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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 playoffs kick off with Beckman, Crampton, Line, Savoie wins

Photos and videos courtesy of NHRA
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(NHRA media release)

MOHNTON, Pa. – It’s been over a year since Jack Beckman parked his Infinite Hero Foundation Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Funny Car in an NHRA winner’s circle but on Sunday at the 35th annual Mopar Express Lane NHRA Nationals presented by Pennzoil he came out on top.

Not only did Beckman defeat John Force in the final round at Maple Grove Raceway, he also took over the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series points lead.

“Our Sunday, I think it was perfect,” Beckman said. “That car was consistent, and it was fast. It’s one thing to be consistent and be a 10th (of a second) off the field but to run numbers as good as any other car out here, up and down the race track all four runs on race day.”

Richie Crampton (Top Fuel), Jason Line (Pro Stock) and Jerry Savoie (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were victors in their respective divisions at the first race of the 2019 Countdown to the Championship playoffs.

Beckman has been the runner-up four times in 2019 but it was his 3.958-second pass at 330.07 that gave him the holeshot win over Force’s quicker 3.952. One of the runner-up finishes was just two weeks ago at the U.S. Nationals against Force.

“In NHRA, you have zero control over what the car and driver in the other lane are doing,” Beckman said. “Did I want to beat him? Of course. Did it sting that he beat us in the Indy final? Duh. But none of that was going to help me be any better. Some fans came over before the final and said, ‘Hey, we’ll go razz John.’ And I said, ‘Don’t poke the bear.’ That guy, always seems to find a way to get motivated and win more races.”

It was a battle of Kalitta Motorsports in the Top Fuel final round but it was Crampton who raised the Wally trophy when he defeated his teammate Doug Kalitta with his 3.738 pass at 329.10 in his DHL dragster. Crampton now ties team owner and NHRA legend Connie Kalitta with 10 career wins.

Doug Kalitta snagged the Top Fuel points lead when previous leader and reigning champion Steve Torrence made an early exit in round one.

“It was definitely a great day for the whole team,” Crampton said. “All four cars are running good, particularly the dragsters, of course. But for Doug to take the points lead heading out of here, and we made a good jump in the points as well, that’s what we need to do. It’s that time of the year. It’s time to execute on race day and Connie and (crew chief) Kurt Elliott gave me the car to do it.”

Line earned his 50th Pro Stock title when he defeated Fernando Cuadra in the final round of eliminations thanks to his 6.553 pass at 210.60 in his Summit Racing Equipment Chevrolet Camaro. Line also took over the points lead from his KB teammate Bo Butner. Cuadra, who was completing in his first career final round, is also a KB powered car.

“It was a big victory, for sure,” Line said. “Not one of my shiner moments, but big victory, nonetheless. I was a little tardy (leaving the starting line) so not what you want to do in the final round. But 50 wins just means I’ve had some great race cars to drive and some great people I’ve gotten to work with over the years. It’s been a fun ride.”

Savoie picked up his second consecutive win on his White Alligator Racing Suzuki. He took down Steve Johnson with his 6.774 lap at 198.55 in the final round and went on to claim the Pro Stock Motorcycle points lead.

“It was just a great, great day for everyone. My whole team. I don’t take any of this credit. (Crew chief) Tim (Kulungian) and everybody on the team worked their butts off and here we are. At my age, I can do it. I didn’t count on making the top 10 because I took three races off. And, bam! Here we are. No one, not even myself expected this.”

The Mello Yello Drag Racing Series continues Sept. 27-29 with the second race of the Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship playoffs, the AAA Insurance NHRA Midwest Nationals at World Wide Technology Raceway in St. Louis.

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FINAL FINISHING ORDER:

TOP FUEL: 1. Richie Crampton; 2. Doug Kalitta; 3. Austin Prock; 4. Brittany Force; 5. Clay Millican; 6. Mike Salinas; 7. Leah Pritchett; 8. Antron Brown; 9. Steve Torrence; 10. Jordan Vandergriff; 11. Dan Mercier; 12. Terry McMillen; 13. Todd Paton; 14. Billy Torrence; 15. Lex Joon; 16. Smax Smith.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Jack Beckman; 2. John Force; 3. Ron Capps; 4. J.R. Todd; 5. John Smith; 6. Tim Wilkerson; 7. Matt Hagan; 8. Robert Hight; 9. Shawn Langdon; 10. Tommy Johnson Jr.; 11. Jim Campbell; 12. Cruz Pedregon; 13. Jonnie Lindberg; 14. Mike McIntire; 15. Bob Tasca III; 16. Terry Haddock.

