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Interview

Wickens Q&A: How a DTM ace adapted to IndyCar

DTM ace and former open-wheel rising star Robert Wickens completed the first half of a seat-swap with fellow Canadian James Hinchcliffe, when he tested Schmidt Peterson Motorsports-Honda at Sebring. He told David Malsher all about it.

Robert Wickens and James Hinchcliffe
Press Conference: Robert Wickens, Mercedes-AMG Team HWA, Mercedes-AMG C63 DTM
Robert Wickens, Mercedes-AMG Team HWA, Mercedes-AMG C63 DTM
Robert Wickens and James Hinchcliffe
Robert Wickens, Mercedes-AMG Team HWA, Mercedes-AMG C63 DTM
James Hinchcliffe, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda
James Hinchcliffe, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda
James Hinchcliffe, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda
Sam Schmidt, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports
#8 Starworks Motorsports ORECA FLM09: Ben Keating, Robert Wickens, Chris Cumming, John Falb, Remo Ruscitti
Robert Wickens, Mercedes-AMG C63 DTM
Robert Wickens, Mercedes-AMG Team HWA, Mercedes-AMG C63 DTM and Maxime Martin, BMW Team RBM, BMW M4 DTM
Press Conference: Robert Wickens, Mercedes-AMG Team HWA, Mercedes-AMG C63 DTM

Robert Wickens, who finished fourth in last year’s DTM championship as top Mercedes-Benz driver, has a rich open-wheel heritage. The 2006 Formula BMW USA champ finished third in the Atlantic Series the following year, was runner up in F2 in 2009, runner-up in GP3 in 2010 and then won the Formula Renault 3.5 Series in 2011.

Earlier this month Wickens and his fellow Canadian and former rival in the Atlantic Series, James Hinchcliffe, set up a seat swap with their respective teams. Hinchcliffe will test the AMG Mercedes C63 DTM car at Vallelunga in Italy on March 17; Tuesday saw Wickens return to his open-wheel roots…

DM: How did it feel to be back in a single-seater after five years in DTM?
RW: It was a fun day. I still have a lot more experience in single seaters than in closed-cockpit, so it wasn’t too hard to get back. When I had the seat fitting at Schmidt Peterson’s base at Indy, it was weird sitting in a cockpit with my ass lower than my legs again, but as soon as I left the pits on an out/in installation lap, it felt natural again. I was quite surprised; I’d been expecting it to feel a bit weird. But as they say, it’s like riding a bike – you don’t forget how.

It was a bit sad that I was just getting into it when my time was up and it was time to put Hinch in the car. It definitely left me wanting to drive an IndyCar more.

How much longer would it take for you to feel you were getting the most out of yourself?
Well once we got a couple of seating issues sorted out and I was comfortable, there was a sequence of red flags as people started spinning off. In my two-hour time block, the longest run I got was five laps, so I was pretty happy with the job I did, to be honest. It wasn’t about laptimes, it was more about doing the car-swap, but I was pretty pleased with a 52.8 or 9, compared with James’ 52.0. It was 10 years since I’d lapped the Sebring short course. It was back in preseason testing for Atlantics so I think it could have been 10 years to the day!

Did the downforce of an IndyCar amaze you?
Hmmm, well I think a lot of people underestimate how much downforce a DTM car has. I mean, it’s not just another touring car. Compared with the IndyCar, the power-to-weight ratio is similar, and I was expecting a bit more poke from an IndyCar. It’s very impressive at the top end, but I expected more torque, more traction issues.

The high-speed grip was impressive but I knew it was going to be so I was mentally prepared for that, but the braking was pretty strong. Having said that, in terms of braking references and where I thought I’d have to brake, it was kinda where I would have done the same thing in a DTM car. So the similarities are quite surprising considering how different the basic concepts of the cars are.

I was speaking to Graham Rahal and he was asking what I thought a DTM car would do around Sebring, and I would guess a 56 or a 57. For a tin-top, that’s pretty good.

How do you think James will go in your DTM car?
If I was telling him what to look out for, my main advice would be to say, ‘Don’t underestimate what it can do.’ People jump in and think it’s a touring car, but it’s very, very much not!

Also, I’m not making excuses, but I had a lot of pressure on me to not crash the car today, because I had to hand it over to James afterwards: I think his turn in the Mercedes is the day after we test, so he can just go balls to the wall, because there’ll be no consequences! But whatever, I think like me today, he’s going to have a lot of fun.

I was trying to remember if you ever got to drive a Panoz DP01 Champ Car at the end of your Atlantic season…
No, sadly not: I was scheduled to, but they increased the test ban that year. That was a real pity because it would have been easy to arrange as I was driving for Gerry Forsythe’s Atlantic team. So this was the pinnacle of North American racecars I’ve driven. I’m lucky because apart from WEC and NASCAR, I’ve driven the pinnacle cars in each type of motorsport.

So how did IndyCar compare with your F1 experience testing with Marussia?
It’s funny because someone did ask me today, ‘What was the last formula car you drove?’ and you know, you never want to be that guy, but I had to say, ‘Well, actually it was Formula 1…’

I remember in the F1 car, I was driving down pitlane giggling that I’d finally had this dream come true. But the most amazing part of the F1 experience is releasing the pitspeed limiter because the acceleration is just insane, and then so are the brakes. I mean, you’ve already had your head thrown back in the headrest as you've gone up through the gears, and then almost headbutted the steering-wheel under braking – and you haven’t even started turning into the first corner yet! You think, ‘Oh my God, what have I gotten myself into?’ But from there, you just get into your groove and it’s like any other racecar.

I was expecting a little bit of that with the IndyCar because when you put it in gear from rest in pitlane, it really clunks in with authority, but actually releasing the pitlane speed limiter… I don’t want it to say it was a bit flat, but there wasn’t that instant ‘Wow.’ Like I said, there’s less torque than you expect, the delivery’s more smooth.

The thing I really liked was not having power-steering for the first time since Formula Renault 3.5 in 2011. I understand in DTM you need it because of the physical weight of the car and its downforce, but I’m not a particular fan of power-steering; it was really nice to be able to feel everything through the steering and not just rely on your ass.

What aspects of U.S. open-wheel did you notice had changed since you raced here last?
It wasn't so much that they had changed, but I had forgotten about certain aspects of the atmosphere within North American racing – although I got a taste of it in the Rolex 24 Hours with Starworks. You know, in Europe there are so many secrets you’re keeping from your rivals, there are even codes on the pit-to-car radio for when you’re talking about car setups with your engineer. Then you get to IndyCar and they’re holding out pitboards, and they’re doing setup work out in the open – it’s pretty informal. I was thinking, ‘Wow, even my brother’s karting team is more secretive than this!’

But it’s a cool community, it’s a nice vibe. A lot of time in motorsport you get carried away with the technology and exclusivity of everything and IndyCar does a good job of capturing the right compromise. I think there are things DTM and IndyCar could learn from each other.

Yeah, it would be great if IndyCar ends up returning to Europe and shares the bill with DTM…
…or if DTM could race in America. I’ve known they’ve been trying to get North American races since back when I joined in 2012, and I think the problem is the shipping costs for one thing but also DTM want to head the bill and do their own thing. But personally I think the two series would be fantastic together. There’d be no shame in being a little bit slower than IndyCar if you’re offering a completely different style of car and style of racing, – and it would be great for the fans too. Our first race at Hockenheim, we share the weekend with FIA World RallyCross, and that’s great. As a fan, I love that blend.

So yeah, IndyCar and DTM would be great together, in America or Europe.

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