Piers Phillips, general manager at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports-Honda, says Robert Wickens has joined IndyCar at the right time, he'll “do justice” to the team, and will work well with teammate James Hinchcliffe. Phillips spoke to David Malsher.
DM: Amidst all the team/driver speculation, this is actually one of the most interesting hires…
PP: Yup, and as the Schmidt Peterson team grows, it’s the next step to put someone of this level into the #7 car. Robert is someone I know very well from Europe, someone I’ve had a lot of interaction with and I’ve followed him closely. And without being derogative about DTM, to see him go into that championship, when I knew he was a very strong single-seater talent, was disappointing. Getting him back into a top level open-wheel car is a great thing – especially for us, here. He’s incredibly technically-minded so having him here will be a big plus for the team but he’s also a lovely guy so he’s a big plus for the series as a whole.
Robert has spent six years in DTM cars. Most drivers who spend that long out of a single-seater go stale, particularly when it comes to taking it to the edge and finding those vital few tenths for qualifying. Do you have any worries on that score?
No, not from my side. From what I’ve seen of Robert over the past 12 months, I have no doubts about him. The first time he drove our car, at Sebring, it was mainly for TV – that ride-swap with Hinch. But when he stood in for Mikhail [Aleshin] at Road America on the Friday, although we had a car issue that day, Robert was exceptional.
Also, one of the things I spoke with [team co-owners] Sam [Schmidt] and Ric [Peterson] about was having come from a sportscar background myself and having a thorough understanding of how technical and political sportscars and DTM can be, it’s not just about the pace on the circuit. It’s about what a driver understands from an engineering standpoint, how good they are at PR, and so on. They’ve got to have the whole package. And having represented Mercedes for six years, I have no qualms about Robert whatsoever.
Obviously James and Robert are buddies but will they complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses?
What’s become very evident from where I sit, the last two years at Schmidt Peterson, we’ve ended up like a one-car outfit, one way or another. Now, James is incredibly talented and damned fast, but we have been exposed by having a weaker teammate in that second car, so that was one of the biggest thought processes that went into who would be chosen as a second driver for next year. How do you do justice to the #7 car and also complement the car that has James in it?
It’s about a constructive rivalry, isn’t it? The drivers have got to be friends and work colleagues out of the car and then want to beat each other on track. And it’s not just about them – it’s about how you generate that enthusiasm and friendly rivalry in the engineering department and on the shop floor. It’s up to me to generate that atmosphere, and create that championship belief throughout the whole team. You can’t just put strong drivers and good engineers in the team and expect it to just organically turn out well.
And I’ve got to say, it’s a long time since I’ve been this excited in October looking ahead to the next season.
Do you think the introduction of the new car will help Robert in terms of being able to learn from scratch at a time when everyone is?
Yeah I do. It’s perfect timing. I saw Hinch’s face as he got out of the car at Mid-Ohio and you could tell he was thinking, “This is a completely different animal.” Bringing in someone who hasn’t been tainted by the previous aerokits and giving him a car that is obviously fun to drive, yeah, it’s the perfect time.
Robert has no experience on ovals, so what will be your technique for getting him up to speed?
That is the main concern – although no one here doubts he can do it, otherwise he wouldn’t have been signed. He will get an evaluation day, he gets a rookie day before we get to the Speedway.
We are looking at taking him to an oval and starting him off fairly heavily aeroed and break him into that speedway routine. Before that, we have two oval tests next week – one at Texas, one at IMS – and Robert will be attending on the pitstand so he can learn as soon as possible what makes a car quick on an oval.
We have good oval cars, we have a good understanding how to make a car quick on an oval, so I think it will be an exciting challenge getting him up to speed, but to be honest, I don’t think it’s going to take long at all.
It looked like roadcourses were the major struggle for Schmidt Peterson last year, in complete contrast to your streetcourse pace. Did you put your finger on what that problem was, and if you did, is it still relevant when the 2018 aerokit is so different?
We have identified the issue and yes, I think it’s definitely relevant. We have taken steps to rectify that, because it was a trait of our car. Anywhere we were on a lower-downforce roadcourse, our cars’ flaws were exposed.
So although the 2018 car has changed in terms of its total downforce, the car still needs to behave mechanically. In fact, with less aero, mechanical grip is even more important going forward. I think we had almost 2000lbs less downforce in James’ car when he tested at Mid-Ohio last week, and if you lose a third of your previous downforce, then understanding how to get mechanical grip and how to get the best from the Firestone compounds is imperative.
The teams who figure that out are the ones who are going to be at the front, week in, week out. Well I want that to be us, and I want us to be contending for championships in just a couple of years.