Perhaps one of the most inspirational stories in racing has occurred at Lime Rock Park this weekend, in today’s IMSA Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge ST class race.
U.S. Marine Staff Sgt. Liam Dwyer, an Afghanistan veteran who lost his left leg three years ago, is a race winner in the series after co-driving with Tom Long to win in the No. 27 Freedom Autosport Mazda MX-5. The win is the team’s third in a row, after teammates Andrew Carbonell and Randy Pobst won races at both Sebring and Mazda Raceway.
But Dwyer is the bigger story; he only made his CTSC series debut at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca three weeks ago.
Dwyer impressed with his acclimation to the Freedom Autosport team’s Mazda MX-5 car, in a car that has a specially designed “quick release” to allow for Dwyer to extract himself for the car at a similar pace to his co-driver, Mazda ace Long.
Dwyer built up his endurance and strength training in lower divisions of sports car racing, and thanks to Mazda, had his opportunity in CTSC three weeks ago.
In today’s race Long took over late in the race following Dwyer’s opening stint. In the final 25 minutes, Long had a spin and lost the lead to the sister MX-5 from CJ Wilson Racing, driven by young Scottish rising star Stevan McAleer.
But that car needed a late splash of fuel with five minutes remaining to lose the lead. The stop was exacerbated by a pit road speeding penalty, and McAleer and co-driver Chad McCumbee finished second by 22 seconds.
The second CJWR MX-5, driven by Tyler McQuarrie and the returning Marc Miller, who missed Mazda Raceway due to injuries sustained in a Sebring accident, finished third to complete Mazda’s second straight MX-5 ST podium sweep. The No. 26 Freedom entry (Carbonell, Pobst), the No. 3 CJWR MX-5 (McQuarrie, Elliott Skeer) and No. 5 CJWR MX-5 pulled off the feat three weeks ago at the manufacturer’s home track.
“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.”