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Robert Wickens eager to begin IndyCar career with retooled SPM

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Once upon a time, Robert Wickens was an up and coming star in the American racing scene. A standout in Formula BMW USA and other junior categories, Wickens eventually landed in the old Champ Car Atlantic championship, winning once on his way to third in the championship in 2007.

But, from there, his racing ventures took him across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe. Consequently, many of his accomplishments may have flown under the radar for American observers. But, be careful of dismissing those accomplishments, as doing so masks a driver who has quietly developed a mighty impressive resume.

Wickens won races in Formula Renault 3.5 and Formula 3 Euro Series in 2008, finished second in the 2009 FIA Formula Two Championship, did the same in the 2010 GP3 series, and was the champion of the 2011 Formula Renault 3.5 Series, beating drivers like Jean-Eric Vergne, Daniel Ricciardo and Alexander Rossi in doing so.

Wickens’ exploits caught the attention of Mercedes-Benz, who placed him in the German DTM series from 2012 onward, where he won at least one race every year between 2013 and 2017, finishing as high as fourth in the championship in 2016.

In short, Wickens’ career in Europe is nothing to scoff at, though several were left to wonder how he might fare if he ever got a chance to return the open wheel ranks.

That fire was reignited in 2017 after Wickens and long-time friend James Hinchcliffe completed a “ride swap,” with Hinchcliffe sampling Wicken’s Mercedes DTM machine while Wickens sampled Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 ARROW Electonics Honda for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.

James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens. Photo: IndyCar

Wickens’ performance was impressive enough that SPM called on him to fill in for Mikhail Aleshin at Road America last June, when Aleshin briefly ran into a problem reentering the U.S. after competing in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

A rapport with SPM now fully established, Wickens quickly emerged as a candidate for a full-time seat alongside Hinchcliffe after the 2017 season concluded, and it was hardly a surprise when SPM confirmed him shortly after last season ended.

With the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season now only days away, Wickens is chomping at the bit to get going.

“I’ve been waiting for this moment for about six months now since the announcement came out that I was joining INDYCAR,” Wickens quipped. ‘We’ve worked a lot this winter getting me comfortable in the Lucas Oil car. We’ve gone testing, now what’s next is to go racing.”

Testing did not see the SPM squad near top of the time sheets – Wickens had the 16th fastest lap on ISM Raceway in February, while teammate Hinchcliffe was 22nd. However, Wickens does not appear concerned, asserting that testing has actually gone well, though St. Petersburg will give him and the team a clear sense of where they stand competitively.

“I think we’ve done a pretty good job so far through testing, but we won’t really know for sure until we get into the first race,” Wickens revealed. “I’m just really eager to get started and get to St. Pete. I’ve heard the track’s great, the fans are great, and now I just want to live it for Sam (Schmidt). All around, I’m just very excited.”

Hinchcliffe — who along with Toronto native Wickens have dubbed themselves “Team Canada” — shared similar sentiments, highlighting a series of changes that occurred with the SPM organization.

Along with the addition of Hinchcliffe, Todd Malloy was brought in as the new technical director, former Team Penske engineer Billy Vincent joins as a crew chief of Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 entry, and Leena Gade, a three-time 24 Hours of Le Mans winning engineer with Audi’s former LMP1 program, entering as an engineer for Hinchcliffe as well.

All told, the changes indicate the team has its sights set on improving upon back-to-back 13th-place finishes in the IndyCar championship.

“There’s been a lot of change, not only with the 2018 aero kit but internally at SPM personnel-wise,” Hinchcliffe said. “So we’re really anxious to get ourselves into a race weekend situation to see how we all perform and start picking out how we can improve and build this team up to be regular contenders.

“I’m excited for (Wickens’) first race, Leena’s (Gade) first race, first race of the 2018 kit – there’s a lot of stuff to look forward to.”


Mercedes: F1 teams need to work together to avoid split

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said Friday that Formula One teams have a responsibility to try to overcome their differences over the future of the sport in the face of a threat by Ferrari to quit because of a number of proposed changes.

Bernie Ecclestone, who ran F1 for 40 years before being replaced by new owners Liberty Media last year, has raised the possibility that Ferrari chairman Sergio Marchionne could walk away from F1 and form a breakaway series over Liberty’s future vision for the sport.

Ferrari is unhappy with Liberty’s proposal to simplify engines and redistribute prize money among F1 teams after the current contract with teams expires at the end of 2020.

Ferrari team boss Maurizio Arrivabene would not comment on the specifics of Marchionne’s previous comments at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix on Friday, but said: “My only suggestion, please take him seriously.”

Wolff is also taking the possibility of Ferrari walking away seriously. He told Britain’s Press Association before the Australian GP that he agreed with Marchionne’s concerns and that Formula One can’t afford to alienate Ferrari or lose the team.

“Don’t mess with Sergio Marchionne,” he said. “Formula One needs Ferrari much more than Ferrari needs Formula One.”

Wolff was more diplomatic on Friday, saying he hopes all sides could come together for the good of the sport.

“I think this as much a battle on track as much as it is a fight off track for an advantage,” he said. “It is clear the current governance and how the rules are being made is not very functional. There’s too much different opinions and agendas on the table and we need to sort it for 2021 for the best interest of the sport.”

Red Bull boss Christian Horner agreed there are too many competing agendas, suggesting that the FIA-Formula One’s governing body-and Liberty Media come together to decide on a set of regulations and financial framework for the next contract and the teams can then decide if they want to accept it or not.

“Trying to get a consensus between teams that have varying objectives, different set-ups, is going to be impossible,” he said. “It’s history repeating itself. It happens every five or six years, every time the Concorde Agreement comes up for renewal.”

Tempers also flared during Friday’s media conference over another issue of contention between the teams – Ferrari’s recent hiring of FIA’s ex-safety director, Laurent Mekies.

Horner believes Ferrari broke an agreement among teams at a recent meeting to institute a 12-month waiting period for any former employee of FIA or FOM (Formula One Management) to be able to start working for one of F1’s teams. The concern is that former FIA staff who go to work for a specific team could share secrets from other teams.

“Certain teams were pushing for that period to be three years, but in the end it was agreed upon being 12 months,” he said. “It almost makes those meetings pointless if we can’t agree on something and action it.”

Arrivabene defended Ferrari’s move, saying Mekies would not join its team until after a six-month “gardening leave” period.

“There is nothing wrong with that because we were absolutely respecting the local law, the Swiss local law where Laurent was hired,” he said.