PRO STOCK: 1. Jason Line; 2. Fernando Cuadra; 3. Matt Hartford; 4. Jeg Coughlin; 5. Deric Kramer; 6. Bo Butner; 7. Erica Enders; 8. Alex Laughlin; 9. Aaron Stanfield; 10. Kenny Delco; 11. Chris McGaha; 12. Bob Benza; 13. Greg Anderson; 14. Wally Stroupe; 15. David Miller; 16. Val Smeland.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Jerry Savoie; 2. Steve Johnson; 3. Matt Smith; 4. Karen Stoffer; 5. Angelle Sampey; 6. Eddie Krawiec; 7. Andrew Hines; 8. Hector Arana Jr; 9. Angie Smith; 10. Ryan Oehler; 11. Kelly Clontz; 12. Jianna Salinas; 13. Michael Ray; 14. Scotty Pollacheck; 15. Hector Arana; 16. Ron Tornow.

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FINAL RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: Richie Crampton, 3.738 seconds, 329.10 mph def. Doug Kalitta, 3.779 seconds, 331.28 mph.

FUNNY CAR: Jack Beckman, Dodge Charger, 3.958, 330.07 def. John Force, Chevy Camaro, 3.952, 328.78.

PRO STOCK: Jason Line, Chevy Camaro, 6.553, 210.60 def. Fernando Cuadra, Camaro, 6.594, 208.78.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, 6.774, 198.55 def. Steve Johnson, Suzuki, 6.805, 196.59.

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FINAL ROUND-BY-ROUND RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: ROUND ONE — Austin Prock, 3.698, 331.61 def. Jordan Vandergriff, 3.757, 322.34; Mike Salinas, 3.818, 252.80 def. Billy Torrence, 4.727, 163.53; Brittany Force, 3.691, 326.79 def. Todd Paton, 4.265, 207.98; Leah Pritchett, 3.731, 326.40 def. Lex Joon, 4.858, 152.73; Doug Kalitta, 3.722, 330.96 def. Smax Smith, 8.356, 74.14; Richie Crampton, 3.733, 329.26 def. Dan Mercier, 3.892, 310.63; Antron Brown, 3.743, 328.30 def. Terry McMillen, 4.130, 237.59; Clay Millican, 3.752, 329.67 def. Steve Torrence, 3.741, 330.15; QUARTERFINALS — Crampton, 3.781, 324.44 def. Brown, 9.080, 81.48; Kalitta, 3.740, 329.83 def. Salinas, 4.354, 196.39; Prock, 4.735, 219.51 def. Pritchett, 5.736, 105.48; Force, 3.784, 306.67 def. Millican, 3.927, 266.42; SEMIFINALS — Crampton, 4.656, 164.57 def. Force, Broke; Kalitta, 3.740, 333.91 def. Prock, 4.015, 295.66; FINAL — Crampton, 3.738, 329.10 def. Kalitta, 3.779, 331.28.

FUNNY CAR: ROUND ONE — John Smith, Dodge Charger, 4.280, 245.05 def. Bob Tasca III, Ford Mustang, 6.422, 144.74; Tim Wilkerson, Mustang, 3.926, 320.36 def. Terry Haddock, Mustang, 10.025, 83.22; Ron Capps, Charger, 3.909, 327.51 def. Mike McIntire, Toyota, 5.898, 119.98; Jack Beckman, Charger, 3.908, 331.45 def. Jim Campbell, Charger, 4.204, 249.21; John Force, Chevy Camaro, 3.938, 326.40 def. Cruz Pedregon, Charger, 4.752, 172.94; Robert Hight, Camaro, 3.919, 331.04 def. Jonnie Lindberg, Mustang, 5.774, 127.88; J.R. Todd, Toyota Camry, 3.915, 329.58 def. Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 3.977, 327.66; Matt Hagan, Charger, 3.899, 332.02 def. Shawn Langdon, Camry, 3.961, 329.91; QUARTERFINALS — Force, 3.944, 331.61 def. Wilkerson, 7.140, 133.20; Beckman, 3.927, 331.61 def. Hight, 9.203, 83.25; Capps, 3.916, 329.18 def. Hagan, 8.623, 79.91; Todd, 3.949, 324.75 def. J. Smith, 4.013, 313.80; SEMIFINALS — Beckman, 3.916, 331.12 def. Todd, 5.501, 167.26; Force, 3.929, 329.42 def. Capps, 4.262, 240.25; FINAL — Beckman, 3.958, 330.07 def. Force, 3.952, 328.78.

