Robert Wickens is an instant fit — and hit — in new IndyCar ride with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports

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LONG BEACH, Calif. (AP) — James Hinchcliffe made no secret of who he wanted as his new IndyCar teammate, lobbying hard for his childhood friend from Canada.

It wasn’t an easy sell because Robert Wickens had zero IndyCar experience, and after racing six seasons in Germany, he was hardly a household name. Hinchcliffe fought hard, though, and got his buddy at Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports this season.

After two races, Hinchcliffe has proven to be an impeccable talent scout.

“I keep telling everyone `I told you so,”‘ Hinchcliffe told The Associated Press.

Wickens has had an unbelievable start to his IndyCar career and could have gone into round three, Sunday’s race on the streets of Long Beach, with two victories already. He won the pole in his debut at St. Petersburg, led 69 laps and was on his way to the win until Alexander Rossi spun him on a late restart. He was the leader last Saturday night in Phoenix on the final restart until Josef Newgarden passed him for the win on fresher tires.

Wickens has a pole, a podium finish and has led 113 of IndyCar’s 360 laps this season.

“Everyone thought I just wanted my buddy on the team, no one believed me when I said `No, this guy is really, really good,’ ” Hinchcliffe said.

Fans line up for autographs from James Hinchcliffe and new teammate Robert Wickens.

The all-Canadian lineup has been a hit for the Schmidt team, which has shown through two races to have strong, fast Honda-powered cars. Hinchcliffe is sixth in the standings and Wickens is eighth, just 20 points behind leader Newgarden.

“It’s been a dream start, minus two laps at the end of St. Pete,” Wickens told AP. “But you can’t take this as this is how it’s going to be all year. Motorsports changes so quickly. We’ve been in the hunt, we’ve been in the fight, and I think it’s caught a lot of people by surprise, including myself. But I’m not lying when I say I am learning as a I go.”

So who is this Wickens guy?

He met Hinchcliffe in Toronto when the two were racing go-karts but his career took him to Europe, where he spent the last 12 years. Six of those were in DTM with a factory-backed Mercedes team and Wickens was a star.

But he was homesick and found himself flying from Germany to Toronto every chance he could get.

“Living in Europe for 12 years, it took a toll. I was spending more and more time in Canada. I was flying 10 hours home to Toronto for five days, then flying back to the next race,” Wickens said. “My whole core of my life was still over there and I was more or less commuting to work.”

His goal was to return to racing in North America and move into an endurance series with a less hectic lifestyle, he just wasn’t sure when that day would come. When Mercedes said it was leaving DTM at the end of this year, it gave Wickens his opening.

Hinchcliffe had already started his recruiting job – the two had done a ride swap in early 2017 that gave Wickens his first time in an Indy car, and when Schmidt needed an emergency replacement driver last year at Mid-Ohio, Wickens got the call for the practice day – and Wickens was interested. Now he’s got the job and the Schmidt team finally has a strong and balanced two-car team.

Wickens doesn’t discount his friendship with Hinchcliffe as a source for the success.

“James and I grew up karting together and had a friendly relationship of `Anything you can do, I can do better,’ ” Wickens said. “Our off track relationship over our careers has definitely made us better drivers. We are super competitive on track and we fight for every inch. But driver debriefs, engineering meetings, we like the same race cars, which is a dream situation within a team so we don’t have work on certain things for him, certain things for me. We can just build a race car. It’s just a really good situation.”

As Wickens spoke, Hinchcliffe crept up behind him and blew in his ear. Wickens continued speaking, not even turning to see who was breathing on his face. He was unshaven, he said because the Maple Leafs had an NHL playoff game, and confirmed Hinchcliffe’s declaration that “like all true Canadians, Rob can open a beer bottle with whatever is on his person.”

The duo went to a sporting goods store in Long Beach to purchase hockey sticks in honor of the 16 Canadian members of a junior hockey team killed last week in a bus crash traveling to a game. The two plan to have all the drivers in Sunday’s race sign the sticks, then auction them to raise funds for the victims. It’s part of their Canadian spirit and hit close to home for both drivers.

“We were in Phoenix and I went to sleep Friday night and woke up to devastating news the morning of the race,” Wickens said. “They were all on that bus for their passion for hockey, doing what they love. Canadians are so supportive and passionate about what they love and we are a hockey nation. But you can think, in any situation, James and I have traveled to races on chartered buses and chartered flights, and it can happen to any sport. That it happened in hockey is just luck of the draw. It’s hard to swallow.”

IndyCar drivers say Thermal Club could host race after successful opening day to test

IndyCar Thermal race
Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images
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THERMAL, Calif. – The “motorsports country club” passed the first test (figuratively and literally) with NTT IndyCar Series drivers pleased enough to proclaim The Thermal Club as race-eligible after its debut.

