He isn’t behind the wheel – yet – but Robert Wickens remains a presence in the NTT IndyCar Series this season.
Wickens, who was paralyzed from the waist down in a wicked crash Aug. 19, 2018 at Pocono Raceway, has attended all four IndyCar races so far this season.
“Luckily, Arrow McLaren SP still welcomes me with open arms, and they allow me to stay in the loop,” he told NBC Sports in an interview last week. “Even though I’m not driving the car, just the fact that I’m present at the racetrack, and they allow me to give my input and feedback on helping the drivers and doing anything I can within the team, and it’s a great thing for me mentally.
“I think it’s really important to still pursue those passions that you have in your life. If anyone could understand that, I think it’s (team co-owner) Sam Schmidt (who was paralyzed in a 2001 crash). That I can go to the races and still smell the smells I’ve loved my whole life, it’s a lot of fun. … Having the ability to stay relevant in an industry that I love so much is really important to me, and I’m really happy to be a part of it.”
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Wickens has drawn praise from Arrow McLaren drivers for the mentoring he has provided in his consultant-type role, notably being credited by new first-time winner Pato O’Ward for his advice and guidance.
“I’m glad they listened,” Wickens said with a laugh. “Honestly, I have a great opportunity right now to be a part of a great team. This year, we have Patricio O’Ward and Felix Rosenqvist, last year Pato and Oliver Askew, both of them great, great drivers.
“There’s something special about seeing good drivers at work. And the fact that I can witness it firsthand is great, but on the selfish side, it actually makes me hungrier than ever to get back into a race car, because I’m learning new parts of a race team that I never knew as a driver. And I think once I can get back behind the wheel full time, I’ll probably be a slightly different driver because of it.”
Wickens took a major step toward that goal last week at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.
In an opportunity that started through a casual conversation with Bryan Herta and grew over a few months, the Canadian donned a firesuit and helmet for the first time in nearly three years to get behind the wheel of a race car.
He made 62 laps around the 13-turn, 2.258-mile road course (which will play host Saturday to the IMSA WeatherTech Championship), using hand controls mounted on the steering wheel to control the acceleration and braking of the No. 54 Veloster N TCR with Bryan Herta Motorsport.
Wickens, 32, said the experience was “massive” in his journey toward returning to an elite level of motorsports.
“Everything is a learning process,” he said. “I definitely believe with due time, I can be just as good as I was before my accident. I think mentally I haven’t lost anything. I feel like I’m just as hungry as ever.
“I think the hardest pill to swallow about my accident is now I’m creeping up on three years of where I’m really at the prime of my career and the prime of my ability. And I’d love nothing more to get the opportunity to get back behind the wheel and actually race again someday.”
One of the primary hurdles will be learning to squeeze peak performance from a race car without his feet. Though he has made countless laps in a race car, “the only similar thing is I’ve been to Mid-Ohio before” Wickens said about the BHA track day at Mid-Ohio.
He drove by pushing a ring on the front of the wheel to control the throttle and pulling another ring on the back of the wheel to operate the brake.
With the guidance of Michael Johnson, a paralyzed driver who delivered Hyundai’s first podium with co-driver Stephen Simpson in the Michelin Pilot Challenge at Daytona, Wickens quickly adapted but said the learning curve was steep because “it’s a lot, mentally.
“Until it becomes second nature, it’s definitely a challenge,” he said. “The biggest takeaway so far is when you’re driving a normal car, you don’t really have to worry about where you’re positioning your hands. But if you’re braking into a left-hand corner or right-hand corner or having to downshift, everything is changing what you’re doing with your hands.
“It’s still a six-speed sequential gearbox, so you still have to upshift and downshift, so you need to make sure if you’re on the gas to have your left hand on it so you can upshift and vice versa when you’re braking. You need your left hand free and depending on the corner, you’re pre-planning what you’re going to do with your hands.
“I think eventually that will become second nature, where I won’t have to be thinking the whole straightaway on what I’m about to do next. But so far it’s been a massive learning curve, but I’m really enjoying the opportunity.”
Wickens also had to adjust to front-wheel drive (which he said wasn’t as difficult because the Veloster “is an amazing little car”). In between stints, he pored over telemetry data with Johnson, Simpson (who helped set up the car with a shakedown run) and BHA engineers, who helped the coaching on where to find improvements (“braking is the low-hanging fruit”).
