Robert Wickens and James Hinchcliffe

SEBRING, Florida – One thing above all else bothered Schmidt Peterson Motorsports crew members today at Sebring International Raceway: The engine cover on their car wasn’t painted.

Considering what they went through just to get the car to Sebring, an unpainted part shouldn’t have been that bothersome. But it was. And there’s a reason behind it.

During a Honda test last week at Phoenix Raceway, the car suddenly broke away from James Hinchcliffe and hit the wall. With just a week to get the damaged car from Phoenix to the team’s Indianapolis shop, repair it and get it to Sebring for another Honda test, paint was the last item on the to-do list.

“They’re such perfectionists that it’s kind of killing them that there’s still some carbon fiber showing on the car,” said Robert Wickens, who drove the 2018 universal aero kit for the first time today on Sebring’s short road course. “It was honestly amazing. It’s the rollout year (of the new kit), a week after it crashed, and yet not a single issue on the car – not even a sensor problem. It shows how professional these guys are and how good this operation is.”

Turning around crashed cars is the bread and butter of a race crew, but this situation had the added element of scarcity. Like most teams, SPM has limited access to parts for the new kit. Still, the damaged car underwent a complete teardown and rebuild, then departed the shop Monday to make it to Sebring in time for Wednesday’s setup.

“It is impressive,” Hinchcliffe said. “It’s impressive on a normal day when you have to travel across the country with a broken car, but this isn’t a normal situation. There aren’t a lot of parts, not a lot of spares. Honda played a big part in making sure the guys had the pieces they needed.”

Did we mention that the team’s Christmas party was held Saturday night? Yep. In the middle of a scramble at the shop, everyone managed to attend the party.

“Nobody missed it,” Hinchcliffe said. “We had to change some plans to get the car back to the shop sooner than expected and get it put back together. It was a combination of a lot of people putting their heads down and understanding what needed to be done and making it happen.”

Wickens tested the car exclusively today as Hinchcliffe watched. It was the latest chapter in the story of two lifelong friends whose racing careers took different paths but now have reunited.

“We’ve had a very smooth day,” Wickens said during a break for lunch. “It’s my first time in an Indy car since Road America (in June) and my first full day of testing an Indy car ever. I’m just learning as much as I can. It was really good for me to run through some Honda programs that they needed us to do and also get some time for myself to learn as I go. It’s been a very productive day.”

Wickens and Hinchcliffe grew up near each other in the Toronto area. They raced go-karts, became buddies, then set their sights on racing professionally. Hinchcliffe is entering his eighth season in the Verizon IndyCar Series. Wickens, who did a promotional ride swap with Hinchcliffe last winter at Sebring, practiced for SPM at Road America while Mikhail Aleshin was delayed by visa issues. After six seasons in Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters touring car series in Europe, Wickens signed with SPM to join Hinchcliffe for the 2018 INDYCAR season.

“This is what we dreamed about as kids,” Hinchcliffe said. “It’s really the culmination of about a year and a half of him and I sort of scheming about how one day this might be the case. It happened a lot sooner than we expected it to.

“This is the first day of his 2018 season. He did Road America and his half day here last year, but this is the ‘18 car. This is his team now. It’s very exciting not only for the two of us, but for everybody here at SPM.”

Honda’s test day today was the final for manufacturers before the holiday testing blackout mandated by INDYCAR. Team testing may begin Jan. 7. The 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season kicks off with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 11.

Robert Wickens