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.

New Chip Ganassi driver Marcus Armstrong will team with boyhood idol Scott Dixon

Marcus Armstrong Scott Dixon
Joe Portlock - Formula 1/Formula Motorsport Limited via Getty Images
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Marcus Armstrong was a Scott Dixon fan his entire life, and when he was 8, the aspiring young racer asked his fellow New Zealander to autograph a helmet visor that he hung on his bedroom wall.

Next year, Armstrong will be Dixon’s teammate.

Armstrong was named Friday as the fourth IndyCar driver in the Chip Ganassi Racing lineup and will pilot the No. 11 next season on road and street courses.

A driver for the five oval races on the 17-race schedule will be named later.

The No. 11 is essentially the No. 48 that seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson drove the last two seasons, with Chip Ganassi making the change to run four cars numbered in sequential order. Indianapolis 500 winner Marcus Ericsson drives the No. 8, six-time champion Dixon drives the No. 9, and 2020 IndyCar champion Alex Palou drives the No. 10.

So just who is the second Kiwi in the Ganassi lineup?

A 22-year-old who spent the past three seasons in Formula One feeder series F2, a Ferrari development driver in 2021, and former roommate of Callum Illot and former teammate of Christian Lundgaard – both of whom just completed their rookie IndyCar seasons.

“I’ve always been attracted to the IndyCar championship because it’s one of those championships that’s been really well televised in New Zealand since I was young, mainly because of Scott and his success,” Armstrong told The Associated Press. “As time progressed, as I got closer to F1 and single-seaters, the attraction to IndyCar grew just because of how competitive the championship is – I like to challenge myself and the level of competition in IndyCar is remarkably high.”

Armstrong, from Christchurch, New Zealand, was set to travel from his current home in London to Indianapolis this weekend to meet his new team. He won’t need an introduction to Dixon, the 42-year-old considered the best IndyCar driver of his generation and Armstrong’s unequivocal childhood hero.

Last season, Dixon earned his 53rd career victory to pass Mario Andretti for second on the all-time list. Dixon has driven for Ganassi in all but 23 of his 345 career starts.

“For a long time I’ve been a Scott Dixon fan. I don’t want to make him cringe with our age difference,” Armstrong told the AP.

Despite the two-decade age difference, Armstrong never considered someday racing with Dixon a fantasy.

He convinced his father after winning five national karting championships to allow him to leave New Zealand for Italy at age 14, where he moved by himself to pursue a racing career. Armstrong said as soon as he’d received parental permission, he’d never look back.

Armstrong was in Formula 4 two years after his move to Italy and won that title in his first season. He won four races and four poles in F3 in the 2018 and 2019 seasons, then collected four wins and eight podiums in three seasons of F2.

“Maybe it’s a strength, or maybe it’s a weakness, but I always thought I was capable of doing great in the sport,” Armstrong told the AP. “I think you probably have to succeed in the sport, you need to believe in yourself. I always pictured myself being in IndyCar.

“As Scott’s teammate? I can’t specifically say I saw that. It’s an extraordinary chain of events.”

Armstrong becomes just the latest driver to leave Europe, where F1 is the pinnacle but has only 20 seats each year. Alexander Rossi began the trend in 2016 when the American left F1 and won the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie. He’s been followed by Ericsson, last season’s Indy 500 winner, Romain Grosjean, Illot, Lundgaard, and on Thursday three-time W Series champion and Williams F1 reserve driver Jamie Chadwick was announced as driver for Andretti Autosport in IndyCar’s second-tier development series.

Armstrong said he could have remained in F2 for a fourth season, but he’d been watching IndyCar for so long, and after conversations with Illot and Lundgaard, he decided to make the move to what he believes is the most balanced racing series in the world. He tested for Dale Coyne Racing at Sebring in October.

He doesn’t know if European racing is done for good, just that he wants to be in IndyCar right now.

“I don’t want to think too far into the future, I’m just grateful for this opportunity that is standing right in front of me,” Armstrong said. “I want to perform as well as I can in the near future and just consolidate myself in the fantastic chance that is IndyCar and just do my best.

“I’m not looking at F1 as a landing spot – I am looking at IndyCar, and that’s exactly why I am here.”