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Robert Wickens’ open-wheel return ‘like riding a bike’

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After six years, Robert Wickens’ return to a top-flight open-wheel car was almost seamless in two days of testing at the Sebring International Raceway short course, as he made his test debut in an IndyCar.

The Toronto native and DTM regular for Mercedes, who turns 28 later this month, had a sampling of the No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda on Tuesday before an extended run today in the afternoon for his first ever IndyCar run.

Wickens is no stranger to open-wheel though, having been one of North America’s top prospects about a decade ago. A regular race winner in Formula BMW and Formula Atlantic, Wickens was picked up as a member of the Red Bull Junior Team and his path led to the doorstep of Formula 1.

However, outside of one free practice with the Virgin team at the 2011 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix (before Lance Stroll, Wickens is the last Canadian driver to have participated in a Grand Prix weekend although Jacques Villeneuve is the last to have started a race in 2006) and a further outing with the Renault (which became Lotus, then back to Renault) team at the subsequent rookie test a few days later, he’s been absent from the open-wheel arena as a move to DTM presented itself with Mercedes. There, Wickens has become one of the top drivers in that touring car championship.

Hinchcliffe and Wickens prep for Wickens' maiden run in an IndyCar. Photo: IndyCar
Hinchcliffe and Wickens prep for Wickens’ maiden run in an IndyCar. Photo: IndyCar

The idea for a ride swap between Wickens and his countryman, longtime friend and occasional teammate James Hinchcliffe, presented itself over the winter and the first portion of which took place this week. Wickens said it didn’t take him long to get back into the open-wheel rhythm.

“I remember the layout well, with a bumpy Turn 3, Turn 4 and all that stuff. It didn’t take me that long,” Wickens told NBC Sports.

“When I was making the seat, it’s pretty weird to be laying this much down (in the seat)… to have your ass under your legs!

“But once I left the pit lane, it was completely normal. I still have more open-wheel experience than closed-wheel. It’s like riding a bike, being back in the middle of the car again. It wasn’t hard getting comfortable right away.”

Wickens only did a small run on Tuesday while the majority of the 21-car field was running (16 of the 21 cars projected for St. Petersburg tested then, with Andretti Autosport running today), and got the last hour and a half today following Pipo Derani’s debut earlier in the afternoon (Luis Michael Dorrbecker tested today in the second car). Wickens estimated only getting about six or seven proper runs, north of 30 laps on Sebring’s bumpy 1.5 miles.

Wickens at speed. Photo: IndyCar
Wickens at speed. Photo: IndyCar

Wickens adjusted well to the grip levels and brake performance; he admitted he could have been a little harder on new supplier PFC’s carbon brakes.

“You don’t want to be that guy in a media event who’s crashing a car,” he laughed. “I had a decent amount of margin in braking zones. I was more or less there, but I just needed to adjust entries.

“I had my own expectations of the grip level. To be honest it was a little better than I expected. I felt my expectations were managed. Turn 3, I was surprised… it was impressive how stable the car was over the bumps. The circuit changes from asphalt to concrete, to asphalt. I was impressed with how well the car could take that. That caught me by surprise a bit. The dampers in IndyCar are far more advanced than in DTM. We have a spec damper, which is same for everyone.”

It’s easy to think of Wickens as a driver who “got away” from IndyCar, especially as seeing a number of his contemporaries he raced in Europe, notably Alexander Rossi, Mikhail Aleshin and Josef Newgarden are now in IndyCar full-time. Interestingly, Wickens and Aleshin were in Red Bull’s Junior program at the same time and in a funny coincidence, were teammates for this week’s test as Aleshin premiered his new red and black No. 7 SMP Racing Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda.

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES – NOVEMBER 11: Robert Wickens of Canada and and Marussia Virgin Racing drives during practice for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at the Yas Marina Circuit on November 11, 2011 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

“Me and Mikhail go way back with Red Bull. We’d been teammates. So four of the five years I was on Red Bull, he was too,” Wickens said. “Then we were teammates 3.5 in ’08, and then again in F2 in ’09. We both lived in a village in Austria. So what are odds of us testing here as teammates the same time?”