PRO STOCK: ROUND ONE — Fernando Cuadra, Chevy Camaro, 6.588, 209.75 def. Kenny Delco, Camaro, Foul – Red Light; Matt Hartford, Camaro, 6.578, 209.75 def. Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.622, 211.06; Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.549, 210.21 def. Aaron Stanfield, Camaro, 6.557, 210.54; Jeg Coughlin, Camaro, 6.552, 210.08 def. Bob Benza, Camaro, 6.593, 208.10; Deric Kramer, Camaro, 6.564, 209.92 def. Chris McGaha, Camaro, 6.587, 209.30; Jason Line, Camaro, 6.540, 210.44 def. Wally Stroupe, Camaro, 17.922, 45.55; Erica Enders, Camaro, 6.554, 209.36 def. David Miller, Dodge Dart, 19.609, 36.81; Alex Laughlin, Camaro, 6.568, 210.44 def. Val Smeland, Camaro, Foul – Red Light; QUARTERFINALS — Hartford, 6.591, 209.75 def. Laughlin, 7.169, 205.82; Cuadra, 6.578, 209.56 def. Enders, 6.581, 209.07; Coughlin, 6.568, 209.65 def. Kramer, 6.571, 209.92; Line, 6.549, 210.41 def. Butner, 6.575, 210.41; SEMIFINALS — Cuadra, 6.598, 208.46 def. Coughlin, Foul – Red Light; Line, 6.572, 210.57 def. Hartford, 6.604, 210.73; FINAL — Line, 6.553, 210.60 def. Cuadra, 6.594, 208.78.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: ROUND ONE — Matt Smith, 6.843, 198.15 def. Scotty Pollacheck, 7.109, 192.91; Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, 6.807, 195.11 def. Hector Arana, Foul – Red Light; Eddie Krawiec, Harley-Davidson, 6.891, 196.36 def. Angie Smith, 6.902, 196.19; Steve Johnson, Suzuki, 6.837, 194.72 def. Kelly Clontz, Suzuki, 6.971, 193.18; Hector Arana Jr, 6.897, 197.19 def. Ryan Oehler, 6.946, 194.46; Karen Stoffer, Suzuki, 6.822, 197.31 def. Ron Tornow, Buell, Broke – No Show; Angelle Sampey, Harley-Davidson, 6.865, 195.03 def. Jianna Salinas, Suzuki, 6.976, 191.40; Andrew Hines, Harley-Davidson, 6.871, 197.31 def. Michael Ray, 7.009, 189.71; QUARTERFINALS — M. Smith, 6.862, 199.58 def. Sampey, 6.857, 196.07; Johnson, 6.854, 195.42 def. Arana Jr, 6.967, 192.08; Stoffer, 6.847, 196.96 def. Krawiec, 6.878, 196.70; Savoie, 6.818, 197.10 def. Hines, 6.904, 196.44; SEMIFINALS — Johnson, 6.834, 195.70 def. M. Smith, 6.847, 198.64; Savoie, 6.818, 196.42 def. Stoffer, Foul – Red Light; FINAL — Savoie, 6.774, 198.55 def. Johnson, 6.805, 196.59.

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UPDATED POINT STANDINGS:

TOP FUEL: 1. Doug Kalitta, 2,180; 2. Brittany Force, 2,147; 3. Steve Torrence, 2,133; 4. Antron Brown, 2,127; 5. Richie Crampton, 2,126; 6. Mike Salinas, 2,104; 7. Austin Prock, 2,094; 8. Leah Pritchett, 2,093; 9. Clay Millican, 2,092; 10. Billy Torrence, 2,032.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Jack Beckman, 2,179; 2. John Force, 2,160; 3. Robert Hight, 2,155; 4. Ron Capps, 2,136; 5. Tommy Johnson Jr., 2,105; 6. Matt Hagan, 2,092; 7. J.R. Todd, 2,089; 8. Bob Tasca III, 2,072; 9. Tim Wilkerson, 2,057; 10. Shawn Langdon, 2,043.

PRO STOCK: 1. Jason Line, 2,194; 2. Bo Butner, 2,155; 3. Alex Laughlin, 2,139; 4. Erica Enders, 2,116; 5. Matt Hartford, 2,103; 6. Jeg Coughlin, 2,099; 7. Deric Kramer, 2,095; 8. Greg Anderson, 2,092; 9. Chris McGaha, 2,041; 10. Val Smeland, 2,031.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Jerry Savoie, 2,166; 2. Andrew Hines, 2,160; 3. Matt Smith, 2,143; 4. Eddie Krawiec, 2,134; 5. Karen Stoffer, 2,120; 6. Hector Arana Jr, 2,117; 7. Angelle Sampey, 2,083; 8. Angie Smith, 2,062; 9. Ryan Oehler, 2,042; 10. Hector Arana, 2,032.