Robert Wickens is the most impressive Indy car rookie in well over a decade, not just because of his driving skills but because of his capacity to work hard and honestly self-analyze, writes David Malsher.
The raw talent we saw from Robert Wickens at every level of junior open-wheel racing on either side of the Atlantic and in six years driving the mighty DTM touring cars for Mercedes-Benz was highly impressive – but talent alone would never have been enough. Finding consistent success in the top echelons of motorsport over the past 30 years has required a driver to work hard between races and over race weekends to analyze the increasing amounts of available data. The champions have also tended to be those who recognize the occasions when their biggest gain in speed can come from within, rather than a radically altered car setup.
Fully aware of this, Wickens’ work ethic has led him to add analytical skills to his armory of talents, and has driven his desire for self-improvement. Consequently, he extracts more from a race weekend than your average rookie, so that despite being just 12 races into his first IndyCar season, he is already making the transition from series rising star to series ace. Wickens lies sixth in the championship, has three podiums to his name and has lost at least three more through no fault of his own.
But aside from the outstanding pace we’ve seen on a regular basis from the #6 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports-Honda driver, what has truly marked him out has been his extreme coolness under pressure. Wickens is emphatically not one of those rookies who allow their impatience for glory to hemorrhage and induce errors. Quite the opposite, in fact. Like Dario Franchitti, in the heat of battle Wickens always seems to have time to make calculated decisions.
As a consequence, when car, talent and circumstance have combined to allow Wickens to rise to a position of prominence, he’s shown not a trace of anxiety or loss of composure. The pole (on a tricky wet/dry track surface) on his IndyCar debut; leading the majority of the race the next day; taking the lead in his first oval race and finishing second; claiming Rookie of the Year honors at the Indy 500; absorbing the pressure of racing in front of his home crowd… In fact, it’s hard to recall any significant mistakes, aside from grazing the wall during practice at Indy, leading to a damaged toe-link and shunt.
According to Piers Phillips, SPM’s general manager and the original proponent of Wickens’ switch back to open-wheel racing, the 29-year-old Canadian is demanding of the team and his crew, but only in the positive sense. He pushes them, and they respond positively because they can see their newest driver holds himself to the same standards.
For example, after preseason testing at Sebring and again at Sonoma, Wickens admitted to Motorsport.com that he was frustrated with his performance on Firestone’s softer compound red-sidewall tires. They can vary in compound from event to event and, of course, behave differently according to surface, duration of corner and track temperature. Over a race stint, he said, he could match teammate James Hinchcliffe on reds in terms of tire life and pace. What he hadn’t yet mastered was extracting the most from them at peak grip in qualifying simulations.
Eight road/street courses down the line – in which he’s used those reds to outqualify Hinch 5-3 – Wickens still isn’t happy with himself.
“I’m very critical of myself and critical of any situation where I feel as a group we need to do a better job,” he says, “and I still don’t think I’ve got up to speed on the reds. Sometimes I get a lot of lot of lap time from them, sometimes I don’t, so I still need to fully understand why that is.
“At Road America, I found a lot of one-lap performance for qualifying but I was also able to manage them well to get a lot of durability in the race. But in Detroit, we could get a massive amount of performance for one lap, and I qualified second and third for the two races, but both times we had to revert to three-stop strategies because I couldn’t get the tires to last. A lot of that is possibly down to the bumps and our damper program not being quite up at the level it should be, but you still have these question marks. Could I have driven differently? Could I have given the team better feedback for what the car needed over a full stint?
“And then Toronto was different again: I just couldn’t find that much grip with the reds. I’d feel the tire coming in, and expect to get a big peak of grip, but then it would fall off, and so we only qualified 10th.”
So although we as spectators have swiftly grown used to seeing the gorgeous metallic maroon-and-black #6 SPM machine running near the front of the field, Wickens, being a perfectionist, is irritated by not yet having a deep well of experience from which to draw. There are still days when he’s reminded of his rookie status, when he’s not quite able to discern if the car is hooked up.
“On street and road courses, I feel I know how to drive the car to extract the lap time,” he says, “but still the entire weekends at Detroit and Road America, the car didn’t feel overly great and yet the speed was there. Then at Toronto, the car felt only as good as we were on the time sheets – 10th – and it took us until the race to find what we were missing. And arguably that was a little too late. A more experienced driver might have figured it out sooner.”
Yet inevitably, the environments that feel most alien to Wickens are the ovals. He’s aided by the 2018 aerokit’s reduced downforce which allows a driver some ‘feel’ through butt and hands, but considering he’s been a podium contender at Phoenix, Texas and Iowa, you’d still have to conclude the rookie’s initial oval forays have been deeply impressive. Predictably, the man himself doesn’t see it that way.
He says: “The team’s never treated me like a rookie, but on ovals… yeah, I feel like I can’t help in setting up the car because I don’t know how oval setups work. I mean, to me, the car looks like it’s already been crashed when it’s on the setup pad, with all the camber and toe-in and stuff! So it’s a work in progress.”
