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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?

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Mario Andretti says Colton Herta could be next American star in F1

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Mario Andretti’s last Formula One victory is also the last by an American driver in more than 42 years on the international open-wheel road racing series.

If you had told Andretti that while he was celebrating on the Grand Prix of the Netherlands podium on Aug. 27, 1978 at the Vandzoort circuit, he wouldn’t have believed it.

“Absolutely not,” Andretti told Kyle Petty during the most recent “Coffee With Kyle” episode (video above). “It’s a shame. Somehow we have so much talent here, and either there’s no invitation or something there. But I think it’s time to give some of this young talent that, in my opinion, is absolutely capable.”

The Dutch GP was the last of Andretti’s 12 victories in F1 and came during his championship season. No one since has come close to matching his success in F1.

Mario Andretti drives his Lotus-Ford to victory in the 1978 Grand Prix of the Netherlands (Bernard Cahier/Getty Images).

Andretti’s son, Michael, took a full-time ride with McLaren in 1993 but left with three races remaining in a season marred by crashes and mechanical problems.

Scott Speed was the last American to run a full F1 season in 2006, and Alexander Rossi made the most recent F1 start by a U.S. driver in 2015. Rossi has said he has no desire to return to racing in Europe after winning the 2016 Indianapolis 500 and becoming an IndyCar championship contender.

But Mario Andretti believes Andretti Autosport has another rising star with F1-caliber ability.

“Colton Herta is one that comes to mind,” Mario Andretti said. “As a young lad, his dad sent him to Europe, he was doing Formula 3, and he knows most of the circuits there. He’s trained. He’s showed in his rookie season and won some premium races at COTA (and Laguna Seca), beat two of the very best Indy has to offer (in) Will Power and Scott Dixon.

“This is one kid I’d love to see him get a break over there to fly the U.S. colors again.”

Herta, 20, seems interested in exploring an F1 leap over the next few years. After winning Sept. 13 at Mid-Ohio from the pole position (his third career victory in the NTT IndyCar Series), the No. 88 Dallara-Honda driver is ranked fourth in the standings in his sophomore year and regarded as one of the series’ top prospects.

Herta recently told RACER.com “I’d love to give Formula 1 a crack” but said he also would be happy driving in IndyCar and IMSA.

A naturalized U.S. citizen who told Petty about spending several years with his family in an Italian refugee camp before coming to America, Mario Andretti said F1 brought an enormous sense of patriotic pride.

“Formula One is like the Olympics in a sense,” he said. “You’re in a different country, a different continent. When you earn that highest step of the podium, they play your national anthem. That’s when you take nothing for granted. You feel like I’m representing my country, and the proudest moments are those.

“I’d just like to see some other American drivers experience that. It’s time.”

Mario Andretti with four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon and six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton before the Nov. 22, 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images).

During the “Coffee With Kyle” conversation, Andretti also discussed:

–His versatility as a winner in IndyCar, sports cars, NASCAR and Formula One;

–His 1967 Daytona 500 victory and how he enjoyed racing with crew chief Jake Elder at the famed Holman-Moody team;

Mario Andretti Colton Herta
Mario Andretti and Kyle Petty saluted “The King” by wearing their Richard Petty-style hats during the latest “Coffee With Kyle” (NBCSN).

–Why he delayed his entry to F1 for a few years because of his earnings power in IndyCar. “I always say I’d race for free, but at the same time, you’re thinking of family and the future,” he said. “It was in the back of your mind that you can’t give up the earning power of IndyCar. That kept me from going full time in Formula One, but I always said that sometime in my career, I’d have to devote a period to Formula One.”

–On what it was like racing in an era when driver deaths were more prevalent. “If you’re going to do this, you’re not going to dwell on those negatives,” Andretti said. “There’s no way. You knew it was present. Especially in the ‘60s at the beginning of the season at the drivers meetings, you couldn’t help but look around and say, ‘I wonder who is not going to be here at the end of the season.’ We’d lose four to five guys. In ’64, we lost six guys.

“It’s something if you dwell on that, you’re going to take on a different profession. It’s a desire and love to want to drive that overcame all that and then the confidence it’s not going to happen to me. And then you pray.”

Watch the full “Coffee With Kyle” episode in the video above or by clicking here.

Mario Andretti looks on before the 103rd Indianapolis 500 on May 26, 2019 (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).