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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.”

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Indianapolis 500 weather forecast: Rain chances decreasing for start

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INDIANAPOLIS — As the green flag keeps approaching for the 103rd Indianapolis 500, the chances of clear skies Sunday keep increasing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The chance of rain at the start of the race was down to about 30%, according to the wunderground.com site as of late Saturday night, and the forecast seemed good until late afternoon when the odds of precipitation rose to about 80%.

If the race starts on time at12:45 p.m. ET, that should be a long enough window to run the full 500 miles and certainly an official race (102 of 200 laps).

With Indiana on the western edge of the Eastern Time Zone and a 9:02 p.m. sunset on race day, Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Doug Boles said the green flag probably could be held as late as 6 p.m. if a worst-case scenario of bad weather hits.

THE 103RD INDIANAPOLIS 500: Click here for how to watch

“We ran the NASCAR race (in 2017) almost right up to sunset,” Boles said. “The challenge of getting closer to sunset is just getting people out when it’s still light. The race itself is more than 2 hours and 40 minutes so you have to back-time yourself.

“We’ll sit down with IndyCar over the next 24 hours and at least have that in the back of our mind. If there’s a window to get it done, our intent would be get it in Sunday, so we would want to go as late as we could.”

Boles said National Weather Service representatives are on site this weekend to help with forecasting. Regardless of if there still is a threat of rain, the track will start the race on time as long as the surface is dry.

“I can’t imagine we’d postpone the start because we think it might rain,” Boles said. “If it’s not raining, we’re running the race.

Boles said track officials are monitoring Sunday’s weather daily but won’t discuss any potential contingency plans until Saturday night. Regardless of whether it’s raining Sunday morning, some pre-race ceremonies likely will remain in place.

“It’s hard to speculate on what’s going to happen,” he said. “It’s likely Sunday morning will be the first time that we have any definitive statement on what we think is going to happen. Instead of giving you information that we don’t know what it’s going to be like, I’d rather wait until that Sunday when we see the conditions, and we’ll let you know.

“Obviously, if it’s raining, then we’ll have to decide what the next steps are.”

Boles said Indiana weather traditionally is unpredictable, noting that qualifying was completed last Sunday despite predictions of a complete washout.

“Last year the prediction was it was going to rain on race day, we got up next morning, and it was perfect,” Boles said. “It just changes so rapidly around here.”

Should it rain, IndyCar officials will make every reasonable attempt to run the Indy 500 on time,. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway also recently used a new sealant on the track surface which makes it quicker to dry the racing surface.

During the previous 102 runnings of the Indy 500, there have been 12 impacted by rain: three complete postponements; two partial postponements and seven shortened races.

So what happens if it does rain? Some options:

Rain-shortened race

The Indy 500 could turn into the Indy 255. If more than 255 miles (102 laps) are completed in Sunday’s race, the race can be deemed official. If the race is called, driver’s finishing positions are based on their position in the race at the time of the caution flag for rain.

The Indy 500 has been shortened by rain only seven times, most recently in 2007. The race was stopped nearly three hours because of rain on Lap 113 and was declared officially over with Dario Franchitti in the lead when rain again hit at the 415-mile mark.

Partial postponement

If fewer than 102 laps are completed Sunday, the race will resume on the next dry day. With most Americans on holiday Monday because of Memorial Day, a partial postponement still might allow for a healthy audience at the track and watching on NBC.

The race has been partially postponed only twice in the 102 previous runnings, in 1967 and 1973.

Complete postponement

Fans shouldn’t worry too much about a complete postponement of the race, as it has only happened three times, most recently in 1997. If rain completely postpones the Indy 500, the race will be rescheduled for the next day with the start time dependent on the forecast.

The 1997 race ran 15 laps on Monday before rain again postponed the remainder of the race until Tuesday. The 1915 and ’86 runnings were postponed until the following Saturday.