Wickens still aims to return to “elite level” of motorsport
Robert Wickens says he’s still targeting a return to a top-rank racing series, and feels his injuries are costing him years at his prime.
The Canadian star won races in Formula BMW, Formula Atlantic, GP3, Formula 3, A1GP, Formula 2 and won the Formula Renault 3.5 Series which earned him a Formula 1 testing role. However, without the necessary funding to become an F1 test driver, Wickens stepped off the open-wheel ladder to spend six seasons in the DTM series (where he scored six wins) before joining the IndyCar Series for 2018.
Belying his rookie status, he scored a pole and four podium finishes in his first 13 races, took Rookie of the Year honors at the Indy 500, and lay sixth in the championship when a horrific crash in the 14th round at Pocono in August left him with a thoracic spinal fracture, fractures to both legs, both hands, a forearm, an elbow and four ribs.
Wickens was second at Mid-Ohio in 2018, his final completed IndyCar Series race.
Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images
Today Wickens tested a racecar for the first time since the accident, which occurred when he was 29, and the timing of the shunt in terms of his career timeline was on his mind when he spoke to the media from Mid-Ohio.
“The hardest thing of my injury was, I felt like I was just hitting the peak of my career and my abilities when this happened,” he said. “We're creeping up on three years now since the accident. And I feel like I'm not utilizing those prime years of my career.
“I would love nothing more than to get back at an elite level. And … selfishly, I would love to get back to IndyCar to close that chapter of my life on my own terms. I think everyone can kind of relate if for whatever reasons, something happens that you weren't really planning, sometimes it leaves a bad taste in your mouth.
“I would love nothing more ideally, than to win an IndyCar race and then maybe move on. But, you know, I think right now, there's so much to figure out. I mean, at the early stages of my recovery, I really wanted to return to IndyCar. I'm not saying I don't now, but understanding what goes into accessibility and making an IndyCar competitive with hand controls would be a massive undertaking. One that maybe with the current IndyCar regulations wouldn't be entirely feasible.
“So, never say never. There's a lot of great teams out there, and I honestly think crazier things have happened in the past, but for the time being, I'm just going to keep doing what I'm doing, focusing on my rehab and hopefully, in due time, the right opportunity will come.”
Wickens emphasized that today’s test does not mean he has a race seat lined up for later in the year or even 2022, as he would still need funding.
“First and foremost, I think getting up and running comes with finance,” he commented. “Unfortunately, that's the motorsports world. That's what we live in. It doesn't matter if that's IndyCar, if it's Formula E, if it's IMSA… Finances is the first hurdle and once we can get up and running, then we kinda have the whole world at our disposal. But at the moment, it's pretty tough to get started.
“The long-term goals for me haven't changed. I want to return to an elite level of motorsport again. It's been really since day zero of my recovery and we're still chipping away. This is a massive step in my journey back, but that's really all that is here today. Unfortunately, there's nothing really in the pipeline…
“But you know, I'm going to keep doing what I can, keep working hard and I believe that hard work always pays off. And I believe I deserve to still race at a high level and at an elite level. And hopefully that can come true sometime soon.”
Despite his blend of realism and optimism, regularly seen on social media, Wickens admitted that keeping his chin up in private had not come easy.
Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images
“There's been many tough times,” he said. “I think something that a lot of people try not to talk about, but the mental health aspect of a recovery like this is extremely daunting. That's been really one of the biggest struggles.
“I think a lot of people can put in the manual work to try and get better and get stronger, but to do it day in and day out and keep a positive outlook is extremely, extremely tough. There's the whole different world of emotions that come through, when you go through different phases of your recovery and it's the mental aspect has been hands down the hardest thing of this recovery.
“I've had a great support system. I have a lovely partner with my wife that has always had my back and has always been there for me. But then even from family, from friends, from colleagues, you know, I'm so fortunate to have such a great [support system] around me within the motorsports community that I feel sometimes I don't know how I got so lucky.”
Wickens explained that the support he received was practical as well as psychological.
“The amount of drivers that reached out to me and have talked to me [has] been amazing. And Alex [Zanardi] was one of the first people to reach out. Once I was ready to take phone calls, we immediately started talking shop and talking about what I needed to go racing again. And he gave me a lot of very good feedback on his experiences.
“Same with Billy [Monger] and Trevor Carlin, who is team boss for Billy. I was able to pick his brain on more of a technical aspect of what Billy used. But every injury has its own kind of unique fix. So a lot of the things that they were using actually wouldn't work for me for example, but it's still very interesting to hear what they did and how they fixed or got around their problems.”
Wickens with Michael Johnson, regular pilot of the BHA-run Hyundai Veloster.
Photo by: IMSA
Wickens’ test at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course came as a result of Bryan Herta Autosport offering a run in the Hyundai Veloster TCR car that Stephen Simpson shares with Michael Johnson in the IMSA Michelin Pilot series. Johnson, who is paralyzed from the chest down, uses hand controls.
