Carlos Munoz provided several “wow” moments in his three IndyCar cameos this season. The Colombian will have a full season’s worth of opportunities to do so in 2014.
The long-awaited confirmation of his step up to IndyCar with Andretti Autosport was announced Monday morning. Munoz, the 2013 Indianapolis 500 runner-up and rookie of the year, will drive the team’s fourth Honda-powered car with his car number and sponsorship details to be announced at a later date. He replaces E.J. Viso in the seat, having also done so at the last race at Fontana on short notice.
“I don’t have the words to express right now how I feel.” Munoz said in the team’s release. “After so many years of racing and all the sacrifices – leaving my family in Colombia and going to Europe to race, then coming here to the U.S. – but finally, I’m a professional race car driver in the maximum category in America, IndyCar. I have to thank Andretti Autosport, and especially Michael Andretti, for this opportunity.”
“With that, I have to work hard in all aspects – mentally and physically.” he said. I’m really happy and I’m looking forward to start practicing and testing. I also have to thank my family for all of their support all these years. Finally my dream has come true. Also to my fans for being here and believing in me; this is just the beginning.”
Munoz and teammate, 2012 series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay, will test today at Sebring. His two seasons in Indy Lights included four wins and five poles, but ill-timed issues this year cost him a shot at the series championship.
Unlike Tristan Vautier this year, there’s a good chance Munoz will have competition for rookie-of-the-year honors in 2014. Luca Filippi is close to a deal at Bryan Herta Autosport, Sage Karam has the scholarship funding available for a full season jump after winning the Indy Lights crown, and Conor Daly would be a viable fit at several different teams if he does not garner enough budget for a GP2 or World Series by Renault season in Europe.
Additionally, Michael Andretti was here in Austin this weekend and confirmed the team’s engineering change to move Craig Hampson, James Hinchcliffe’s 2013 engineer, into a team R&D role with Nathan O’Rourke coming into the fold from Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing. No announcement on Munoz’s engineer was provided as yet.
“We’re hoping to give Toronto and Ontario and Canadian sports fans in general something to cheer about over the next season,” Hinchcliffe quipped during a teleconference on Wednesday.
Granted, there are likely to be several challenges to overcome, notably for Wickens, who returns to single-seater competition for the first time since 2011, when he was a champion of the Formula Renault 3.5 series and served as test driver for the now defunct Manor Racing (then known as Marussia Virgin Racing).
Having spent every year since then in DTM, where he won a total of six races and finished as high as fourth in the championship (2016), Wickens knows returning to open wheel competition will be an adjustment. However, he explained that the history of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, specifically its Indy Lights history, speaks to their ability to help a driver adapt, and he rates the program they’re putting together very highly.
“I think Schmidt Peterson Motorsports have a fantastic driver development program. They showed that in their multiple Indy Lights championships along the way. I think we will have a strong program in place. I have a feeling that the simulator will be my new best friend,” Wickens said when asked about getting reacquainted with an open-wheel car.
Of course, having an experienced teammate like Hinchcliffe to lean on will undoubtedly help the transition, something Wickens readily admitted.
“I’m very fortunate that I have James as my teammate because he’s so experienced, I can learn off him. Because we already have such a good off-track relationship, I feel like you can just take his word, trust him, kind of move forward with it,” he revealed.
They’ve been teammates before, both in karting where they first met in 2001, and then in the now-defunct A1 Grand Prix series in 2007-2008, a series that pitted nations against each other in spec open-wheel cars. Funnily, that A1GP type of vibe returns as Schmidt Peterson Motorsports now has that with its “Team Canada” mantra while all four of Andretti Autosport’s full-season drivers are American.
For Hinchcliffe, Wickens’ background, even if it hasn’t been in the single-seater realm since 2011, was a big selling point in adding him to the team.
“In Robby, we have a proven winner at a very high level. The level of technical expertise that he comes with from his time in DTM is very impressive,” he said of Wickens’ technical background.
Hinchcliffe revealed that Wickens’ feedback to the team and his ability to quickly adapt to the chassis took everyone somewhat by surprise.
“We did our ride swap. He had two hours in the car, hardly anything even resembling a test day, and his performance was pretty impressive. No doubt the time in Road America helped because that really gave us a better sense of his technical feedback, integrated with the team a little bit more. Everybody was happy to work with him on that day,” said Hinchcliffe.
Further still, Hinchcliffe is firm in his belief that the 2018 aero kit and its reduction in aerodynamic downforce will fall right into Wickens’ wheelhouse, based on Hinchcliffe’s own take after sampling Wickens’ DTM Mercedes earlier this year.
“In all honesty, I was saying earlier today, the 2018 car is probably better suited for him than the 2017 car because of the experience he’s had the last handful of series,” Hinchcliffe asserted.
“The (aero kit) was such high downforce, it would be a big change coming out of DTM. But with the loss of downforce that we’ve seen, the car is moving around a little bit more, brake zones, things like that, it won’t be as big a transition I think. Just based on the experience that I got in our ride swap, I think he’s going to adapt very quickly, be comfortable very quickly, and as a result be competitive very quickly. So it’s going to be exciting.”
As for expectations heading into next year, team co-owner Schmidt did not mince words and expects the team’s performance to resemble what they did in 2012, 2013, and 2014, when they won a total of four races (with driver Simon Pagenaud) and finished in the top five in the championship each year.
“We had a stint in ’12, ’13, ’14 where we finished fifth in the points (or better. I think we want to get back to that level of competition,” Schmidt added. “We felt like we were missing things in having two cars with equal funding and equal drivers and equal capabilities. We think this gets back there.”