from a session and look at the data trace, and they almost look like they overlap completely with one or two exceptions. We learn each other’s one or two exceptions and we both get better. That’s the essence of teamwork in motorsports.”
Wickens, 28, has a tremendous amount of experience racing in Europe. He became a star in DTM while driving for Mercedes-AMG Motorsport, posting six victories, 15 podiums and five poles in 84 starts.
But last June, Wickens got a call from Verizon IndyCar Series team owner Sam Schmidt. Mikhail Aleshin was having difficulty getting back into the United States after he had competed in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in France. While Aleshin was dealing with immigration, Schmidt needed substitute driver for Road America.
Hinchcliffe recommended Wickens, his racing pal from the Toronto suburbs, to fill in for Aleshin. Wickens agreed and drove during two practice sessions. Wickens’ time as an IndyCar driver lasted just one day as Aleshin arrived in time for qualifying.
“The whole Road America thing was for fun and to try something new,” Wickens said. “I honestly didn’t have a whole lot of intentions of switching over to IndyCar after that. The big change to me was when Mercedes-Benz announced it was leaving DTM at the end of the season. That made me realize I had to sort out my career pretty soon.
“I enjoyed my taste of IndyCar, started some formal conversations, one thing led to another and we put a deal together that was pretty cool,” Wickens explained. “I really enjoyed the Road America practice that we had. I would have loved to have done the race that weekend and I was pretty upset that Mikhail Aleshin showed up and I had to step aside for him. I was just filling in for a day.”
That experience with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports proved valuable when it came to negotiating his IndyCar contract. But he had no intentions of leaving DTM until Mercedes made its decision to depart at the end of this year.
“I was interested in IndyCar, but I had such a good thing going in Europe with Mercedes that I probably wasn’t going to leave,” Wickens said.