Robert Wickens’ debut Indycar race could not have been going any better yesterday. On Saturday he had taken pole position in slippery conditions in St Petersburg, Florida, and on Sunday afternoon he had led convincingly for the majority of the race 25 years after Nigel Mansell had created history by winning from pole on his first Indycar start. That’s not bad company to be in.
But maybe things were going a little too well. A couple of caution periods in the final five laps bunched the field and while Wickens nailed the first restart, he didn’t get away quite so well at the second and that allowed Alexander Rossi to dive for the inside at the first corner. Rossi lost grip and the pair touched. Wickens’ race ended against the wall.
In 2010, Canadian Wickens was a rising star. He had been competing in Europe for a couple of years and finished second in the GP3 championship, which runs on the F1 undercard. The following season he won the Formula Renault 3.5 championship, beating future grand prix drivers, Jean-Eric Vergne, Rossi, Daniel Ricciardo and Brendon Hartley in the process. Wickens was 21 and on his way to great things, particularly when he was signed by Mercedes. But then he stalled.
Mercedes don’t sign mugs, but six seasons in the German Touring Car Championship (DTM) yielded just six wins and when the company announced its intention to withdraw from the series, Wickens looked likely to join motor racing’s long list of lost talents. So how did he end up with a plum drive at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (SPM) in Indycar?
Sam Schmidt, the co-owner of SPM, knew what he was looking for in a driver for 2018. Despite Wickens not have raced a single-seat, open-wheel car since 2011, Schmidt knew that the Canadian was fast and that his stint in DTM meant he was used to powerful cars without much aerodynamic grip, just like the latest incarnation of Indycars.
During Sunday’s two-hour race the onboard footage, particularly from the amazing “visor cam” showed just how hard the drivers were working. Trying to get all that power onto the road when the back of the car is determined to overtake the front takes supreme skill and the proximity of the walls at the unforgiving St Petersburg street circuit made for a compelling spectacle. On the evidence of yesterday, Indycar will be can’t-miss motorsport this season and beyond.
Many in Europe look down on Indycar racing, even the iconic Indianapolis 500, but this is now the real drivers’ championship when it comes to circuit racing. The cars are glorious beasts, great to look at but hot to handle, and the racing is as good as it gets. What it also provides is hope for those who fell by the wayside on their quest to get to F1.
Robert Wickens’ Indycar debut might have ended in disappointment, but the next 16 races give him the chance to be noticed again if F1 circles. If that’s what he even wants.