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Column: Rookie Robert Wickens’ isn’t just learning, he’s taking IndyCar veterans to school

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North of the border, it would not be a surprise if numerous IndyCar fans have proudly said recently, “Hey, how about that Wickens guy, eh?”

Indeed, what about this Wickens guy? He’s not just a hot topic of conversation in his native Canada, but he’s also got IndyCar fans in the U.S. talking a lot about the Toronto, Canada native.

The reason is simple: Robert Wickens has come out of the gate in his rookie season on the Verizon IndyCar Series in near-explosive fashion.

Sure, it’s just been two races into the 17-race IndyCar schedule, but Wickens has performed better than many IndyCar veterans.

Consider:

* In his first-ever IndyCar race, last month in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Wickens made it look easy as he grabbed the pole position.

Wickens was punted into the wall by Alexander Rossi with two laps to go at St. Pete.

Then, he led 69 laps in the actual race and likely could have gone on and won it if Alexander Rossi hadn’t punted him into the wall with two laps remaining, leaving him with an 18th-place finish that was nowhere indicative of the outstanding race he had run until those final two laps.

Again, remember that this was his first-ever IndyCar race, because there’s another first that’s coming up.

* This past Saturday night at Phoenix, in his first race ever on an oval track in any form of racing, Wickens started sixth and finished an outstanding second, leading 44 of the race’s 250 laps.

Had Josef Newgarden not pitted for fresh tires late in the race, Wickens likely could have held on to the lead in the final seven laps to earn yet another first: his first IndyCar win.

“It’s a dream come true,” Wickens, driver of the No. 6 Lucas Oil Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda, said after Saturday’s finish. “All I wanted to do was finish every lap of my oval debut.

“So, to come home P2 and even lead tonight, you can never expect that as a rookie. It’s so hard here, but the team did a great job. The car was great all day. James (Hinchcliffe) and I were quick so I think it’s really encouraging for things to come.”

The 29-year-old Wickens did his best to hold off the approaching Newgarden. He blocked, he zigged and zagged, but there just was no way to keep Newgarden and his fresher rubber from taking the lead with four laps to go and then sail on to victory lane with a nearly three-second advantage over Wickens.

“I did as much as I could without crashing both of us, so I don’t think there’s any stopping him. I think once he built up the courage to just out brake me around the outside, it was pretty easy. Congratulations to him. … But I’m still happy with how it turned out.”

Now, as the series moves on to this Sunday’s Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, it would not be a complete surprise – based on what he’s already done in the first two races – to see Wickens make quick work of getting that first IndyCar win.

Trust me, that first win is well within reach. If Wickens doesn’t get his first win by, say, Indianapolis, I’ll be very surprised.

Even more, if he keeps performing in the fashion he has done in the first two races, it would not be a complete shock if Wickens were to win the 102nd Running Of the Indianapolis 500 on May 27th.

Wickens while practicing at Phoenix over the weekend (Photo: IndyCar).

It’s been a long time since IndyCar has seen a rookie be so successful so quickly. But it’s not just success, it’s how he’s made it look so easily so often.

Wickens and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports teammate – and fellow Canadian James Hinchcliffe – have quickly developed a strong teammate rapport that has only made an already strong team even stronger.

Wickens and Hinchcliffe have been friends for most of their life, dating back to when they first started racing as young mites in their native land.

When Wickens first came to Indianapolis, he crashed with Hinchcliffe for a while before he found his own place.

They also have a great rapport off the track, cracking jokes and definitely making the aura around the team loose, easy and real friendly.

And it definitely appears that Wickens is rubbing off on Hinchcliffe and vice-versa.

Hinchcliffe finished fourth at St. Pete and sixth at Phoenix.

“Schmidt Peterson Motorsports have done an incredible job since the test here in February when we were at the bottom [of the time sheets], to get two cars in the top six in both qualifying and the race,” Hinchcliffe said after Saturday’s race. “Huge congrats to Robbie (Wickens) on his first podium.”

It’s kind of ironic at how well and quickly Wickens has adapted to IndyCar racing. He spent the previous eight seasons racing primarily in Europe.

Typically, when a driver decides to come over to the U.S. and IndyCar, they struggle – oftentimes a lot. Let’s face it, adapting to U.S. open-wheel racing is a unique animal in and of itself, unlike anything else a driver has ever experienced, except maybe if they had an apprenticeship first in Indy Lights.

Wickens didn’t have that, coming straight from Europe to IndyCar.

When Schmidt Peterson Motorsports first announced that they had signed Wickens to drive a second car for them alongside Hinchcliffe, it’s very likely that many when they first heard the news responded, “Who?”

But Wickens has quickly shown that SPM made a near-genius move in signing him.

It’s nothing short of ironic how things have turned out. Wickens was supposed to be a rookie and spend much of the 2018 season learning the IndyCar style of racing.

Instead, Wickens is taking many of the sport’s veterans – guys like Scott Dixon, Will Power, Simon Pagenaud, Tony Kanaan, Graham Rahal, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Takuma Sato – to school and teaching them some very valuable lessons in the process.

Wickens is here to stay, to win races and potentially win championships.

What more can you say other than, yes indeed, how about that Wickens’ guy, eh?

