Wickens surprised himself with pole in first IndyCar race

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To say that Robert Wickens is a surprise pole winner for Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg might be an understatement. In fact, even he admitted that he didn’t expect qualifying to go as well as it did.

“I honestly, like full disclosure, I didn’t feel that good actually in practice today,” Wickens revealed in the post-qualifying press conference. “We kind of made some changes overnight that didn’t do what we hoped it would, so we kind of had to go back to our car from Friday.”

Still, Wickens had relatively high expectations for himself entering the weekend. While he admitted that aiming for the pole would have been too much of a reach, he was very confident that he could at least start inside the top 10.

“Did I expect to qualify pole in my first IndyCar race? No. But I would have been disappointed if I was outside of the top 10 just because that’s the kind of person I am. I’m a perfectionist, I am kind of OCD when it comes down to my career and everything on that front,” he explained.

Wickens added that the conditions in qualifying were definitely a help to him. A steady drizzle hit the St. Petersburg street circuit during qualifying, and although the track was not wet enough for rain tires, conditions still proved to be plenty slippery.

But, Wickens detailed that his time in Europe – he has been racing in Europe since 2008 – meant he was used to conditions like the ones the drivers faced on Saturday, in which the track was changing dramatically on every lap.

“Sure, my experience must have helped, but my entire career I’ve always seemed to perform well in these type of conditions, the mixed, wet, dry, when there’s only one minute left and you get one more lap and the track is two seconds faster than the lap before, typically those have kind of been where I’ve seemed to excel,” Wickens asserted.

The 28-year-old Canadian finished by also revealing that he didn’t know his final lap would be good enough to take the pole until the very end, and his reaction to it on the pitlane – highlighted by a series of fist pumps on his way into the pits – reflected as much.

“All I can say is luckily the lap was good enough for pole, but I was very happy with the lap that I did, but I didn’t know it was going to be good enough for pole,” he added. “I was just hoping to kind of be into the top five and not the last of the (Firestone Fast Six) people because I think I was there for a decent part of the session trying to find some clear track.”

The result also has some history attached to it. Wickens, despite being 28 years old with a lot of success in other series, including DTM, on his resume, is making his very first IndyCar start this weekend.

Only two other times in the sport’s history has a driver won the pole in his first IndyCar start: Sebastien Bourdais, at St. Petersburg in 2003, and Nigel Mansell, at Surfers Paradise, Australia in 1993 – both drivers did so with Newman Haas Racing, coincidentally.

Wickens will try to emulate Mansell’s 1993 weekend, which subsequently saw him claim victory that day at Surfers Paradise, and complete his debut IndyCar race with a trip to Victory Lane.

Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg rolls off at 12:30 p.m. ET

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Kyle Busch interests McLaren for Indy 500, but team is leaning toward experience

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With Arrow McLaren SP heavily weighing a fourth car for the Indy 500 next year, Kyle Busch is a candidate but not at the top of the IndyCar team’s list.

McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown addressed the possibility Wednesday morning during a video news conference with Gavin Ward, the team’s newly named racing director.

“I have not personally spoken with Kyle Busch, but you can read into that that someone else in our organization has,” Brown said. “We want to make sure if we run a fourth car, we’re in the mindset that we want someone that is experienced around the 500. It’s such an important race, and from a going for the championship point of view, we’ve got three drivers that we want to have finish as strong as possible, so if we ran a fourth car, we’d want to be additive, not only for the fourth car itself, but to the three cars and so bringing in someone who’s not done it before potentially doesn’t add that value from an experience point of view.”

Busch will race the No. 8 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing next season in NASCAR under a new deal that will allow the two-time Cup Series champion to make his Indy 500 debut. Busch, who had a previous deal to run the Indy 500 nixed by Joe Gibbs Racing, openly courted Chevy IndyCar teams to contact him during his introductory news conference with RCR last month.

After Team Penske (which has given no indications of a fourth car at Indy alongside champion Will Power, Josef Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin), McLaren is the second-best Chevy organization, and it’s fielded an extra Indy 500 car the past two years for Juan Pablo Montoya. The Associated Press reported last month that McLaren was in “serious conversation” about running Busch at Indy with Menards sponsorship.

But with its restructured management, the team is in the midst of significant expansion for 2023. AMSP is adding a third full-time car for 2016 Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi to team with Pato O’Ward and Felix Rosenqvist, and a massive new shop also is being built in the Indianapolis area.

“(It’s) not because of him but purely because of experience,” Brown said of Busch. “He’s an awesome talent and would be huge, huge news for the speedway. But yeah, I think everyone is under consideration if we decide to do it, but experience is right at the top of the list as far as what’s going to be the most important to us.”

And it seems likely there will be a veteran joining Rossi, O’Ward and Rosenqvist at the Brickyard.

“A fourth car at the 500 is very much under consideration,” Brown said. “I wouldn’t even want to get ahead of ourselves, but we wouldn’t be ruling out a fourth car in the future on a full-time basis. That definitely wouldn’t be for ’23. But as we expand the team and get into larger facilities and things of that nature, it’s something that Gavin and I have spoken about.

“I think we would be in a position to run a fourth car at the 500 this upcoming year. If we do decide to do that, we’ll make that decision soon for maximum preparation, and I would say we’re open minded to a fourth car in ’24 and beyond and probably will make that decision middle of next year in time to be prepared if we did decide to do that.”

Brown also addressed the future of Alex Palou, who will be racing for Chip Ganassi Racing next season after also signing a deal with McLaren. Though Brown declined to get into specifics about whether Palou had signed a new deal, he confirmed Palou will continue to test “our Formula One car from time to time.

“Everyone has reached an amicable solution,” Brown said. “We’ve now had Alex in our Formula One car as we have Pato. That will continue in the future, which we’re quite excited about. At this point we’re laser-focused on 2023 and glad to have the noise behind us and now just want to put our head down and get on with the job with the three drivers we have.”