Wickens’ circuitous path from 2008 through 2011 saw him acclimate to Europe in year one, then contend for or win championships each of the next three years. He finished second in Formula 2 in 2009, then finished second to Esteban Gutierrez in GP3 in 2010 (and ahead of Rossi, Newgarden, Rio Haryanto, Jean-Eric Vergne, James Jakes and Stefano Coletti among others) and then won 3.5 in 2011 (ahead of Vergne, Rossi, Daniel Ricciardo and Brendon Hartley among others).

He doesn’t have any regrets for the fact this didn’t lead to a full-time F1 seat. Without Red Bull, he might not have got that far anyway, and the experience of jumping around has helped his overall growth and development.

“There’s no regrets with the career path. Without them, I would have never left my first year of FBMW,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a perfect way to get to the highest level. There’s a lot of sideways steps. But made me a better driver, because I was always driving different cars, not in F3 with the best car three years.

“Going from Atlantic to F2, GP3 and 3.5, those were all brand new cars. It was three years on the trot of different teams and literally building and that made me a much stronger driver. I was able to grow myself on my feeling, and how I needed to drive.”

DURBAN, SOUTH AFRICA - FEBRUARY 24: Canada's Robert Wickens in action during the A1GP Sprint Race on February 24, 2008 in Durban, South Africa. (Photo by Tertius Pickard/Gallo Images/Getty Images)
DURBAN, SOUTH AFRICA – FEBRUARY 24: Canada’s Robert Wickens in action during the A1GP Sprint Race on February 24, 2008 in Durban, South Africa. (Photo by Tertius Pickard/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

Ask Wickens his favorite open-wheel series though and it’s none of those. It’s A1GP, the former World Cup of Motorsport championship where he and Hinchcliffe were teammates during the 2007-’08 season.

TAUPO, NEW ZEALAND – JANUARY 20: Wickens came second in a feature race at Taupo, New Zealand. (Photo by Ross Land/Getty Images)

Wickens reflected on the series: “A1 was an awesome series. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had in motorsport. I was young, I had just turned 18, and I was coming out of my Atlantic season. I thought Forsythe had everything… we had a big nice shop, two engineers, three mechanics.

“Then I show up at A1 and it’s five cars, 10 mechanics, media, film stuff and cameras! Whenever I think about it it puts a smile on my face… it was one of those, ‘this is exactly what I want in my life are these moments.’

“You had ex-F1 drivers, future F1 drivers, touring car and top level sports car guys… then me as this 18-year-old guy barely out of Formula BMW. It was all a really cool experience as its own championship, a standalone for nationalities. You got to spend your offseason traveling the world and racing cars. Not too bad…”

Wickens hopes to attend at least one IndyCar race this year and will look to sync up with Hinchcliffe on schedules.

Hinchcliffe now will have his DTM test to look forward to later this month at Vallelunga, Italy, while Wickens has memories of a lifetime delivered from a day a lot of folks have dreamed of witnessing for a long time.

NHRA: John Force Racing won its 2,500th Funny Car round at Gainesville

Front, from left: Co-crew chiefs Jason McCulloch and Jon Schaffer, John Force, crew chief Mike Neff. (Photo Credit: Gary Nastase and Auto Imagery)
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It wasn’t just a career-best elapsed time run and a final round victory for John Force at last week’s NHRA Gatornationals and Gainesville. It was also the John Force Racing team’s 2,500th Funny Car round win, as well.

The full release is below:

John Force’s Funny Car victory Sunday in the NHRA Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla., was memorable for many reasons, including yet another milestone over the team’s 40-year existence in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series.

After winning all four rounds, and coupled with Robert Hight’s first-round victory, the team achieved the 2,500-round victory threshold for Funny Cars. Force’s final-round win over rookie Jonnie Lindberg sealed the deal.

JFR’s first round victory was June 1, 1979, when Force defeated Tom McEwen at the Cajun Nationals in Baton Rouge, La. Force himself has accounted for just over half of those 2,500 Funny Car round victories, as he now stands at 1,269, with six round wins this season. He defeated Del Worsham, Jack Beckman, and Tommy Johnson Jr. before beating Lindberg on Sunday.

