Robert Wickens eager to begin IndyCar career with retooled SPM

Photo: IndyCar
0 Comments

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.”

Follow@KyleMLavigne

IndyCar 2023 notes: Alexander Rossi ‘fits like a glove’ with new Arrow McLaren teammates

Alexander Rossi McLaren
Nate Ryan
0 Comments

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. – There are more than three dozen fresh faces on the Arrow McLaren Racing IndyCar team, but there was one that Felix Rosenqvist was particularly keen to know – Alexander Rossi.

The driver of the No. 7 Dallara-Chevrolet is the most high-profile new hire for McLaren, which has expanded to a third car to pair with the No. 6 of Rosenqvist and No. 5 of Pato O’Ward.

And there is another layer than Rossi just being the new kid. McLaren marks only his second team in NTT IndyCar Series after seven seasons at Andretti Autosport, where he began with a victory in the 2016 Indy 500 and was a championship contender for several seasons.

Rossi is a mercurial talent, and when things go wrong, the red mist quickly descends (and sometimes has led to feuds with teammates). He went winless during two of his final seasons at Andretti and was out of contention more often than not, often bringing out the prickly side of his personality.

Yet there has been no trace of the dour Rossi since joining McLaren. The pragmatic Californian is quick to remind everyone he hasn’t worked with the team yet at a track (much less been in its car), and there surely will be times he gets frustrated.

But it’s clear that Rossi, who made five Formula One starts in 2015 after several years racing in Europe, already is meshing well with an organization whose England-based parent company has deep roots in F1.

“I’ve been pleasantly surprised,” Rosenqvist said Tuesday during IndyCar’s preseason media availabilities. “I think Alex kind of has that bad-guy role a little bit in IndyCar. He’s always been that guy, which is cool. I think we need those guys, as well.

“Actually having gotten to know him, he’s been super nice, super kind. He fits like a glove in the team. I think it fills a role where Pato is kind of like the crazy guy, I’m somewhere in the middle, and Alex is the more engineering guy in the team. I think Alex has more experience, as well. He just feels like a guy who knows what he wants.

“Yeah,  good addition to the team and great guy at the same time.”

There are many reasons why Rossi’s transition from Andretti to McLaren should be smoother than his abrupt move from F1 to IndyCar seven years ago. Namely, he no longer is the only newcomer to the team’s culture.

“It’s been kind of a good time to come in because everyone is finding a new role and position and kind of learning who’s who, finding everyone’s strengths and weaknesses,” he said.

But while Rossi might have questions about the team, he has none about the series. Unlike when he arrived at Andretti without any oval experience, Rossi joins McLaren with his IndyCar credentials secured as an established star with eight victories, seven poles and 28 podiums over 114 starts.

Even in his swan song with Andretti, Rossi still managed a farewell victory last July at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course that snapped a 49-race, three-year winless drought. It seems reasonable to believe he immediately could re-emerge in his 2017-19 title contender form.

“I know the series, and I know kind of everything that goes into American open-wheel racing vs. the European open-wheel racing, which is really the biggest transition,” Rossi said. “Certainly it’s the largest kind of team switch. I’ve obviously driven for different teams in the past in Europe, in sports cars, whatever, but never really in my full-time job. I’ve driven for the same organization for a very long time and have a lot of respect and fabulous memories with those people.

“So it has been a big kind of shift, trying to compare and contrast areas that I can bring kind of recommendations and experience to maybe help fill the gaps that exist at Arrow McLaren. Again, all of this is in theory, right? I don’t really know anything. We’ll have a much better idea and plan going into St. Pete (the March 5 season opener).”

He has gotten a good handle on how things work at its Indianapolis headquarters, though, and has been pleased by the leadership of new racing director Gavin Ward (who worked in F1 before a championship stint with Josef Newgarden at Team Penske). McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown also seems omnipresent on both sides of the Atlantic, making appearances at IndyCar races seemingly as much as in the F1 paddock.

“I think what’s very cool about Arrow McLaren is we do have the resources of the McLaren F1 team,” Rossi said. “They very much are being integrated in a lot of respects. It’s not two separate entities. McLaren Racing is one organization that has its people and resources and intellect in kind of everything. It’s been pretty cool to see how that can be an advantage to us in terms of people, resources, simulations, software, kind of everything. We’ve been able to kind of rely on that and use that as a tool that maybe other teams certainly don’t have.”

That will be helpful for Rossi with the methodologies and nuances of racing a Chevrolet for the first time after seven seasons with Honda.

And of course, there will be the relationship with O’Ward, who has been McLaren’s alpha star since 2020.

Rossi was in a similar role for Andretti, which raises questions about how McLaren will handle having two stars accustomed to being the face of the team. But O’Ward said IndyCar regulations should allow each driver to maintain their own style without being forced to adapt as in other series.

“At the end of the day, as much as teammates will help in order to gather data, it doesn’t mean they’re going to specifically help you in what you need because it’s a series where you can really tailor the car to what you want,” O’Ward said. “Rather than in Formula 1, (it’s) ‘This is the car, you need to learn how to drive this certain car.’ In IndyCar, it’s very different where you can customize it to what you want it to feel like or drive like.

“From past experience, I think Alex likes a car similar to what I do. I do think we have a very strong car in certain areas, but I definitely think he’s coming from a car where that other car has been stronger than us in other racetracks. I feel like if we can just find gains where we haven’t quite had a winning car, a podium car, that’s just going to help all of us.”

Though Thursday at The Thermal Club will mark the first time the trio works together at a track, Rosenqvist said he’s hung out a lot with Rossi (both are 31 years old) and deems his new teammate “well-integrated” in the simulator.

“I think the fit has been good with him, me and Pato,” Rosenqvist said. “On a trackside perspective, it’s obviously huge to have always a third opinion on things. Every driver’s opinion is valuable in its own way.”

Said O’Ward, 23: “It’s been great. (Rossi has) been great to have around. I think he needed a fresh start. I think he’s excited to really work with all of us, create the strongest package.”

Ever the realist, though, Rossi still is tempering some of his enthusiasm.

“Again, we haven’t really done anything yet other than some meetings and some team activities together,” he said. “I have a lot of respect for what they’ve done in IndyCar and also their prior careers. I think that we all bring something a little bit different to the table, which I think is really unique in terms of not only personalities but driving styles and experience levels.

“I think we have the ingredients to really be able to develop the team and continue to push the team forward to even a better level than what they’ve shown in the past. It’s been a really positive experience. Really I have nothing at all negative to say and can’t actually wait to get to work, get on track and start working together.”