Robert Wickens named Sunoco IndyCar Rookie of the Year

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Robert Wickens received a great present to lift his spirits Wednesday when he was named 2018 Sunoco IndyCar Rookie of the Year.

Wickens remains in IU Health Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis, recovering from serious injuries suffered in a crash at Pocono Raceway on August 19. He has undergone surgeries to his spinal column, right arm and both lower legs and is still being treated for a spinal cord injury.

Despite the fact he will ultimately wind up missing the last three races of the season (plus did not finish Pocono due to being flown by helicopter to a hospital for treatment of his injuries), the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver received ROY honors because he leads fellow rookie Zach Veach by 110 points, with a maximum of 104 points available for the Sept. 16 season finale at Sonoma Raceway.

The driver of the No. 6 Lucas Oil Honda, Wickens had an outstanding season prior to his accident. The 29-year-old native of Toronto, Canada, made 14 starts and amassed seven top-five finishes including four podiums (runner-up finishes at Phoenix and Mid-Ohio, and third-place showings in the Indianapolis Grand Prix and in his native Toronto). He also earned the pole in his IndyCar debut at St. Petersburg in the season opener.

He also received Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors for finishing ninth in his first-ever Indianapolis 500.

“When Robert joined this team, we had the highest expectations set for him to achieve,” SPM co-owners Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson said in a joint statement released Wednesday. “Having Robert clinch the Sunoco Rookie of the Year with one race left on the 2018 calendar after missing the last three races, it’s just a testament to how hard he’s worked this season to set him up for a strong finish.

“The dedication, effort and energy he puts into his race craft, working with the team and his teammates, and all the above-and-beyond work he’s put in with our partners and the fans, we couldn’t ask for a better addition.

“We are proud of all that Robert has achieved this season, and we look forward to welcoming him back upon his full recovery. The No. 6 entry will be there waiting for him whenever he’s ready.”

Wickens is best friends with SPM teammate James Hinchcliffe. The two have known each other since they started racing go-karts together at around the age of 10 in their native Canada.

Even with having missed most of Pocono, as well as Gateway and Portland, Wickens remains fifth among all series drivers in laps led (187). He led 69 laps and almost won at St. Pete before being involved in a late-race crash with Alexander Rossi.

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Will Power says IndyCar field toughest in world: ‘F1’s a joke as far as competition’

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DETROIT – With the 2023 Formula One season turning into a Red Bull runaway, Will Power believes the NTT IndyCar Series deserves respect as the world’s most difficult single-seater racing series.

“It’s so tough, an amazing field, the toughest field in the world, and people need to know it, especially compared to Formula One,” the defending IndyCar champion told NBC Sports during a media luncheon a few days ahead of Sunday’s Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix. “Formula One’s a joke as far as competition, but not as far as drivers. They have amazing drivers. And I feel sorry for them that they don’t get to experience the satisfaction we do with our racing because that is the top level of open-wheel motorsport.

“I think Formula One would be so much better if they had a formula like IndyCar. I love the technology and the manufacturer side of it. I think that’s awesome. But from a spectator watching, man, how cool would it be if everyone had a Red Bull (car)?”

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It probably would look a lot different than this season, which has been dominated by two-time defending F1 champion Max Verstappen.

The Dutchman won Sunday’s Spanish Grand Prix from the pole position by 24 seconds over seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton. It’s the fifth victory in seven races for Verstappen, whose 40 career wins are one shy of tying late three-time champion Aryton Senna.

Along with being a virtual lock to tie Senna’s mark for titles, Verstappen is poised to break his own record for single-season victories (15) that he set last year.

“You simply know Max is going to win every race if something doesn’t go wrong,” Power said. “Imagine being a guy coming out as a rookie, and you probably could win a race. It would be really cool to see. But you know that would never happen with the politics over there.”

Verstappen’s F1 dominance has been a stark contrast to IndyCar, where Josef Newgarden just became the first repeat winner through six races this season with his Indy 500 victory.

Team Penske (with Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin), Chip Ganassi Racing (with Palou and Marcus Ericsson) and Andretti Autosport (with Kyle Kirkwood) each have visited victory lane in 2023. Arrow McLaren (which has past winners Pato O’Ward, Alexander Rossi and Felix Rosenqvist) is certain to join them at some point.

Meanwhile, Verstappen and teammate Sergio Perez (two wins) have won every F1 race this season with the two Red Bull cars combining to lead more than 95% of the laps.

The primary differences are in the rulesets for each series.

