Bryan Herta: Robert Wickens’ return ‘one of most important things we’ve done in racing’

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DAYTONA BEACH, Florida — Bryan Herta cold-called Robert Wickens nearly a year ago about returning to a race car for the first time after a devastating accident at Pocono Raceway.

It was because Herta believed that Wickens still could drive at a championship level despite being robbed of the ability to walk since the Aug. 19, 2018 crash when the Canadian suffered a thoracic spinal fracture, neck fracture, fractures to both legs and hands, a fractured right forearm, fractured elbow, a concussion, four fractured ribs and a pulmonary contusion.

But hiring Wickens to drive a Bryan Herta Autosport Hyundai Elantra N TCR in the Michelin Pilot Challenge this season also stemmed from a sense of empowerment in the type of racing situation often marked by feeling powerless.

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Herta opened a Thursday news conference with Wickens at Daytona International Speedway by describing the venture as “personally one of the most important things we’ve done in racing.”

When asked to elaborate, the veteran of the IndyCar series who also called the 2011 Indy 500 winner of Dan Wheldon (and now handles strategy for his son, Colton Herta) took a long pause.

“Well, I love this sport; I love competing in it,” Bryan Herta said. “I was there in Pocono in the pit lane when Robbie had his accident. I remember the emotions you go through being there.

“And I’ve been through loss in motorsport. I’ve seen pain and people around you experience it. And I’ve never been in a position to do anything or to help. But this time we were. So for me, it just feels personal.”

Qualifying seventh for Friday’s race (live at 1:35 p.m. ET on Peacock) was something Wickens took personally as he returned to racing competition. Sporadic rain and a guessing game at conditions around the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course left Wickens on a wet-weather tire when dry would have been optimum.

But during the four-hour race Friday, he and co-driver Mark Wilkins scored a podium in their first outing together.

Robert Wickens smiles during a news conference Thursday at Daytona (IMSA).

Overall, Wickens said Thursday that he has enjoyed operating a car at speed for the first time with a specially modified wheel that features hand controls for accelerating and braking.

“It’s just been plug and play, and we’ve been able to focus on myself getting up to speed,” he said. “A lot of long conversations with Mark Wilkins. I keep asking him hundreds of questions a day. And thankfully, he’s patient because he’s answering all of them very kindly.

“I’m learning as I go. I feel right now I’m about 70% to where I want to be with the car. I was hoping for a lot more in that qualifying session, but there’s still a lot to play for (in the race).”

Wickens is using a steering wheel identical to paralyzed BHA teammate Michael Johnson, who laid the foundation for BHA’s approach to hand controls.

“It really would have been impossible without Michael Johnson racing,” Herta said. “And the relationship there a year ago in these garages was where the conversation started about offering Robbie a chance to come drive the car.

“Driving with hand controls is something Michael Johnson has done in various years for many years now, and the basic system they started and developed around Michael and adapted to various cars over years, that is the basis of evolution of system we use this year. I don’t know without all the groundwork they’d done that we would have been able to be in a position to have Robert drive one of our cars.”

Wickens made his debut with the team in a track day last May at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course but didn’t drive again until a shakedown test last week (though he made thousands of laps in simulation).

It’s been part of big month in which he also announced that he would become a father this year.

“There’s a lot of times I didn’t think I’d have a year like this,” he said. “I always knew I wanted to get back into a race car. I felt like I was trying for the better part of two years to find an opportunity like Bryan gave me.

“Obviously on a personal front, starting a family was always high on myself and Karli’s list. We were trying for a while, and thankfully it was successful just after the IndyCar season ended, and here we are.

“It’s kind of a perfect 2022.”

He gave much of the credit to Herta and his phone call out of the blue “bluntly asking if I’d ever want to drive a race car again, just to know where my thoughts were.

“It’s humbling for sure but also goes to show the kind of person Bryan Herta is,” Wickens said. “here were many people in my life closer to me than what Bryan was at the time that could have offered me the chance to get behind the wheel of the race car, and then for one reason or another, it never came to fruition.

“It’s an amazing opportunity for me to get back into a race car and compete again. I’ve been pretty clear I want to win. I’m not here just for a media tour to tick a box and move on with my life. I want to win a championship for myself. I want to win a championship for Bryan and Hyundai and BHA. I couldn’t be in a better position with a teammate that’s won a championship and team that’s won three in a row. If we don’t win it, it’s going to look badly on us. We’ll have to keep plugging away.”

Said Herta: “I love that a lot of people might expect he’s just happy to be back, and in his first weekend, he’s pissed off to qualify seventh. That’s how I know he’s going to do great things.”

Alexander Rossi ‘fits like a glove’ with his new IndyCar teammates at Arrow McLaren Racing

Alexander Rossi McLaren
Nate Ryan
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PALM SPRINGS, Calif. – There are more than three dozen fresh faces on the Arrow McLaren Racing IndyCar team, but there was one that Felix Rosenqvist was particularly keen to know – Alexander Rossi.

The driver of the No. 7 Dallara-Chevrolet is the most high-profile new hire for McLaren, which has expanded to a third car to pair with the No. 6 of Rosenqvist and No. 5 of Pato O’Ward.

And there is another layer than Rossi just being the new kid. McLaren marks only his second team in NTT IndyCar Series after seven seasons at Andretti Autosport, where he began with a victory in the 2016 Indy 500 and was a championship contender for several seasons.

Rossi is a mercurial talent, and when things go wrong, the red mist quickly descends (and sometimes has led to feuds with teammates). He went winless during two of his final seasons at Andretti and was out of contention more often than not, often bringing out the prickly side of his personality.

