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Column: Rookie Robert Wickens’ isn’t just learning, he’s taking IndyCar veterans to school

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North of the border, it would not be a surprise if numerous IndyCar fans have proudly said recently, “Hey, how about that Wickens guy, eh?”

Indeed, what about this Wickens guy? He’s not just a hot topic of conversation in his native Canada, but he’s also got IndyCar fans in the U.S. talking a lot about the Toronto, Canada native.

The reason is simple: Robert Wickens has come out of the gate in his rookie season on the Verizon IndyCar Series in near-explosive fashion.

Sure, it’s just been two races into the 17-race IndyCar schedule, but Wickens has performed better than many IndyCar veterans.

Consider:

* In his first-ever IndyCar race, last month in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Wickens made it look easy as he grabbed the pole position.

Wickens was punted into the wall by Alexander Rossi with two laps to go at St. Pete.

Then, he led 69 laps in the actual race and likely could have gone on and won it if Alexander Rossi hadn’t punted him into the wall with two laps remaining, leaving him with an 18th-place finish that was nowhere indicative of the outstanding race he had run until those final two laps.

Again, remember that this was his first-ever IndyCar race, because there’s another first that’s coming up.

* This past Saturday night at Phoenix, in his first race ever on an oval track in any form of racing, Wickens started sixth and finished an outstanding second, leading 44 of the race’s 250 laps.

Had Josef Newgarden not pitted for fresh tires late in the race, Wickens likely could have held on to the lead in the final seven laps to earn yet another first: his first IndyCar win.

“It’s a dream come true,” Wickens, driver of the No. 6 Lucas Oil Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda, said after Saturday’s finish. “All I wanted to do was finish every lap of my oval debut.

“So, to come home P2 and even lead tonight, you can never expect that as a rookie. It’s so hard here, but the team did a great job. The car was great all day. James (Hinchcliffe) and I were quick so I think it’s really encouraging for things to come.”

The 29-year-old Wickens did his best to hold off the approaching Newgarden. He blocked, he zigged and zagged, but there just was no way to keep Newgarden and his fresher rubber from taking the lead with four laps to go and then sail on to victory lane with a nearly three-second advantage over Wickens.

“I did as much as I could without crashing both of us, so I don’t think there’s any stopping him. I think once he built up the courage to just out brake me around the outside, it was pretty easy. Congratulations to him. … But I’m still happy with how it turned out.”

Now, as the series moves on to this Sunday’s Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, it would not be a complete surprise – based on what he’s already done in the first two races – to see Wickens make quick work of getting that first IndyCar win.

Trust me, that first win is well within reach. If Wickens doesn’t get his first win by, say, Indianapolis, I’ll be very surprised.

Even more, if he keeps performing in the fashion he has done in the first two races, it would not be a complete shock if Wickens were to win the 102nd Running Of the Indianapolis 500 on May 27th.

Wickens while practicing at Phoenix over the weekend (Photo: IndyCar).

It’s been a long time since IndyCar has seen a rookie be so successful so quickly. But it’s not just success, it’s how he’s made it look so easily so often.

Wickens and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports teammate – and fellow Canadian James Hinchcliffe – have quickly developed a strong teammate rapport that has only made an already strong team even stronger.

Wickens and Hinchcliffe have been friends for most of their life, dating back to when they first started racing as young mites in their native land.

When Wickens first came to Indianapolis, he crashed with Hinchcliffe for a while before he found his own place.

They also have a great rapport off the track, cracking jokes and definitely making the aura around the team loose, easy and real friendly.

And it definitely appears that Wickens is rubbing off on Hinchcliffe and vice-versa.

Hinchcliffe finished fourth at St. Pete and sixth at Phoenix.

“Schmidt Peterson Motorsports have done an incredible job since the test here in February when we were at the bottom [of the time sheets], to get two cars in the top six in both qualifying and the race,” Hinchcliffe said after Saturday’s race. “Huge congrats to Robbie (Wickens) on his first podium.”

It’s kind of ironic at how well and quickly Wickens has adapted to IndyCar racing. He spent the previous eight seasons racing primarily in Europe.

Typically, when a driver decides to come over to the U.S. and IndyCar, they struggle – oftentimes a lot. Let’s face it, adapting to U.S. open-wheel racing is a unique animal in and of itself, unlike anything else a driver has ever experienced, except maybe if they had an apprenticeship first in Indy Lights.

Wickens didn’t have that, coming straight from Europe to IndyCar.

When Schmidt Peterson Motorsports first announced that they had signed Wickens to drive a second car for them alongside Hinchcliffe, it’s very likely that many when they first heard the news responded, “Who?”

But Wickens has quickly shown that SPM made a near-genius move in signing him.

It’s nothing short of ironic how things have turned out. Wickens was supposed to be a rookie and spend much of the 2018 season learning the IndyCar style of racing.

Instead, Wickens is taking many of the sport’s veterans – guys like Scott Dixon, Will Power, Simon Pagenaud, Tony Kanaan, Graham Rahal, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Takuma Sato – to school and teaching them some very valuable lessons in the process.

Wickens is here to stay, to win races and potentially win championships.

What more can you say other than, yes indeed, how about that Wickens’ guy, eh?

Follow @JerryBonkowski

IndyCar: Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama Recap

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After two days, with both featuring a lot of rain, the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama is finally in the books for the Verizon IndyCar Series.

With Mother Nature intervening with rain and fury over both days, it’s understandable if there’s a sense of relief that the weekend at Barber Motorsports Park is behind us.

Still, as is usually the case, Barber produced plenty of thrills, and a few spills, across the weekend of racing.

