Verizon IndyCar Series driver Robert Wickens has stated his surprise at how well he has performed in the first two races of the 2018 season. The Canadian, driving the #6 Honda for Schmidt Peterson Motorsport, has had a sensational debut in the championship, including a fantastic second place in his first oval race at ISM Raceway yesterday, to which he credits his team for after they prepared him so well for his return to single seaters.
Wickens made a statement in his first race weekend at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg last month. He blasted to pole position for his first start and went on to dominate the race from the front. A late race caution brought Andretti Autosport‘s Alexander Rossi back into contention for a two-lap sprint to the finish. The pair would make contact down into turn one which would sadly end Wickens’ race, but nevertheless, the Canadian had made a statement.
Wickens admitted that heading into the second race at Phoenix yesterday, his first time racing on an oval in his whole career, he did not expect to be running up the front. However, that is exactly what happened. Wickens qualified a solid sixth place, just behind his team-mate James Hinchcliffe, but in the race, Wickens looked to have the edge.
Both drivers led the race at points, but it was Robert who was once again in the lead in the final laps whilst trying to hold off the cars behind him. A late caution saw the leading trio – Wickens, Hinchcliffe and Rossi – stay out on track on older rubber whilst the cars behind, such as Josef Newgarden, pitted for fresh Firestone rubber.
Ultimately, it was Newgarden who would come out on top after using his fresh tyres to drive around the outside of the leading trio, but Wickens drove phenomenally to hold off the reigning champion for as long as he did. It looked like Wickens was a veteran rather than a driver with no prior oval racing experience.
“It was a tough night,” Wickens told RACER, “It went by actually a lot quicker than I was expecting. When I saw it was 250 laps, kind of strapping in for an endurance thing. I had a lot of fun out there, especially the middle part of the race when James and I were fighting for the lead, had a good little battle a couple times. I was smiling under the helmet. It was fun.”
“[The Phoenix podium] means a lot,” Robert went on to say. “My goal coming into this was to finish every lap. Even on that last restart, leading, knowing there is only the three of us that stayed out, my thought process didn’t really change. Even if I finished fifth, I would have been kind of, well, a little bit disappointed but still happy that I got even a top five on my first oval race.
“I feel like I’m setting the bar a little bit high for myself. But I never would have expected the first two races to go as well as they did. Hopefully, we can get our season going now.”
Wickens then went on to explain that Schmidt Peterson Motorsport and his team-mate James Hinchcliffe had done a great job of getting him prepared for his IndyCar and oval racing debut, which he believes has helped him run as well as he has in the first two races:
“I think the team is doing such a great job getting me up to speed,” he said. “They’re carrying me. It goes from my teammate with Hinch, both car crews, the 5 and 6, are doing such a strong job. The camera team is phenomenal. James is taking the brunt of the work for us because he’s the one basically setting up the car because he has a lot more oval experience than me. I’m kind of doing the basic stuff, but he’s taking the job list of the tough things.
“He’s building us a great car. I’m just reaping the benefits of driving a well-balanced car. Hats off to him. I don’t actually know where he ended up in the race. I think it shows that we’re a strong team here. Yeah, the team is just doing a great job getting me going.”
Wickens’ next opportunity to continue to impress will be the third round of the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series, the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, which takes place this weekend on April 15.