Though there were a few minor incidents on the 17-turn, 3.067-mile permanent road course east of Palm Springs in Southern California’s Coachella Valley, there was no significant damage for the 27 full-time cars that turned 1,119 laps Thursday.

Perhaps more importantly, drivers seemed to enjoy the ride around the track, which is unlike anything on the current circuit.

“I would love to race here,” said Chip Ganassi Racing rookie Marcus Armstrong, who posted the 10th-quickest time (1 minute, 39.9077 seconds) in the No. 11 Dallara-Honda that he will race on street and road courses after coming from the F2 Series. “I think it’s awesome. Would have to do a lot of neck training prior to the race because it’s much like a European circuit, quite demanding on the neck, towards the end of the lap anyway.

PRACTICE SPEEDS: First session l Second session l Combined

‘AN AMAZING PLACE’: IndyCar and its big plans for Thermal

“I think it’s cool. Very flowing, banked corners, banked high-speed corners. In terms of racing, it could be potentially not a lot of overtaking. You’d have to commit hard (in) maybe Turn 1. It wouldn’t be the easiest place to overtake. As a whole facility and circuit, it’s very enjoyable.”

Juncos Hollinger Racing No. 77 Chevrolet driver Callum Ilott, another F2 veteran who is entering his second year in IndyCar, was seventh fastest. Ilott said Thermal would “set a standard really of what we want to be doing with this series.

“It’s really, really high level, high tech,” said Ilott, whose rookie teammate Agustin Canapino went off course twice but incurred no major trouble. “As a circuit, yeah, it’s got a little bit different corners. I think the overtaking — we’ll find a way, we’re IndyCar — someone always sends it down the inside. I think if we can extend the straight and get some overtaking between Turn 6 and 7. It’s definitely a great circuit to drive and good fun and a bit different to the normal winter training we get in Florida. So I like the circuit.

“I think if we could, it would be good to race here once.”

Andretti Autosport’s Colton Herta, who turned the fastest lap (1:39.3721) in his No. 26, also was optimistic despite the passing challenges.

“I think it really comes down to tire deg, what people are showing with that,” Herta said. “It will be tough to pass, right? A lot of the good braking zones, you’re coming off of high-speed corners, so it will be hard to follow.

“But you never know. I would say some of the tracks we go to would be terrible for racing, and IndyCar still puts on a great show. You never know until it’s tested and proven right or wrong.”

The possibility of adding an IndyCar race at The Thermal Club has been floated, but there would be some challenges. It likely would be a made-for-TV event given it’s a private club (and filled with multimillion-dollar homes filled with vintage cars). The test is closed to the public and open only to members and VIPs.

There also are some areas that would need to be improved, namely the galvanized steel Armco barriers that ring the track and generally are considered antiquated in motorsports.

“I think the Armco might propose a little bit of an issue,” Ilott said. “Again, it depends on what angle you’re hitting them obviously. It’s a pretty straightforward process to make it a bit safer and a bit more cushiony. I’m not in charge of that stuff. I just drive and try not to hit those things.

“I think it’s a straightforward process. To be fair, everyone has had a little moment today, spun and carried on. That’s a good start. Obviously there are anomalies, these things happen. So far, so good.”

Said Herta: For sure. It probably needs a little bit of work. They’ve already done a lot for us to come here already. It seems like if they do want to have a race here, they’re willing to put the work in and money in to upgrade the facility to make it a little bit safer for us.”

Christian Lundgaard of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing was second fastest (1:39.3767), followed by Alex Palou (1:39.3970) and Romain Grosjean (1:39.4826). Will Power was the top Chevrolet driver in fifth (1:39.5690).

Though Andretti had two of the top four times, Herta downplayed the significance other than getting reacclimated to his team.

“Just a lot of knocking the rust off,” he said. “It’s quite a long offseason without being in the car. I don’t know how much we’re really going to learn from running here. It’s really good to get the team back into it, get all the boys working again. Yeah, just get everybody back into the flow of it.

“It could be a huge shake-up when we go to St. Pete and who’s up front and who’s at the back. It is too early to tell. It’s nice just to be back in the car and get lap times down, get everybody working again.

“The track surface is very strange, very different to anything I’ve really felt in IndyCar. It’s seven first-gear corners. We don’t really have that many anywhere we go on a street course. It is quite a bit slower than our natural terrain courses. But I don’t want to be in here and dig it the whole time. It’s a fun track to drive, especially the back section. It keeps you on your toes. It doesn’t really replicate anything else that we go (race).”

The test will continue with another six-hour session Friday.