While F1 teams virtually have complete autonomy to build their high-tech cars from scratch, IndyCar has what is known as a spec series in which the cars have a large degree of standardization.

IndyCar teams all use the Dallara DW12 chassis, which is in its 12th season. The development of the car largely has been maximized, helping put a greater emphasis on driver skill as a differentiator (as well as other human resources such as whip-smart strategists and engineers).

Alex Palou, who will start from the pole position at Detroit, harbors F1 aspirations as a McLaren test driver, but the Spaniard prefers IndyCar for competitiveness because talent can be such a determinant in results.

“Racing-wise, that’s the best you can get,” Palou said a few days before winning the pole for the 107th Indy 500 last month. “That’s pure racing, having chances to win each weekend.”

Of course, F1 is the world’s most popular series, and the 2021 IndyCar champion believes its appeal doesn’t necessarily stem from being competitive.

Though the ’21 championship battle between Hamilton and Verstappen was epic, F1 has grown its audience in recent years with the help of the “Drive To Survive” docuseries on Netflix that has showcased their stars’ personalities along with the cutthroat decisions of its team principals (IndyCar started its own docuseries this year).

“I don’t think the beauty of F1 is the race itself,” Palou said. “I’d say the beauty is more the development that they have and everything around the races, and that they go different places. But when we talk about pure spectacle, you cannot get better than (IndyCar).

“You can feel it as a driver here when you first come and jump in a car. When I was in Dale Coyne (Racing), we got a podium my rookie year. It wasn’t the best team, but we were able to achieve one of the best cars at Road America (where he finished third in 2020). It’s not that I was driving a slow car. I was driving a really fast car. I think we can see that across all the teams and the drivers.”

Team Penske’s Scott McLaughlin, who will start second at Detroit, is in his third season of IndyCar after winning three championships in Supercars.

The New Zealander said recently that IndyCar has been “the most enjoyment I’ve ever had in my career. I had a lot of fun in Supercars, but there were still things like different uprights, engines, all that stuff. (IndyCar) is spec. Really the only things you can change are dampers and the engine differences between Honda and Chevy.

“I have a blast,” McLaughlin said. “Trying to extract pace and winning in this series is better than I’ve ever felt ever. I’m surprised by how satisfied it feels to win an IndyCar race. It’s better than how it ever has felt in my career. I’ve always liked winning, but it’s so satisfying to win here. That’s why it’s so cool. There are no bad drivers. You have to have a perfect day.”

Qualifying might be the best example of the series’ competitiveness tightness. The spread for the Fast Six final round of qualifying on Detroit’s new nine-turn, 1.645-mile downtown layout was nearly eight 10ths of a second – which qualifies as an eternity these days.

Last month, the GMR Grand Prix on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course produced a spread of 0.2971 seconds from first to sixth – the fourth-closest Fast Six in IndyCar history since the format was adopted in 2008. Three of the seven closest Fast Six fields have happened this season (with the Grand Prix of Long Beach ranking sixth and the Alabama Grand Prix in seventh).

While the technical ingenuity and innovation might be limited when compared to F1, there’s no arguing that more IndyCar drivers and teams have a chance to win.

“The parity’s great, and no one has an advantage, basically,” Power said. “The two engine manufacturers (Honda and Chevrolet) are always flipping back and forth as they develop, but we’re talking like tenths of a second over a lap. There’s not a bad driver in the field, and there are 20 people all capable of being in the Fast Six every week. Maybe more. It’s incredibly competitive. There isn’t a more competitive series in the world. I’m sure of that.

“If you want the ultimate driver’s series, this is it I’m from a big team that would benefit massively from opening the rules up, but I don’t think (IndyCar officials) should. I think this should always be about the team and driver getting the most out of a piece of equipment that everyone has a chance to do so. That’s the ultimate driver series. Who wants to win a championship when you’re just given the best car? It’s just ridiculous.”

Power believes the talented Verstappen still would be the F1 champion if the equipment were spec, but he also thinks there would be more challengers.

“There’s got to be a bunch of those guys that must just be frustrated,” Power said. “Think about Lewis Hamilton, George Russell, Lando Norris, (Fernando) Alonso. Those are some great drivers that don’t get a chance to even win. They’re just extracting the most out of the piece of equipment they have.

“All I can say is if everyone had a Red Bull car, there’s no way that Max would win every race. There are so many guys who would be winning races. It’d just be similar to (IndyCar) and different every week, which it should be that way for the top level of the sport.”