Nearly three and a half years after an IndyCar crash left him unable to walk, Robert Wickens will return to racing this month — joining the championship Hyundai team of Bryan Herta Autosport.
Wickens will team with fellow Canadian Mark Wilkins in the No. 33 Elantra N TCR full time in the 2022 IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge season, starting at Daytona International Speedway with a Jan. 28 race that will be streamed live on Peacock (along with the full season; replays also will be shown on the USA network).
For accelerating and braking without the use of foot pedals, Wickens will be driving a custom hand-control system designed by BHA technical director David Brown and development technician Jonathan Gormley.
‘I’M AS HUNGRY AS EVER’: Robert Wickens returns to a race car at Mid-Ohio
Wickens has major aspirations in joining a six-car team that has won three consecutive championships in the MPC, vowing to win the season opener despite having yet to drive the car yet.
“Aim big, right,” he said with a smile during a Zoom news conference Friday. “Let’s go for the win. It’s not every day you can jump straight in with a team that’s won multiple championships with a teammate that’s won a championship. I feel I couldn’t be in a better place. The goal is simple: to try to win the thing.
“I felt I was forced to leave in 2018 at almost the peak of my career. I felt great. Never felt fitter, never felt stronger. I felt like I was driving the best I’ve ever driven. I want to hit the ground running and continue where I left off. At least challenge for a victory and podium, if anything.”
It’s been a long, winding, and difficult road to this point and the journey is not over, but thankful we’ll be able to move down the road with a bit more speed!
Now, let’s go win. pic.twitter.com/hoPyoorJTO
— Robert Wickens (@robertwickens) January 14, 2022
Wickens won the pole position and led 69 laps in his NTT IndyCar Series debut nearly four years ago and also was the 2018 Indy 500 rookie of the year.
Wickens made a big leap last May in his journey back to a race car, turning 62 laps with Herta’s team at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.
It was his first exposure to hand controls mounted on the steering wheel that controlled the acceleration and braking of the No. 54 Veloster N TCR. Michael Johnson, a paralyzed driver who delivered Hyundai’s first podium with co-driver Stephen Simpson in a 2021 Michelin Pilot Challenge race at Daytona, helped guide Wickens through the use of hand controls.
Wickens also had watched Alex Zanardi race with hand controls in the DTM and sports cars series (including the 2019 Rolex 24 at Daytona). Zanardi was among the first to call after Wickens was paralyzed.
Wickens said Friday that he can stand with support but likely won’t walk again.
“I’m at the point where my recovery has more or less plateaued in terms of neural recovery,” he said. “I’m not regaining any more muscle function. Unfortunately, it’s looking like I’ll be in a chair for the remainder of my life as long as modern medicine and science stay what it is. But it’s a great life. I was able to regain a lot of function.”
For the past two seasons, Wickens has worked as a consultant and driver coach for Arrow McLaren SP, the team he drove for during his rookie season in the NTT IndyCar Series up until the Pocono crash.
Wickens said he will remain in the consultant role for Arrow McLaren SP during the 2022 season. Asked whether he wanted to race the Indy 500 again, Wickens said he is keeping his options open.
“The first thing for me is I want to race here in the Michelin Pilot Challenge with Hyundai in my Elantra N TCR car to just, for myself, prove I can do it again,” he said. “It’s almost like a proof of concept to understand the hand controls and compete again. I haven’t raced in three and a half years, really. Just for myself and everyone around me, I want to know I can do it again. Once we can tick that box, nothing is out of the question.
“I think it would be awesome to race the Indy 500. Also, I’m very interested in exploring new avenues. I’ve never really done any sports car driving. Racing at the highest levels of IMSA and the WeatherTech Series. Those LMDh cars just look insane. Formula E is something that’s very appealing to me as well. I’m interested in exploring other options of motorsport outside IndyCar.”
Wickens cast doubt on if he could race again in the NTT IndyCar Series because of regulations that could limit hand controls.
“Anything is possible with the right time, money and resources,” he said. “It’s a colossal ask, but I’m at a point in my life where if I never return to IndyCar, I’m very satisfied with that. I’m really looking forward to this opportunity I have here to get back behind the wheel and feel that hunger I’ve had for so many years watching from the sidelines.
“If things in the future arise, we’ll address them as they come. For the time being, I don’t see IndyCar as a feasible option in my return. The physicality to adapt my hand controls would require a lot of customization that I’m not sure the series would really sign off on. Braking, power steering. It would take like a one-off Indy car, which I don’t know if teams would agree to (allow).”