Yet there has been no trace of the dour Rossi since joining McLaren. The pragmatic Californian is quick to remind everyone he hasn’t worked with the team yet at a track (much less been in its car), and there surely will be times he gets frustrated.

But it’s clear that Rossi, who made five Formula One starts in 2015 after several years racing in Europe, already is meshing well with an organization whose England-based parent company has deep roots in F1.

“I’ve been pleasantly surprised,” Rosenqvist said Tuesday during IndyCar’s preseason media availabilities. “I think Alex kind of has that bad-guy role a little bit in IndyCar. He’s always been that guy, which is cool. I think we need those guys, as well.

“Actually having gotten to know him, he’s been super nice, super kind. He fits like a glove in the team. I think it fills a role where Pato is kind of like the crazy guy, I’m somewhere in the middle, and Alex is the more engineering guy in the team. I think Alex has more experience, as well. He just feels like a guy who knows what he wants.

“Yeah, good addition to the team and great guy at the same time.”

There are many reasons why Rossi’s transition from Andretti to McLaren should be smoother than his abrupt move from F1 to IndyCar seven years ago. Namely, he no longer is the only newcomer to the team’s culture.

“It’s been kind of a good time to come in because everyone is finding a new role and position and kind of learning who’s who, finding everyone’s strengths and weaknesses,” he said.

But while Rossi might have questions about the team, he has none about the series. Unlike when he arrived at Andretti without any oval experience, Rossi joins McLaren with his IndyCar credentials secured as an established star with eight victories, seven poles and 28 podiums over 114 starts.

Even in his swan song with Andretti, Rossi still managed a farewell victory last July at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course that snapped a 49-race, three-year winless drought. It seems reasonable to believe he immediately could re-emerge in his 2017-19 title contender form.

“I know the series, and I know kind of everything that goes into American open-wheel racing vs. the European open-wheel racing, which is really the biggest transition,” Rossi said. “Certainly it’s the largest kind of team switch. I’ve obviously driven for different teams in the past in Europe, in sports cars, whatever, but never really in my full-time job. I’ve driven for the same organization for a very long time and have a lot of respect and fabulous memories with those people.

“So it has been a big kind of shift, trying to compare and contrast areas that I can bring kind of recommendations and experience to maybe help fill the gaps that exist at Arrow McLaren. Again, all of this is in theory, right? I don’t really know anything. We’ll have a much better idea and plan going into St. Pete (the March 5 season opener).”

He has gotten a good handle on how things work at its Indianapolis headquarters, though, and has been pleased by the leadership of new racing director Gavin Ward (who worked in F1 before a championship stint with Josef Newgarden at Team Penske). McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown also seems omnipresent on both sides of the Atlantic, making appearances at IndyCar races seemingly as much as in the F1 paddock.

“I think what’s very cool about Arrow McLaren is we do have the resources of the McLaren F1 team,” Rossi said. “They very much are being integrated in a lot of respects. It’s not two separate entities. McLaren Racing is one organization that has its people and resources and intellect in kind of everything. It’s been pretty cool to see how that can be an advantage to us in terms of people, resources, simulations, software, kind of everything. We’ve been able to kind of rely on that and use that as a tool that maybe other teams certainly don’t have.”

That will be helpful for Rossi with the methodologies and nuances of racing a Chevrolet for the first time after seven seasons with Honda.

And of course, there will be the relationship with O’Ward, who has been McLaren’s alpha star since 2020.

Rossi was in a similar role for Andretti, which raises questions about how McLaren will handle having two stars accustomed to being the face of the team. But O’Ward said IndyCar regulations should allow each driver to maintain their own style without being forced to adapt as in other series.

“At the end of the day, as much as teammates will help in order to gather data, it doesn’t mean they’re going to specifically help you in what you need because it’s a series where you can really tailor the car to what you want,” O’Ward said. “Rather than in Formula 1, (it’s) ‘This is the car, you need to learn how to drive this certain car.’ In IndyCar, it’s very different where you can customize it to what you want it to feel like or drive like.

“From past experience, I think Alex likes a car similar to what I do. I do think we have a very strong car in certain areas, but I definitely think he’s coming from a car where that other car has been stronger than us in other racetracks. I feel like if we can just find gains where we haven’t quite had a winning car, a podium car, that’s just going to help all of us.”

Though Thursday at The Thermal Club will mark the first time the trio works together at a track, Rosenqvist said he’s hung out a lot with Rossi (both are 31 years old) and deems his new teammate “well-integrated” in the simulator.

“I think the fit has been good with him, me and Pato,” Rosenqvist said. “On a trackside perspective, it’s obviously huge to have always a third opinion on things. Every driver’s opinion is valuable in its own way.”

Said O’Ward, 23: “It’s been great. (Rossi has) been great to have around. I think he needed a fresh start. I think he’s excited to really work with all of us, create the strongest package.”

Ever the realist, though, Rossi still is tempering some of his enthusiasm.

“Again, we haven’t really done anything yet other than some meetings and some team activities together,” he said. “I have a lot of respect for what they’ve done in IndyCar and also their prior careers. I think that we all bring something a little bit different to the table, which I think is really unique in terms of not only personalities but driving styles and experience levels.

“I think we have the ingredients to really be able to develop the team and continue to push the team forward to even a better level than what they’ve shown in the past. It’s been a really positive experience. Really I have nothing at all negative to say and can’t actually wait to get to work, get on track and start working together.”