Even more impressive is that JFR’s 2,500 NHRA Funny Car round wins account for more than 20 percent of wins all-time in the class.

“It was the reign of terror that started it all, with Austin Coil, Bernie Fedderly and John Medlen,” Force said. “It was really about a group of guys – it wasn’t about me. I just wrote the checks, but I got to drive one of the baddest hot rods on the planet. We won just about everything.

“But those days are gone now. John Force wants to stay in the game, and now we’ve got Robert Hight, my daughter Courtney, young Austin Prock is coming,” he continued. “I’m really excited about this. We put the band back together. Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones said life’s a drag, but today, life’s not a drag – it’s a drag race, and we won.”

Winning races and elimination rounds is one of the things John Force has done best. Overall, nine drivers have won Funny Car rounds with JFR. The total includes:

  • John Force 1,269
  • Robert Hight 375
  • Tony Pedregon 292
  • Courtney Force 134
  • Mike Neff 118
  • Gary Densham 108
  • Ashley Force Hood 105
  • Eric Medlen 95
  • Phil Burkart Jr. 4

Hight added to his total Sunday, besting Bob Tasca III in the first round with career-bests in time and speed, and has two round wins this season. Courtney Force won her first three rounds of the season at Pomona, making it to the final round.

“It’s amazing, but what’s really amazing is when you look at who has most of those wins,” Hight said. “John Force’s records – he’s so far out in front of everybody else – it’s not even achievable. With the competition level and everything else there is today, these records we keep getting will never, ever be broken. I was lucky enough to get the 200th victory for John Force Racing at Topeka (2011), and that was pretty exciting.”

To do it at Gainesville, Hight said, was special. In the 1990s, for example, Force participated in 37 rounds out of a possible 40, and won 33 of those 40 rounds. He just kept winning … and winning … and winning.

“He’s had good luck at Gainesville,” Hight said. “But I take away from this that all three of our Funny Cars are running good, and we’re not searching for faster cars but right where we want to be. We just need to get a little consistency. I’m just happy to be a little part of those 2,500 round wins. We have three good cars now, and we’re going to get a lot more wins.”

The milestone is more than just a number. It represents tireless efforts by drivers, crew chiefs, team members, fabricators, shop workers, and office staff who have worked with Force since the 1970s.

“If you look at the Tony Pedregons that drove for me, the Eric Medlens, the Gary Denshams, Robert Hight, my girls – if you go down that list, they were all part of that. It wasn’t just about me,” Force said. “I’ve done well in the sport, because I’ve lived it and loved it. I give 110 percent to my sponsors, never 100 percent. We overdeliver, you have to.

“With the cast of characters we have, we’re going to keep hitting them with all we’ve got.”

The team earned its 2,500th round victory across all NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series classes last year. Including the team’s Top Fuel dragster – piloted by Brittany Force and sponsored by Monster Energy – the team’s round victory total stands at 2,593. Brittany Force added another Top Fuel round victory Sunday, and stands at 93 in her career.

The fourth round of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series, the NHRA Nationals, is March 31-April 2 at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in Nevada. John Force Racing has won five races at the spring race in Las Vegas, most recently with John Force running the table in 2015.

F1 on NBC crew previews the upcoming 2017 season

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It’s a new season of Formula 1 that kicks off this weekend with the Australian Grand Prix. All times and streaming details for the new year can be found here, to be watched on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App.

As NBC Sports Group prepares for its fifth season of coverage, all of the broadcast team have made various rounds previewing the season to come (here’s a link to the group’s upcoming live theater presentation at Sellersville Theater next week).

Lead lap-by-lap announcer and host Leigh Diffey spoke to Autoweek in a Q&A, linked here. A quick take on the excitement of the new season is below:

“These cars are faster, will be harder to control in the corners, and will place a high physical demand on the drivers. I can’t wait to see what these cars do these drivers after 58 laps around Albert Park. That’s how I would sell fans on what we’re going to see this season,” Diffey said.

Analysts Steve Matchett and David Hobbs have also previewed the seasons, with both their interviews linked below.

