Some observers may have been surprised by how quickly rookie Robert Wickens got up to speed in the Verizon IndyCar Series. Toto Wolff, the head of Mercedes Motorsport, wasn't among them.
Wolff knows firsthand about Wickens' ability behind the wheel after hiring the Canadian to drive for Mercedes in the highly competitive German touring car series called Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters, commonly known as DTM.
“He was one of our front-runners in DTM,” Wolff said during the Formula One Canadian Grand Prix weekend in Montreal two weeks ago. In addition to being head of motorsport for Mercedes, Wolff is also its Formula One team's executive director.
“He has the pace, he has a heavy right foot, he's courageous, and I hope he can have great career in INDYCAR and win races,” Wolff added.
The No. 6 Lucas Oil Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda driver arrived in the Verizon IndyCar Series after racing six seasons for Mercedes in DTM, where he scored six wins and five poles. Before moving to DTM, Wickens raced in junior open-wheel series in Europe, winning the 2011 Formula Renault 3.5 Series championship. He also was the reserve driver for the now-defunct Marussia F1 team.
While Wolff was sorry to see the talented 29-year-old Canadian leave his touring car lineup, he continues to follow Wickens' career. The Mercedes boss watched Wickens' Verizon IndyCar Series debut in the 2018 season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and went away disappointed by the late-race contact that robbed him of a win.
“I see the same Robert Wickens in INDYCAR that I've seen in DTM: huge speed, exciting driving and sometimes it goes against him,” Wolff said. “Definitely, he's very talented and deserves his success. We miss him in DTM.”
Wickens started from pole in St. Pete and dominated the action until a pass attempt by Alexander Rossi on a late restart saw Wickens’ car get knocked into the wall and finish 18th.
Since then, Wickens has continued to impress, taking three podiums in the next eight races, including a second-place finish in his first career oval start in the Desert Diamond West Valley Casino Phoenix Grand Prix at ISM Raceway. He also earned Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors in the 102nd Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil after a ninth-place finish.
Wickens goes into this weekend's KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America (12:30 p.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network) seventh overall in points.
In nine starts this year, Wickens has finished in the top 10 six times and has only failed to do so in races where he was hit by either mechanical issues or another driver.
INDYCAR was a major topic of conversation with Wolff as he chatted with journalists in the F1 paddock in Montreal two weeks ago. Wickens wasn't the only Verizon IndyCar Series star to be singled out for praise by the Mercedes F1 boss. Wolff also had kind words for Scott Dixon, who moved into third overall in Indy car victories with his 43rd career win in the DXC Technology 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on the same weekend as the Canadian GP. Only legends A.J. Foyt (67) and Mario Andretti (52) have more Indy car wins.
“It's amazing how successful he has been,” said Wolff, who has followed Dixon's career since seeing him race as a 13-year-old in New Zealand.
“He's definitely someone who should have had a chance in Formula One, there's no doubt about that.”
While Wolff fully supports the complex “power unit” path that Formula One took five years ago, he is also intrigued by the INDYCAR model and likes its approach. He insisted that there's room on the motorsport landscape to accommodate F1's cutting-edge hybrid technology focus and INDYCAR's more straightforward concept. Along with the all-electric Formula E series, it ensures fans an excellent variety of high-quality entertainment choices and offers different technical challenges for manufacturers.
“I'm a curious spectator,” he said.
“INDYCAR has gone in a totally different direction (from F1). They have decided on an internal combustion engine, 1,000 horsepower and a good power-to-weight ratio. It's faster and faster with no hybridization, and I am super interested to see how the fans will judge the various concepts.”