Their weekly routine for the past six years or so typically started with a phone call.
James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens, two Canadian friends from Ontario who grew up idolizing racer Greg Moore, would deconstruct their races from the previous weekend. Wickens was racing in Europe in the DTM touring car series while Hinchcliffe was establishing himself in the Verizon IndyCar Series.
That they were already relating to each other like teammates made Wickens’ offseason hiring to join Hinchcliffe at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports a sentimental partnership. Wickens (left) and Hinchcliffe (right) are shown in the photo above talking with new team engineer Leena Gade.
“We’d always just shoot the breeze about kind of what really happened on the weekend,” Wickens said of their overseas chats. “You’d watch the race, see the results or whatever the case was, read an article or a press release, but then you know there’s always more to a story, especially from my side because DTM was a very highly political championship. It was kind of like, ‘Oh yeah, you finished fourth. Cool.’ Yeah, it’s cool but I had the pace to win but with team orders, I had to run a different strategy to help so-and-so. (Hinchcliffe) would always be like, ‘What? That’s crazy. We don’t have that here in INDYCAR.’ Then I would go, ‘How was your weekend?’ He’d tell me about his weekend.
“That happened even before we were professionals. We stayed in contact our entire careers. I’ve been in Europe since 2008. We’d always catch up whenever we could. Sometimes it wasn’t every Monday after a race, but we would always be texting or staying in contact or get on a call now and then and have catch-up meet-and-greets. Those were always a lot of fun.”
Wickens, 28, conceded it kept him interested in INDYCAR, following Hinchcliffe’s career, which has included five victories, 26 top-five finishes and the 2016 Indianapolis 500 pole in 106 starts. Hinchcliffe, 31, signed a multiyear extension in the offseason to return to SPM, in part because Wickens would be his teammate.
“You could tell that he thoroughly enjoys what he does here,” Wickens said of Hinchcliffe. “And there’s definitely times I wasn’t a fan of the team-order side of things in DTM. I was thinking, ‘Maybe I should pursue (INDYCAR).’ Ultimately, I was probably never going to leave if Mercedes wasn’t going to be leaving the DTM at the end of 2018. That kind of blew my doors wide open and INDYCAR was my first choice.”
Hinchcliffe is ecstatic about his new teammate, who finished as high as fourth in the DTM in 2016 and had six career wins, 15 podium finishes and five poles. Wickens comes from an open-wheel background, however. He won the Formula Renault 3.5 championship in 2011. He also finished third in points in the Champ Car Atlantic Series with one victory and four podiums for Red Bull/Team Forsythe in 2007.
They swapped series cars for tests last year and Wickens also stepped into an SPM Honda for a practice day at the KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America when visa issues kept Mikhail Aleshin away from the track.
“The big thing in racing is the people, and when you get people in the right places, the results come,” Hinchcliffe said. “The addition of Robbie is such a huge one for me because I know how he speaks and he knows how I speak. We understand each other. We have for years. Even though we haven’t been teammates for a decade, we would call each other every Monday. He’d tell me all about the DTM races. I’d tell him all about the INDYCAR races. We’ve been debriefing with each other for the last six years, just in different cars.
“We already understand a lot about each other. I already know a lot about what’s going to bug him and what he’s going to take really well to just because we’ve had that open dialogue for the last little while. It’s great to be able to walk right into that and build our program together.”
Wickens knows he has a lot to learn to drive an Indy car. Adjusting to riding in an open cockpit again is one thing.
“I’m actually struggling to hear the engine because I feel like all I hear is wind all the time,” he said. “It’s not because of the quality of my helmet. I have a great helmet from Bell Racing. I’m just not used to wind. Being in a closed-cockpit car for the last six years, all I was hearing the whole time was gearbox whining (because) the V-8 engine is directly in front of you.”
The last time Wickens drove an open-wheel car was in 2011 as a Formula 1 test driver for Marussia Virgin Racing.
“For six years, I wasn’t in the center of a race car,” Wickens said. “I was kind of a little bit drivers’ left, like similar to where you are in a road car but really far back. Now I’m back in the middle. It’s kind of like riding a bike going back to open wheel. Going back, I was pretty comfortable straight away, but it hasn’t really sunken in that this is my new home. It’s still a little bit unusual.”
Wickens considers this opportunity to drive in INDYCAR like a “childhood dream” and says this championship “has always been really close to my heart.”
And one of the best aspects is no longer needing to make a phone call to continue the normal debriefing routine with Hinchcliffe.
“We can probably be on the same flight home, hang out the next day, we’re training at the same gym at the same time,” Wickens said. “We will see a lot more of each other.”
Wickens, Hinchcliffe and the rest of the Verizon IndyCar Series heads to Florida this week to open the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Practice begins Friday, with Verizon P1 Award qualifying on Saturday. All practice and qualifying sessions will stream live on RaceControl.IndyCar.com.
The 110-lap race on the 1.8-mile, 14-turn temporary street course airs live at 12:30 p.m. ET Sunday on ABC and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.