Matchett’s interview with Todd McCandless for Formula1Blog.com is linked here. Hobbs’ interview with Steve Zautke on 105.7 FM The Fan’s (WSSP-Milwaukee) The Final Inspection Show is linked here.

F1 on NBC pit reporter and insider Will Buxton checks in with The Marshall Pruett Podcast, linked here.

Coverage this weekend begins with a live stream of free practice one airing at 9 p.m. ET on Thursday night via the NBC Sports App, which will air at midnight on Friday on NBCSN leading straight into live coverage of free practice two at 1 a.m. ET on NBCSN. The full time breakdown is below.

Hinchcliffe’s DTM test with Mercedes an ‘amazing blast of a lifetime’

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The second half of the James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens “ride swap” took place last week at the Vallelunga circuit in Italy, as Hinchcliffe stepped aboard Wickens’ usual No. 6 HWA AG Mercedes-AMG C63 DTM car for his first few laps in the tin-top beast.

After shaking off a tough end to what had been a dynamic weekend for both himself and the No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda team at the Verizon IndyCar Series’ season opener in St. Petersburg – he’d led early but was caught out on a yellow flag timing and dropped back – Hinchcliffe arrived in Italy on Wednesday to prepare for his run in the DTM car. Wickens tested Hinchcliffe’s IndyCar prior to the St. Petersburg season opener.

The ordinary challenges of getting acclimated to a new car – getting a seat made and adapting to the different driving position – were erased because of a quick and easy fit right into Gary Paffett’s seat.

“It’s funny when we saw the three-week gap between St. Petersburg and Long Beach we thought there’d be down time, and that clearly hasn’t been the case,” Hinchcliffe laughed when speaking to NBC Sports.

“I flew over to arrive a day early, meet the team, and get the lay of the land for the following day. Luckily I fit right into Gary Paffett’s seat. There were very few adjustments needed and it was pretty straightforward. It led into an amazing blast of a time the following day, to rip around Vallelunga.”

The two-hour session that followed saw Hinchcliffe learn a lot, in what is a rare opportunity for North American drivers to have a chance to race in a DTM car.

Hinchcliffe has had some closed-top car experience, but limited outings in either Mazda’s previous Lola Multimatic chassis or Mazda RT24-P prototypes and the Mazda RX-8 aren’t quite comparable to what he saw in the Mercedes.

“Yeah I’d done the RX-8 back in ’12 and the prototype off and on, so it was a very different feel,” he explained. “The seating position is very unique, sitting back in the center. The visuals are very different. Very wide. I think I missed most apexes in right-hand turns the first couple laps, getting used to it.”

But with Wickens as his de facto engineer and driving coach, Hinchcliffe quickly got the hang of it for what would be an intense couple hours.

He’d have a mix of running qualifying simulations, long runs to see how the tires degrade and just general pushing once he got the hang of it. Hinchcliffe being a professional race car driver, it didn’t take long.

“They’ve done such a good job here; you there’s a lot of money spent to make the car magic, and that’s what they’ve done,” Hinchcliffe said. “The tires were very different. We had tire warmers, then did quali sims, did a long run and saw what the (tire) deg could be like. For only two hours of running, it was a pretty nice test.”

“We wanted each other to have a blast,” he added of Wickens’ input and advice. “At Sebring, I gave him some pointers, and we did a track lap in the rental cars. He did the same thing here.

“He’d just been there testing. He did a baseline run in the morning to dial the car in. He was great. He was my engineer for the test, to be honest. He’d pull out the laptop and show data comparisons; look for what to do different and better. It was a lot of fun.”

Hinchcliffe had always tried to keep DTM on his radar from afar, watching the races he could while trying to get to at least one per year. The same goes the other way for Wickens, who tries to make it to at least one IndyCar race per year too, and fully enjoyed his own day in Hinchcliffe’s car.

“When it got announced, I had a bunch of guys say they’d had a chance to test a DTM car. I understand now why it’s one of the most fun series,” he said.

“I’ve followed it more closely with Robbie driving. Having had a taste of the machinery, now you get it even more.”

Formula 1 2017 team preview: Sauber

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Rounding out MotorSportsTalk’s team-by-team preview ahead of the new Formula 1 season, we look at Sauber, the minnow team which bounced back from years of instability to find some strength in 2016.