Is it just work or is Wickens actually enjoying the ovals?
“Hmm… well I’d say it took me until about Lap 150 to start having fun at Iowa. But every oval I’ve tried so far, at some point it clicks. At Texas I felt comfortable right from the start, and it was game on from the beginning; Iowa it probably took me too long to get that feel I needed. Indy has been the only one where I never felt really comfortable with the car so we didn’t crack the Top 10. Getting me comfortable on ovals is probably our biggest challenge, because I don’t always know the perfect line, so I get a numb feeling from the car because I’m not turning in properly.
“But we’re taking it in our stride and whether it’s for qualifying or the race, I’ve just used James’s oval setups a lot of the time. Phoenix was different – he took our setup [after a bad test there in Spring Training], and he did that at Indy too. But at Iowa he was on his own planet, and I was just trying to match him the whole time. Having a teammate who was so fast that weekend was incredibly helpful for me.”
Back in late April, I wrote that the Schmidt Peterson drivers had an outside chance at the championship. Three weeks later, after battling Wickens for the win at the Indy GP, Team Penske’s Will Power also cited his adversary as a future champion, adding “and that could be this year.” While realistically those hopes are now gone for 2018, Wickens doesn’t think it would take much to bridge the gap between SPM and the Penske/Ganassi/Andretti triumvirate.
“I don’t think there’s one area where there’s a big difference between us and them,” he says, “but quite a few areas where there’s a little room for improvement. Having said that, all three of those teams will also have things they know they can improve, too. I thought what Penske did at Toronto was very impressive because they looked like they were seriously struggling on Friday, and then on Saturday they got all three cars in the top four in qualifying and they were all fast in the race. That’s what makes Penske the benchmark in the series.
“Ganassi have been chipping away all season – they didn’t start strong but since they found their stride and came up with setups that make Scott Dixon happy, he’s been unstoppable. And Andretti have been more inconsistent but when they’re quick they’re very quick.
“Us? I think we are also chipping away and although we have some weaknesses, I feel there are also areas where we are extremely strong.”
So while the series championship may be out of reach, Wickens has faith that he can still move up from his already impressive sixth place in the points standings.
“I see no reason why we can’t continue to be contending for pole positions and running at the front,” he remarks. “Mid-Ohio is a kinda Barber-ish/Road America-ish track and James reached the podium in Barber and I felt very strong at Road America. And then we seem to be strong on the ovals, too – although for the reasons I mentioned, it surprises me every time! I just never expect to be good and yet we’re competitive. But I’d still say Pocono and Gateway are the biggest question marks for me in the five races we have left. I’m confident we can figure out Mid-Ohio [he was fastest in last week’s 11-car test], confident we can figure out Portland [where he won brilliantly in 2007 in a rain-lashed Atlantics race] and further figure out Sonoma [where he finished seventh in preseason testing].
“The vital thing over this final stretch is to keep qualifying well. I mean, yeah, I’ve learned that’s not everything in IndyCar, but still, track position is so important in every racing series. So I need to keep working on my performance with the red tires, because it’s been too inconsistent for my liking. But coming off three top fives in a row that arguably could have been back-to-back podiums, I suppose that’s good.
“I keep on looking back at the woulda-coulda-shoulda situations and it would have been great to have a few more podiums but we have three, and we’ve been knocking on the door for our first win and honestly, the year’s gone great. I’m a big believer that if you’re doing something that’s working well and you keep knocking on the door, eventually you’re going to get that lucky break or lucky yellow that’s going to put you in the right position to get that win.
“In Toronto, for example, until that restart where everything went nuts and Josef [Newgarden] hit the wall and held up a couple of cars ahead of me, I don’t think we could have finished top three. But as it was, we’d gained four positions from our starting spot so we were in sixth and able to take advantage of that opportunity. It was the perfect damage-limitation day because we knew we didn’t have a stellar car, so to come away with a podium and gain ground on the top-five in the championship was like a win for us.
“With it being Canada, too, was great. I’ve never raced as part of the headline act on home ground before. To see so many people wearing your merchandise, and to walk out of the team trailer each time and have the fans standing cheering and clapping… The whole weekend was a unique experience you can’t prepare yourself for. It was a busy week, but it was an awesome week, and it makes me even more excited to race there next year.”
And by then he should be an IndyCar race winner. In fact, by the end of this year he could be a winner – and, inexperience and self-deprecating comments aside – the victory could come on any track. Sure, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports has made made vast strides in terms of finding consistent pace since last year, and yes, as he admits, Wickens has had to lean heavily on his teammate’s feedback on ovals. Those who wish to play down his achievements might also wish to remind us that this was a good year to enter IndyCar racing, when everyone was grappling with the all-new aerokit.
But there has been no such churlishness among IndyCar’s elite drivers. They all know there’s a new arrival in their realm, and he’s going to be challenging them with increasing strength and increasing frequency.
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