Wickens Welcomes New Challenge with Young Drivers O’Ward, Askew
Since the iconic Road America is the circuit where Robert Wickens was reintroduced to American open-wheel racing, we thought this week would be an excellent time to see what he is working on this season.
Wickens made his first appearance with the Arrow McLaren SP team back in June of 2017, subbing in for the driver Mikhail Alehsin at the 4.014-mile, 14-turn natural terrain road course of Road America. Aleshin was delayed traveling back to the States and Wickens was at home in Toronto, Ontario, on a break from his full-time ride in the DTM series.
The timing worked out perfectly for Wickens to be able to serve as a substitute. He quickly booked a flight and made the trip to Wisconsin, not knowing if, or how much of the Grand Prix weekend he would be driving but taking part in his first INDYCAR race was at the top of his mind.
“I’m excited to do an IndyCar race,” said Wickens with a big smile when talking to the press at Road America in 2017. “Being a North American kid, it’s something I’ve always watched. My idol growing up was Greg Moore. He obviously passed away. I watched CART, Champ Car, IndyCar, I watched them my whole life. It would be kind of cool to tick that box to say I ran one.”
Aleshin ultimately was able to secure travel to the track, meaning Wickens only took part in a pair of Friday practice sessions. At that time, there was no way that he could have known that barely one month later, his whole racing career would be turned upside down when it was announced that his current DTM team would be departing the series, leaving Wickens without a ride.
Clearly, Wickens made a positive impression on Arrow McLaren SP co-owners Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson. Only three days after the 2017 DTM season ended, Arrow McLaren SP announced that Wickens would be joining the team for the 2018 INDYCAR season.
When the INDYCAR series arrived at Pocono Raceway in August, the rookie driver of the Arrow Electronics No. 6 was in sixth place on the championship table. Regrettably, Wickens’ season would come to an end at the 2.5-mile superspeedway, and his life would be forever changed.
Schmidt and Peterson both made it clear that Wickens was an essential part of the team. Starting at the St. Petersburg, Fla. opener, the 2018 INDYCAR Rookie of the Year began working with team drivers.
This past off-season, the team brought in a pair of young drivers Pato O’Ward and Oliver Askew, making Wickens’ role as driver guru that much more critical.
“But, at the end of the day, even though they’re younger, I’m still working with two very well-rounded professionals,” said Wickens, when asked about working with less experienced drivers. “The great opportunity is you can see how much potential they still have. Marcus and James were established drivers, and they knew what they were strong at and what they were not strong at. With our drivers, it’s fun and exciting to see how much work they’re putting in behind the scenes to make themselves a better professional.”
Wickens, who will travel with the team to Road America, has not attended the past events due to the pandemic, but maintained a strong connection with O’Ward and Askew thanks to software, screen sharing, and video calls.
The last two Indy Lights champions, have different personalities on the track and off the track, meaning that Wickens’ approach with them is tailored to each driver.
“I need to approach them differently,” explained Wickens. “They are two very different individuals. They are almost opposites in their preparation or approach to a weekend.
“Pato is a naturally talented driver, where he can just put his visor down. He doesn’t need to know anything else. He doesn’t even need to know what tires are on the car – he’ll just drive as fast as he can.”
“Where Oliver, we’re learning that to get the most out of him, is to provide him with that information, because he has the bandwidth to take in that information, and to really understand what he needs to do to extract the lap time.”
We could not let an opportunity to chat with Wickens go by without asking him about his plans to get back in a race car.
“My goal is to return to motorsport at a high level,” said Wickens with determination. I would love to race again, call it a club level type race. Sure, that would be fun, I want to get back to IndyCar, or I want to go to high levels of sports cars. I’m a professional race car driver, and I have some unfinished business.”
Wickens, who has been competing in a plethora of iRacing events recently, also updated us on where those future racing plans stand.
“First, the support that I received from Arrow Electronics,” said an emotional Wickens. “They are all just great humans. They run an incredible Fortune 500 company, but then at dinner, they’re just great people. They are loving people. They are caring people.
“That’s one thing that I am so fortunate to be a part of, and they’re so willing to try to get me back into a race car, and we’re still trying to figure out what that looks like. We had hopes and dreams of hopefully trying to get back for a 2021 campaign.
“Unfortunately, with the world effectively stopping for a few months, and with the updated calendar being busier than ever before, it’s going to be tough. Never say never, though. We are always chipping away and still trying to get stuff done. With the help of the Arrow McLaren SP design team and Arrow Electronics, we have a 3-D printed concept steering wheel that I am using on my home simulator.
“It’s the first big step for getting back because it’s a steering wheel that we believe will work in an IndyCar. The brake is on the steering wheel, and the throttle is on the steering wheel. It’s everything custom to how I believe I want it to go back racing.”
Askew, O’Ward, and the rest of the Arrow McLaren SP team are headed north to Elkhart Lake, Wisc., for a doubleheader on the iconic 4.014-mile, 14-turn natural terrain road course at Road America. Saturday’s race can be found on NBCSN at 5 p.m. ET, and Sunday’s race will air on NBC at 12:30 p.m. ET.