The arrival of new owners Longbow Finance gave Sauber the chance to rebuild and recruit after a number of losses in the preceding years, while Felipe Nasr’s charge to ninth in Brazil offered a boost in prize money as the team jumped above Manor to P10 in the constructors’ championship.

Sauber now heads into 2017 looking to continue its recent gains, with the new faces at Hinwil eager to make an impact. The goal is now to thrive, not survive.

DRIVERS

9. Marcus Ericsson (Sweden)
94. Pascal Wehrlein (Germany)

CAR

Sauber C36

ENGINE

Ferrari 061

TEAM CHIEFS

Monisha Kaltenborn (CEO/team principal)
Jörg Zander (technical director)

MONTMELO, SPAIN – MARCH 08: Pascal Wehrlein of Germany driving the (94) Sauber F1 Team Sauber C36 Ferrari on track during day two of Formula One winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on March 8, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain. (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)

What went right in 2016: Sauber may have only scored two points, but it both survived the year and was able to secure some much-needed financial backing that kept the team in business. The on-track performances were what we’d expect from a backmarker team, filled with a number of highlights. Marcus Ericsson’s performances through the year were of particular note in the latter half of the season, despite the Swede going under the radar.

What went wrong in 2016: Sauber’s struggles still left its drivers unable to compete on-track, particularly in the run-up to the takeover when updates for the car were hard to find. Sauber failed to get anywhere near the midfield runners in the dry, but again, it perhaps could not have been expected to given the circumstances.

What’s changed for 2017: A number of new faces are at Sauber following an extensive recruitment process. Ex-Audi LMP1 technical chief Jörg Zander has joined the team, while former Haas strategist Ruth Buscombe arrived last fall and is a big, big asset on the pit wall. Pascal Wehrlein has also been signed from Manor, replacing Nasr after his backing fell through, but the team will be racing with the 2016-spec Ferrari power unit. That won’t help come the end of the year.

What they’ll look to accomplish in 2017: In all honesty, it’s hard to see Sauber finishing anywhere but last this year. The rest of the field simply has resources that are too deep to give the Swiss team much chance. Early gains can be made in the first few races when the impact of a year-old power unit will be felt less; some points would be good. But really, this is again a year to battle on and continue to fight for a better future.

MONTMELO, SPAIN – FEBRUARY 27: Marcus Ericsson of Sweden driving the (9) Sauber F1 Team Sauber C36 Ferrari on track during day one of Formula One winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on February 27, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

MST PREDICTIONS

Luke Smith: Sauber can’t really expect much this year. It’s great that the team is on its feet again, and some of the personnel it has on board gives it strength. But the rest of the pack can simply outspend it. The only team it can get close to this year is Haas, I think, and that’s only if the American team gets things seriously wrong this year. P10 in the constructors’ championship with a couple of points – let’s say picked up by Ericsson early in the year – is the ceiling for Sauber.

Tony DiZinno: It’s hard to think of Sauber as the underdog and last team because they’ve been here 25 years, their reputation is of overachieving and they’ve given so many young drivers their start. Yet with Manor’s absence, it’s Sauber that enters as the 10th place team from 2016, but determined to advance from that this season. Marcus Ericsson has become that dependable, career midfielder as the Swede looks to his fourth season. More pressure is on Pascal Wehrlein, the Mercedes junior passed over by his manufacturer to replace Nico Rosberg and by Force India to replace Nico Hulkenberg. Ericsson may not be as easy a target to beat as Wehrlein might think. A couple points finishes should occur for this team and if they can get to eighth or ninth in the constructor’s points, it’ll have been a much better year.

Kyle Lavigne: With a year-old Ferrari power unit, Sauber should have strong reliability. Whether or not the car has the pace to bring them up the grid is another matter. They languished near the bottom of the time sheets on multiple days of testing, but they didn’t seem to experience reliability problems. That trait could prove very beneficial. As hard as it is to believe, McLaren is likely their closest rival as 2017 begins. And, with McLaren struggling with a car that is both slow and unreliable, Sauber has a chance to leapfrog them, so long as their car keeps going.