The changes Wickens is having to deal with on his racing return
Robert Wickens returns to racing this week for the first time since his life-changing IndyCar crash in 2018. He's had to get used to several changes in his hand-controlled Hyundai tin-top, but the Canadian has the drive and determination to start a Zanardi-style competitive comeback.
Robert Wickens returned to active competition at the Roar Before the 24 at Daytona, testing his Bryan Herta Autosport Hyundai Elantra N TCR ahead of his racing comeback in the 24 Hours support race, the Michelin Pilot Challenge, later today.
The 32-year-old Canadian will make his first start since his hugely promising rookie IndyCar campaign in 2018 came to a violent halt at Pocono. His Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Dallara was launched over Ryan Hunter-Reay at north of 200mph, catapulting it into the debris fence, where he spun wildly before landing heavily back on the track.
Given the life-threatening potential of his crash, we should be grateful that Wickens's rehab has allowed him to get back to a starting grid, rather than be angry over the spinal cord injury that's unlikely to deliver any more recovery than he's achieved to date. He can stand, and take a few supported steps, but essentially Wickens is wheelchair-bound for the rest of his life. Announcing his programme with Hyundai this year, he immediately addressed his situation from a mobility standpoint.
"I would say honestly what you see is what you get," he said. "I'm at the point in my life now where my recovery has more or less plateaued in terms of neuro recovery. I'm not regaining any more muscle function so I think unfortunately it looks like I'll be in a [wheel]chair for the remainder of my life, as long as modern medicines and science stays where it is."
You could almost feel a sense of therapeutic relief as he said this, confirming to the world that there would be no fairytale return to life exactly as it was before. You only have to watch his rehab videos to see how hard he's attempted to regain more muscle function in his lower limbs, but sadly it just wasn't meant to be.
One thing is for sure, he's going to make the very best of the situation that he's in. By a stroke of fortune, BHA's engineers are used to working with hand-control systems on its Hyundais with another driver, Michael Johnson. Wickens's comeback trail began at a Mid-Ohio trackday when he sampled the Veloster usually driven by Johnson, who was paralysed from the waist down after a dirt-bike crash at the age of 12.
Wickens explained: "The hand-control system that Michael was using is something he got very familiar with, so that speaks volumes. [But] to me, it wasn't second nature."
Steering wheel for Wickens allows him to use throttle and brake
Photo by: IMSA
He set about making changes to the layout – Wickens didn't like the thumb-controlled throttle for a start, and wanted his thumbs to be on the wheel. His throttle is now on the back of the wheel, in a clutch-paddle-like system that he's used to from formula cars. For brakes, he's sticking with Johnson's system of a ring on the back side of the steering wheel.
"In most race cars you have to apply the brake pedal with a lot of force, more than one can develop by squeezing your hand," added Wickens. "We have a hydraulic actuator to help develop brake pressure. But the problem is it's not a linear feel, like you'd feel with your foot. The biggest adjustment is the balance between master cylinder size versus hydraulic assist to get that good feeling. I think that will take some time to tune, but it's easily accomplishable."
"I'm looking forward to that adrenalin. The fulfilment of winning a race, as a driver – that's what I'm most looking forward to" Robert Wickens
The Michelin Pilot Challenge IMSA series is a two-driver event and Wickens's partner is Mark Wilkins, a fellow Canadian and a real hotshoe of the TCR scene in the US. During pitstops, Wilkins will flip a switch to allow him to use the Hyundai's pedals as normal – aided by a fly-by-wire throttle on the Elantra – so the mechanical side is good to go. And Wickens lapped 0.354 seconds shy of Wilkins in testing, so it's a promising start.
But what about in the heat of battle? At the first corner, or attempting to outbrake someone, might ex-DTM star Wickens's natural reflex be with his feet rather than his fingers?
"What's the rule, 10,000 hours and you might figure it out?" he quipped. "On my simulator at home, I've put in countless hours trying to get there. It's crazy what you can do now with home simulation, but I can honestly say I'm not going to my legs anymore in the online racing world when I'm racing wheel to wheel. I also use hand controls on the road, so I'm confident I'm not going to react by going to my feet to do something."
Wickens admits he's really missed the buzz of real-world racing, "especially that moment before the start of the race, that moment when that door closes, it's just you and the race car to do what you have to do. That's why it was so important for me to return, for good or for bad, to see if it's possible, and move on from there. I'm looking forward to that adrenalin. The fulfilment of winning a race, as a driver – that's what I'm most looking forward to."
Potentially, his future could steer towards the new breed of LMDh in IMSA's top tier, he's interested in Formula E and, of course, would love to return to the Indianapolis 500 field some day. For now, Wickens aims to deliver the kind of success that Alex Zanardi enjoyed in touring cars following his own horrendous Indycar oval accident at EuroSpeedway Lausitz in 2001. And that would be a magnificent victory in itself.
This column first appeared in the 27 January issue of Autosport magazine, which features full previews of the new IMSA WeatherTech Sportscar Championship and Formula E seasons, as well as an in-depth look at McLaren's 2022 Formula 1 plans
Wickens is aiming to resurrect his racing career
Photo by: IMSA
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