Robert Wickens set for racing return, joins Herta in IMSA MPC

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Credit: Chris Owens/Penske Entertainment

After over three years of speculation, Robert Wickens is officially back in a race car.

On Friday, Wickens announced he will make his racing return by competing in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge for Bryan Herta Autosport. He will drive the #33 Hyundai Elantra N TCR alongside fellow Canadian Mark Wilkins.

“I’ve spent a lot of nights thinking and dreaming of this moment, and with the support from Bryan Herta and Hyundai it is all becoming a reality,” Wickens stated. “I am hungrier now than I was before my accident to compete for wins again. I’m really looking forward to incorporating myself with the entire Bryan Herta Autosport team and finally get my first taste of the Hyundai Elantra N TCR.”

The news caps off what has been a difficult and emotional saga for Wickens. In 2018, he was poised to become one of the NTT IndyCar Series‘ next big things when he scored four podium finishes as a rookie. However, his promising career came to a grinding halt when he was involved in a major crash at Pocono that sent him into the catchfence, resulting in massive injuries such as fractures to his spine, spinal cord, neck, and limbs. He was paralysed from the waist down, forcing him into a wheelchair.

Wickens documented his recovery over the next three years, posting videos of him moving his legs with and without assistance and even dancing with his wife Karli during their wedding in 2019. That year also saw him drive the pace car at Honda Indy Toronto with hand controls. By 2020, he was partaking in sim racing events such as the IndyCar iRacing Challenge.

In May 2021, he tested with BHA at Mid-Ohio in his first taste of racing since the accident. He piloted a modified Veloster N TCR primarily used by Michael Johnson, a fellow paralysed BHA driver, that also used hand controls.

Such a system is also in place for the #33. Designed by the team’s technical director David Brown and development technician Jonathan Gormley, the rig is centred on the steering wheel, which has a metal ring behind it that Wickens would pull to activate the brake. Paddles are used to not only shift gears, but also accelerate. When Wickens rotates out for Wilkins, a switch is flipped that will revert the car back to traditional foot pedals.

The sports car world is not unfamiliar with drivers who have suffered debilitating injuries only to return with special setups to accommodate them. Besides Johnson and Wickens, the ring/paddle system was also used by Alex Zanardi, whose legs were amputated following an CART crash in 2001, when he was in DTM (where Wickens raced prior to IndyCar). Michelin Pilot Challenge alumnus Liam Dwyer, who lost his left leg while serving in Afghanistan, attached his prosthetic leg to the clutch pedal while a hand brake was implemented in the steering column behind the wheel.

“Today is a monumental day for us as a team and as fans of Robert Wickens,” commented Herta. “We have followed along with Robert’s rehabilitation and marveled at his determination and dedication, along with his many, many fans. To now announce that he will be making his professional motorsports return in one of our Hyundai Elantra N TCR cars is truly incredible. We thank Hyundai for their amazing support and helping us build a path for Robert to get back to where he belongs.”

Wickens will formally make his BHA race début with the season-opening BMW Endurance Challenge at Daytona International Speedway on 28 January.

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History major at San Jose State University and lifelong motorsports fan who covers NASCAR and the Stadium Super Trucks.
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