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.”

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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