Though he lacked literal firsthand experience, Wickens had some exposure to hand controls from watching Alex Zanardi race in DTM and sports cars. The Italian driver was among the first to call Wickens after Pocono.
“I had the great honor of speaking with Alex, and he told me that you want everything on the steering wheel,” said Wickens, who raced DTM from 2012-17 before joining IndyCar.
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“He had a brake lever that was off the steering wheel on the side, and he said he could never get that final tenth that he needed to match his teammates because he was driving basically with one hand all the time. That really hit home with me, and Michael Johnson already had a system with everything up on the steering wheel. So far, it’s been going really well.”
Before racing the 2019 Rolex 24 at Daytona, Zanardi compared the use of hand controls at speed with Jimi Hendrix’s mastery of complicated chord progressions.
“I definitely don’t have the finger dexterity that I think I should, but so far we’re getting the job done,” Wickens said with a laugh. “Maybe once this is all said and done, I might try to learn the guitar, but I don’t think my wife would be happy about it.”
Wickens’ wife, Karli, attended the Mid-Ohio session in another sign that she “has always had my back” through a recovery that is as taxing on his mental health as it is physically daunting.
The Pocono accident left him with a thoracic spinal fracture, spinal cord injury, neck fracture, tibia and fibula fractures to both legs, fractures in both hands, a fractured right forearm, fractured elbow, a concussion, four fractured ribs and a pulmonary contusion.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Wickens’ rehabilitation had consisted of 4-5 hours for five days a week since 2018.
“Yeah, 2020 was a crazy year for a lot of people, but it taught me that I was probably working way too hard for too long,” he said. “Once this pandemic hit, gyms shut down, and everything kind of went isolated at home. I actually got a lot stronger the first two weeks of not doing any exercise. And that really hit home that I actually gave my body the chance to heal and to rebuild and to have the ability to come back stronger. So even though I wasn’t training as hard as I was prior, I haven’t had any setbacks, which is fantastic.”
When he returned to attend his first IndyCar race in the 2019 Grand Prix of St. Petersburg season opener, Wickens was regaining muscle feeling and was optimistic about walking again. But he also cautioned you never know when the progress stops in healing from a spinal injury.
Does he feel as if he still is progressing?
“It’s funny, a couple of years down the road, and I still can’t really answer that question for you,” he said. “It’s hard to say if I’ve plateaued, if I’ve regained everything that I’m going to regain.
“I know that as of late, I haven’t really found any new muscle functions. But that being said, everything that I do have, that I have regained, is getting stronger and stronger every day and as I continue to work out and rehab. Who knows where that’s going to lead, but I’d say for the most part, what you see is what you get. I think I’m starting to accept that I’m going to be in a wheelchair for quite a while.”
That outlook doesn’t dampen his outlook for racing again, though “I don’t think there’s anything on the horizon at the moment. (Mid-Ohio) is nothing more than simply just a great opportunity that Hyundai and Bryan Herta Autosport presented me.”
There would seem to be multiple options, provided that sponsorship can be secured and some customized tweaks can be made to his hand controls (which are preapproved by each sanctioning body).
Wickens, a former Mercedes driver who had six victories in DTM, remains in regular contact with F1 Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff and also has access to a large racing network from a decade in Europe. He is interested in exploring opportunities in Formula E and sports cars.
Schmidt has promised a No. 6 Dallara-Chevrolet would be available for Wickens if he returned to IndyCar. Wickens also spoke after the Mid-Ohio track day with Arrow McLaren SP team president Taylor Kiel, who said Wednesday that the team would “go to the drawing board with him and help him out in any way we can to see if we can help realize his new dream of getting back in a race car.”
Wickens said in 2019 that his long-term goal was to return to IndyCar but now recognizes adapting hand controls for the series “is quite challenging with the amount of Gs and the speed and everything that the driver has to do on a lap-by-lap basis. It would be quite the undertaking to make a hand-controlled Indy car that could be equally as competitive as a normal Indy car.
“From my own mental side of things, I’d love to close the IndyCar chapter of my life on my own terms. Whether that be returning back full time, if it’s just to do one race, I don’t know.”
And for one magical day at Mid-Ohio, that uncertainty was fine for Wickens.
“Honestly, I don’t have a short-term plan,” he said. “I’m just really living in the moment today. It’s just such an awesome opportunity to drive a Veloster around a racetrack.”