New car, new driver, no problem.
The addition of veteran racer Robert Wickens to Schmidt Peterson Motorsports on Oct. 17 didn’t just generate enthusiasm for a team that struggled at times this season. It could hold the key to the consistency the team has been seeking.
Wickens, whose extensive open-wheel and sports car resume includes 25 victories in 14 series, joined longtime friend James Hinchcliffe to create a formidable two-car, all-Canadian SPM lineup for the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season. The hiring, along with other changes inside the Indianapolis-based team, is part of a larger plan to turn things in a positive direction.
This year was a combination of good and bad, with the bad being more prevalent than team leaders expected. Hinchliffe started the 2017 season strongly, winning at Long Beach and staying among the top five in points through the first four races before three DNFs in the final four races dropped him to 13th in the final standings.
Part of the team’s solution? Hire a driver with a breadth of professional racing experience who just happens to be a longtime friend of the team’s lead driver.
“Last year was my fifth year with the team, and it definitely was our most frustrating year,” team co-owner Ric Peterson said. “We would do really, really well and then just really struggle. We’ve definitely got some work to do, but we’re hoping that Robert is part of that solution to get us more consistent and more competitive.”
Veteran engineer Allen McDonald and SPM parted ways in September. Lead engineers for Hinchcliffe and Wickens in 2018 have not been named – and a new universal aero kit for the Dallara IR-12 chassis awaits the upcoming season – but Hinchcliffe said the team has a solid foundation capable of facilitating widescale changes.
“With some of the changes we’re making internally, there is a focus that we’ve applied to areas that I think we lacked last season,” Hinchcliffe said. “We identified them, and we’re addressing them. The ability of this team to highlight what we need to work on and then having the guts to make the calls we need to make in order to improve is very important.”
Hinchcliffe said he didn’t have to lobby his bosses – Peterson and Sam Schmidt – to hire Wickens, whom he’s known since their youthful go-karting days in Ontario. After all, Wickens’ career covered everything from a run as a factory driver for Mercedes-Benz in the prestigious Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters (DTM) series to a stint as a Formula One test driver, so a hard sell wasn’t required.
Wickens isn’t buying that explanation.
“I’m sure James is being a little modest,” Wickens said with a laugh. “I think he probably fought a couple of times in my court. Needless to say, everything just really worked out. I’m still a little in shock that the whole thing actually happened. Definitely at stages I might have had doubts that it would all work out, but here we are.”
Familiarity could be the most significant aspect of the new hire. Wickens and Hinchcliffe have a built-in communication that should strengthen the team’s approach and the effectiveness.
“(Hiring Wickens) is a big part of it, but it’s certainly not all of it,” Peterson said. “We’ve got a lot of other things that we’re changing also, but having two guys who understand each other very well setting up the car for a race is going to be a big, big help to the engineering crew and everybody else. I think it’s a big key, but it’s not the only one.”
A two-hour ride swap in February at Sebring International Raceway gave Wickens his first experience in an Indy car. Four months later, he filled in for Mikhail Aleshin in the SPM No. 7 Honda for practice at Road America when Aleshin was having visa issues after the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The car was different than what Wickens typically drives, but he wanted to keep going.
“The first thing that came to mind was how heavy the steering was,” Wickens recalled of the Sebring test. “I’ve been driving with power steering for the last six years (in DTM), so that was the first shock. After that, the whole experience left a good taste in my mouth. I was just kind of buzzing afterward. I just wanted to drive it more and drive it longer.”
His wish, it seems, has come true.
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