During a ride swap early this year at Sebring International Raceway, Robert Wickens’ foremost thought was straightforward: Don’t wreck your buddy’s race car.
Eight months later, Wickens is joining longtime friend James Hinchcliffe at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.
Wickens, who drove Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 SPM Honda in a promotional exchange in February that allowed Hinchcliffe to drive Wickens’ DTM sports car a few weeks later in Italy, was announced today as the driver of the SPM No. 7 Honda for the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season.
That first test left Wickens (at left in the photo above with Hinchcliffe) with one primary goal.
“There were a lot of things running through my mind,” he said. “No. 1 was ‘don’t crash James’ car a week before St. Pete.’ Overall it was a risk-versus-reward kind of day. I definitely didn’t want to risk anything on James’ car, but I also wanted to show I was pretty quick. It was kind of a balance there, but I must’ve done something right.”
The two grew up about 40 minutes apart in the Toronto area and met while racing go-karts. They soon became friends and started hanging out together when they weren’t racing. Nearly 20 years later, they’re together on the same race team.
“I’m over the moon about it,” said Hinchcliffe, who signed a multiyear extension to return to SPM for a fourth season and his eighth overall in the Verizon IndyCar Series. “It’s crazy to think that two snot-nosed kids who raced go-karts together in Ontario could end together years later. It’s a cool enough story that we both made it with careers as professional racing drivers, but to end up in the same series and on the same team is hard to put into words.”
Hinchcliffe had a rooting interest as the hiring process began, but said he didn’t have to lobby for Wickens. Instead, team co-owners Ric Peterson and Sam Schmidt carefully considered the best available drivers. Wickens consistently emerged at the top of every list they compiled.
“The whole team is fired up,” Peterson said. “This is just a great thing for the whole team. … We spent three months trying to make sure we were picking the absolute best person available. Sam and I spent countless hours in the motorhome talking about it. We asked James for his recommendation. By the time we nailed down Robert, we were pretty confident that we’d picked the right guy.”
The ride swap in February occurred less than two weeks before the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season opener. The car Wickens tested was the same one Hinchcliffe drove in that initial race, the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
“My relationship with Hinch is what got myself in the ride swap, and that was my first contact with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports,” said Wickens, who was driving in the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters series at the time. “After that, we just stayed in contact, and once Mercedes announced their withdrawal from DTM after the 2018 season, things got real. We started talking and looking at options. One thing led to another.”
In June, Wickens filled in for Mikhail Aleshin in the SPM No. 7 Honda when Aleshin had visa issues and was delayed in returning to the U.S. after the 24 Hours of Le Mans. As it turns out, not wrecking Hinchcliffe’s car at Sebring – and, in fact, impressing the team in what was essentially an exhibition – was the key to the newest chapter in Wickens’ career.
“It was just more a media/marketing thing, so it would’ve looked pretty dumb if I’d ended up crashing,” Wickens said. “I’m a racing driver. You want to push everything to its limits and see what it can do. There were some moments that were pretty fun, but luckily I didn’t have any times where I thought I might wreck the car.”
Hinchcliffe wasn’t concerned about the car or his friend’s future. Wickens has extensive experience in GP3, Formula Two and DTM, among other prestigious series. He won the Formula BMW USA championship in 2006 before turning his career focus to Europe. He also claimed the 2011 Formula Renault 3.5 championship before veering to the touring car series, where he won six races in six seasons.
“Robbie’s got an outstanding reputation behind the wheel,” Hinchcliffe said. “He was backed by Red Bull for years, picked up as a factory Mercedes driver for years – that doesn’t happen by mistake. What he’s going to bring is an unbelievable competitiveness and an acute technical ability. Robbie has everything it takes to be a race-winning and championship-winning driver.”
When they were kids, the two would stay up all night competing in video simulations of 24-hour races. Now, decades later, they’re on the same team.
“It’s pretty surreal, just the fact that it’s pretty hard to make a career in professional motorsports,” Wickens said. “Since we were kids, James and I dreamed of both being professional racing drivers. We went our separate ways for a bit. I went to Europe and James pursued the North American route. The fact that we can meet up again 15 years later is pretty crazy.”