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F1 Preview: 2018 German Grand Prix

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The German Grand Prix continues its biennial presence on the Formula 1 calendar – it’s hosted F1 events in even numbered years since 2014 – as Formula 1 returns to the Hockenheimring this weekend.

The German fans will undoubtedly be joyful in Sebastian Vettel entering his home race in the championship lead, by nine points over Lewis Hamilton. Yet, somewhat surprisingly, Vettel despite being one of the most successful and decorated drivers of his generation, Vettel has won in Germany only once (2013, at the Nurburgring) and he has never won at Hockenheim.

Conversely, Hamilton has won in Germany three times, including twice at Hockenheim (2008 and 2016).

As such, Vettel will hope to add to his points lead over Hamilton with a win on home soil, though Hamilton may be equally as motivated after watching Vettel his own home race at Silverstone two weeks ago.

Nevertheless, their 2018 championship duel will most certainly continue to be closely fought.

Talking points ahead of the German Grand Prix are below.

A Different World in 2018 vs. 2016

Nico Rosberg during the Formula One Grand Prix of Germany at Hockenheimring on July 31, 2016 in Hockenheim, Germany. Photo: Getty Images

The Formula 1 landscape looked completely different back in 2016, the last time Formula 1 visited the Hockenheimring. Bernie Ecclestone was still the chief executive of Formula 1.

Nico Rosberg was partnering Lewis Hamilton in the Mercedes team, and was on his way to a driver’s championship that year.

Vettel and teammate Kimi Raikkonen were in the midst of a slump as Ferrari went winless in 2016.

The world was still getting to know a then 18-year-old Max Verstappen, the young Dutchman having won the Spanish Grand Prix in May that year.

And the cars looked completely different, with skinnier and taller rear wings and taller rear tires highlighting the appearance differences.

In 2018, Vettel and Ferrari might be the strongest combination. Rosberg is long from Mercedes, and Valtteri Bottas is doing his best to shine in the wake of Hamilton’s enormous shadow.

Verstappen is still a rising star, though he has come under fire at times for overly aggressive driving and his Red Bull teammate Daniel Ricciardo has garnered more headlines this year, with a pair of race wins alongside his status as an F1 free agent after 2018.

In short, the Formula 1 landscape is hardly recognizable from what it was back in 2016. And even though Hamilton won that year, followed by Ricciardo and Verstappen in second and third, very little will carry over from that race two years ago.

Hamilton, Mercedes Look to Take Back Momentum from Vettel, Ferrari

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND – JULY 08: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes WO9 leads Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF71H on track during the Formula One Grand Prix of Great Britain at Silverstone on July 8, 2018 in Northampton, England. (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)

The seesaw championship fight has tilted back in the favor of Ferrari, with Vettel leading Hamilton after finishes of third and first in Austria and England. Hamilton, meanwhile, DNF’ed in Austria and came home second in England after spinning on Lap 1.

Hamilton trails by nine points, but this is hardly an unfamiliar position for Hamilton in 2018 – he started the year trailing Vettel until he took the championship lead for the first time after the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.

Both teams have had multiple swings of momentum this year – Vettel won the opening two races before finishes of eighth in China (he spun after contact with Verstappen) and a pair of fourth place efforts in Azerbaijan and Spain before getting two more wins in Canada and England.

Hamilton, meanwhile stumbled out of the gates somewhat with finishes of second and third before taking a fortuitous win in Azerbaijan and two dominant wins in Spain and France before the misfortune in Austria.

All told the ebb and flow of the 2018 season seems to change with every race, and while Vettel now leads Hamilton again, things could change this weekend.

Raikkonen Trying to Fend off Ricciardo, Bottas

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND – JULY 06: Kimi Raikkonen of Finland driving the (7) Scuderia Ferrari SF71H on track during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Great Britain at Silverstone on July 6, 2018 in Northampton, England. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Kimi Raikkonen is somewhat of a forgotten man this Formula 1 season, but he does rank third in the championship at the moment, 10 points ahead of Ricciardo and 12 points ahead of Bottas.

However, both Ricciardo and Bottas are likely thought to have had better seasons – Ricciardo has the aforementioned wins (at China and Monaco) and the only thing that has kept Bottas from the top step of the podium is a string of horrendous luck.

However, Raikkonen, to his credit, has picked up the pieces whenever others around him have faltered, and he has six podium finishes through 10 races.

However, in order to fully silence any critics, and maybe even keep his Ferrari drive, Raikkonen would do well to get a win in 2018.

Misc.

  • The driver challenging Raikkonen’s position within Ferrari is Sauber’s Charles Leclerc. The Ferrari junior driver has five points finishes, and that could have been six if not for a pit stop error at Silverstone that caused him to leave his pit stall with a loose wheel – it forced him to retire. Leclerc’s star is on the rise, and he could shine again in Germany.
  • Nico Hulkenberg is the “other” German driver on the grid. And though he has a 24 Hours of Le Mans win to his name, he is yet to finish on the podium in an F1 race. The Renault package may not be a podium threat in usual circumstances, but if he stays clean and others falter, he could sneak in there…and doing so in his home race would make that overdue podium even sweeter.
  • After a pair of eighth place finishes, Fernando Alonso has helped McLaren at least stop the bleeding after a dismal stretch of races from Monaco through France in which the team scored zero points. However, the team still has a long way to go, and Germany could be another weekend of struggles.

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