A recap of big stories to emerge from the weekend is below.

Rain Drops Keep Falling on My Head…

Mother Nature was ever present on Sunday and Monday, dropping a lot of rain on Barber Motorsports Park. Photo: IndyCar

Rain races can be very fun and entertaining…if they’re able to run. Sadly, that just wasn’t the case on Sunday.

The undulating and picturesque Barber Motorsports Park is one of the most striking road courses in the country, and often produces some of the best racing anywhere. But, the nature of the track and its dramatic elevation changes can make it susceptible to standing water in heavy rains.

And that’s the exact scenario that played out on Sunday, with heavy and persistent rain hitting the track late in the morning, and hanging around the entire day.

While INDYCAR officials and Barber track crews worked tirelessly on Sunday to disperse the standing water, the rainfall was simply too heavy for them to make any impact.

While very unfortunate, postponing the finish of the race to Monday was the right decision, as several drivers explained.

“It’s tough because we have so many people that come out here to watch us,” said eventual race winner Josef Newgarden following the Sunday postponement. “We want to put on a good race. We want to put on a show. So calling the race, running around behind the pace car not running, it’s tough, it’s tough to do that. But I think it was the right thing in the end. When we started the race, the conditions were OK. You could run at that level of rain. Then, it intensified right before that first caution. I think when the caution came out, it got to a point where it was just too much.”

Graham Rahal echoed Newgarden’s sentiments, also emphasizing poor visibility as a big factor in making the conditions too treacherous.

“It was a tough beginning, but when we kind of got going it was OK and kind of fun to challenge for a while, but visibility was a major issue (on Sunday), no doubt. I’m glad that the series postponed it. I would have like to get it in (on Sunday), but that’s life,” he explained.

Rest assured, Firestone makes a strong rain tire, and IndyCar teams, drivers, and track crews are more than equipped to handle a rain shower from Mother Nature. But, Sunday’s weather was simply too extreme.

Newgarden Shines in the Rain and the Sun

Josef Newgarden in Victory Lane at Barber Motorsports Park. Photo: IndyCar

About the only thing as powerful as Mother Nature during the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama was Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden.

Last year’s IndyCar champion was quickest at the end of Friday’s practices, scored the pole on Saturday, and led all but nine laps across Sunday and Monday.

And his leads were always decisive. He quickly gapped the field when racing started on Sunday, holding down a gap of as much seven seconds over teammate Will Power in the early laps. And on Monday, he gapped the field by as much as 27 seconds during the second half of the race.

Only outside circumstances could have prevented Newgarden from getting to Victory Lane…and that nearly happened. A late rain shower in the final minutes created split strategies across the field, with Newgarden among those opting for rain tires, while Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay and Dale Coyne Racing’s Sebastien Bourdais gambled by staying out on slicks.

Hunter-Reay, however, jumped into the pits soon after for rain tires, a move that helped him eventually finish second, while Coyne and Bourdais gambled that the track would not get wet enough to force them to pit.

Alas, with only a few minutes remaining and the rain getting heavier, conditions became too slick and Bourdais was forced to pit, handing the lead back to Newgarden and dropping Bourdais to fifth.

“More hectic than you would want at the end,” Newgarden quipped when asked about conditions at the end of the race. “It seemed like it was pretty straightforward all day. We weren’t having yellows. It was dry. Then that rain made it very nerve-racking.

Newgarden added that pitting for rain tires, and doing so early, was their best option, even though it opened the door for others to jump ahead.

“I think for us we did the only thing we could,” he said of their strategy. “We went to rains as soon as it intensified. We had to. I think it was the right thing to do, just because we’re in the lead, we have the most to lose by not putting on rains early.”

The victory, Newgarden’s second of 2018, moves him back into the championship lead with 158 points, 13 ahead of Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi.

Misc.

  • Ryan Hunter-Reay enjoyed a solid weekend following a troublesome day at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. The Andretti Autosport driver ranked in the Top 10 through practice, qualified a strong fourth, and ran a very clean race to finish second, his best finish of 2018, and he now sits only three points out of third place in the championship – he is currently sixth, with 113 points.
  • While teammate Robert Wickens has made more headlines, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ James Hinchcliffe is having one of the best early-season efforts of his IndyCar career. With finishes of fourth, sixth, ninth, and second to his name through four races, Hinch sits fifth in the standings on 118 points, and is keeping himself well within reach of the championship lead. A race win would do wonders for his championship standing, but the consistent start puts him in a good position heading into the month of May.
  • Conversely, four-time champion Scott Dixon has yet to finish on the podium in 2018 – his best finish is fourth at ISM Raceway. Still, at seventh in the standings with 107 points, Dixon is within striking distance despite the quiet start.
  • Elsewhere, Will Power and Simon Pagenaud have had comparatively disastrous starts to their seasons. Power has hit the wall in three of the first four races, while Pagenaud only has a best finish of ninth, coincidentally at Barber this weekend, through four races. Power sits tenth in the championship on 81 points, while Pagenaud languishes down in 15th on 66.
  • He made not have made many friends out there, but Zachary Claman De Melo gave viewers some thrills after the Monday restart, pushing his way through the field despite being two laps down. It also created one of the highlights of the race, with he and Spencer Pigot going for a slide through Turns 7 and 8 (video below). For his efforts, Claman De Melo recorded the fastest lap of the race on his way to finishing 19th.

The Verizon IndyCar Series now has two weeks before their next race, the INDYCAR Grand Prix on May 11-12. However, the series will be plenty busy, with testing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway kicking off next week.

Follow@KyleMLavigne