“I honestly can't thank Bryan Herta Autosport, Hyundai, and Michael Johnson enough. It's not everyday that someone can lend you a race car to go take an item off your bucket list…
“Bryan approached me a few months ago and basically we were just chatting and he asked if I ever want to drive a racecar again. I said, 'Of course.' And then that was kind of it for a little bit. And then things started to slowly come together one step at a time. And then he was able to let me know that Hyundai was doing a track day here at Mid-Ohio and there was an opportunity for me to drive Michael Johnson's Veloster.
“It was kind of the perfect opportunity, just great timing, really, you know. IMSA's here in a couple of weeks and, you know, they're doing their program to get things ready for the upcoming race and I'm just kinda hanging out in the background and just having fun…
“The whole week up leading to this, it wasn't so much nerves but there was a lot of excitement and anticipation for this. And then once I put a suit on again and started putting in the earpieces, balaclava, the helmet, it just all went out the window and it was just like business as usual. Once I got back out on track, it was a slightly different story. You know, obviously the hand controls that Michael Johnson uses and the Hyundai Veloster is brand new for me. So learning that on a wet track, it wasn't without its difficulties, but we took it step by step and slowly chipped away at getting quicker and quicker.”
Johnson’s hand control system
Photo by: IMSA
Wickens explained that despite his unfamiliarity with the system that Johnson uses in the Hyundai, he felt it worked well.
He said: “There's a ring on the front of the steering wheel that you push for throttle, and then there's another ring on the backside of the steering wheel that you pull in for brake, which I think is a great system. Having everything within fingers’ reach on the steering wheel has been pretty good so far.
“It's a really steep learning curve and there's been a lot of mental focus, trying to program in, preplan what I'm doing with my hands before I get to the next corner. It's slowly starting to take shape where I'm having to think less and less about it.”
Asked if it was the sort of system that he could tailor to his own preferences in future, to make the brakes or the throttle either more or less sensitive according to taste, Wickens said: “I think, there's probably some tunability. I know with the hand control system that Michael Johnson uses in the Veloster, there's like a hydraulic brake booster to help generate the pressure on the brake. And there's a tuning aspect to that for if I want the brake more sensitive or not so sensitive.
“And, Stephen Simpson, who is Michael’s teammate does a great job of shaking down the car. So he was actually first in today and set up the brakes with what he believes Michael would have liked for me to try. Once the track started to dry out a little bit, we were talking a little bit and we changed the brakes a little bit again, once, you know, the track was getting a bit grippier. He's been a great asset today with getting me up to speed along with Michael himself. I've been bouncing a lot of ideas and a lot of questions off of him.
“In terms of customization, I'm new to the IMSA world, but I believe the system is entirely homologated. So I think you can't really do a whole lot of customizations without homologating a new system.”
Using hand controls, said Wickens, was at its trickiest when moving away from pitlane.
“It's a bit busy,” he smiled. “We have a lever to the right of the cockpit, that's the hand-operated clutch. So I need to pull in the clutch, select first gear [on the paddleshift] and then use the throttle on the steering wheel to leave like you normally would – all while trying to not hit mechanics and other things as I drive off!
“I think honestly, that's one of the more complicated things, when the car is stationary. I think once you're moving, it's pretty seamless, but you need one more set of hands I think to leave smoothly.”
Getting the feel
Photo by: IMSA
While enthusiastic roadcar drivers seek steering feel from their cars, the best racecar drivers often also refer to the messages the car is giving them through their backsides when they’re taking a car to the limit. Asked if he still gets those sensations given his injuries and the fact that he hasn’t raced a car in 33 months, Wickens replied in the affirmative.
“There's definitely been moments that I've been maybe caught off guard by something, but it's more so what I'm doing with the brake pedal,” he said. “As most of you know, braking is like 90 percent of motorsport, and I've had some like slight oversteer sliding moments that were related to the brake. I didn't realize I was braking as much as I was and had a small oversteer from that.
“But I think I'm having some pretty good sensation. I'm able to slide the car around and stuff like that. And I'm feeling kind of a bit what the car is doing… Obviously, first time back in a racecar, you always wonder what that sensation is going to be like, but so far it seems to be there.”
Given that this was the first time he’d piloted a front-wheel-drive racecar, Wickens was impressively unaffected – and even suggested he was near-oblivious.
“In terms of transitioning to front wheel drive, it's been entirely seamless,” he said. “If I didn't know it was front wheel drive, I probably wouldn't have found out for a long time until I had an understeer on exit that was a bit unique in the rain! I was like, 'Oh yeah, there's the front wheel drive.'
“But honestly, the Hyundai Veloster is an amazing little car. You know, I didn't really know what to expect. I've heard great things of a TCR car and the series itself, but it's a lot of fun to drive. It's very well balanced in the rain so far. It's been a pleasure to get up to speed with it.”
Before departing for the remainder of his test, Wickens re-emphasized that today’s test is a next step but that no inference should be drawn regarding what happens next.
“I mean, I wish I could give you guys a bit more insight, but at the moment there's no real prospects. It's just a great opportunity that Bryan Herta and Hyundai were able to present me with, this track day. And I jumped on the opportunity.
“You know, I've been wanting to drive a racecar for a long time now. And to finally tick that box is massive in my recovery and my journey back. Who knows what the future will bring? I don't want to get too far ahead of myself. I just want to take today for really what it is.”
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