New Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver Robert Wickens says that having minimal experience of the old IndyCar is already paying off as he began testing with the 2018 aerokit at Sebring today.
The 28-year-old Canadian, who is returning to open-wheel racing next year after six seasons as a DTM driver, said that having only a few sessions in an IndyCar equipped with the downforce-laden manufacturer aerokit meant the new kit was not a culture shock.
“It was a pretty positive day,” he told Motorsport.com. “With the 2017 car in that ride-swap with Hinch [James Hinchcliffe] at Sebring in March, I never really found the limit of the car. But today I used all the same reference points with the heavily reduced aero and kinda lucked into finding the limit of the new car!
“For others, learning the new car is like teaching an old dog new tricks, but for me it’s a situation where I don’t need to adjust; I’m just learning, and don’t come in with many preconceptions. And so I drove it the same way I drove the old car and didn’t have to change what I was doing.”
Wickens said he ran “nearly 100 laps” in the Schmidt Peterson-Honda and encountered no physical issues, despite having not raced open-wheel since he won the 2011 World Series by Renault.
“I went the whole day without any neck, arm or leg problems,” he said, “so it was a very positive day. I didn’t feel rushed, I didn’t feel I had to just get on with things. I’ve been taking it step by step and it was nice to have the whole day. I was pleasantly surprised but with that said, I have been working pretty hard since my DTM season finished to make sure I was ready. And Sebring short course doesn’t have any really high-speed corners so the steering loads never got extreme.”
Wickens said that the nature of the test – a Honda test – meant he wasn’t able to assess the tire degradation over the course of a regular stint.
“What we were testing for Honda meant several short runs,” he said, “so I was never able to do, say, 35 consecutive laps. But we’re tire-limited anyway, so I was still able to get a lot of experience on old tires.
“Finding the right operating window early on really helped, because it meant that as we ran through all the things that Honda wanted to test, I was doing my own learning of what the car needs and how it alters according to various setup changes – kinda building my mental toolbox.”
Wickens, who won races in Atlantics, Formula 2, GP3 and World Series by Renault said that despite coming to IndyCar direct from touring cars, he was able to draw on his distant experience of learning new open-wheel cars to not only improve his own performance but also help the team make progress.
“I like to think one of the reasons they hired me was for my feedback,” he said, “so I can take on some of the responsibility of car development to prepare for 2018. I think the fact they put me in for a Honda test suggests they trust my feedback and feeling for a car.
“I’m fortunate – or maybe unfortunate, depending on how you look at it! – that my first year of World Series by Renault I was developing a brand new car, Formula 2 it was a brand new car, GP3 it was a brand new car… I was always developing cars. Then when I switched to DTM, we were spending the offseason doing car development.
“So I feel like I’m pretty good in that area, despite my lack of IndyCar experience. And at the end of the day, understeer is understeer and oversteer is oversteer, whatever car you’re in, and I know what I want from a car and I can relay it to [race engineer] Blair [Perschbacher].
“I think I’ve still got work to do to find the ultimate sweet spot, because it’s very hard to be consistent with this car under braking. But I’m happy with the day because we found a good operating window, the balance of the car stayed really good, and despite being inexperienced in these cars, I never had any scares, never had any near misses. A really satisfying and solid day.”