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Robert Wickens' latest step on his long road back to racing
Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ driver-in-waiting Robert Wickens will never be formally replaced by his team. David Malsher explains why this is so, and why no one involved in his life is doubting that he can again become a force within IndyCar.
It’s a frequent topic of discussion among fans of open-wheel racing: “Who were the best drivers to never…”
- Win the Indianapolis 500? It’s got to be Michael Andretti, Lloyd Ruby or Ted Horn.
- Win the Formula 1 World Championship? Stirling Moss, Gilles Villeneuve, Dan Gurney, Chris Amon, Ronnie Peterson, Jacky Ickx.
- Win an Indy car championship? Parnelli Jones. (That’s surely not even up for debate).
- Win a Formula 1 Grand Prix? Amon again. Maybe Stefan Bellof would have joined those ranks, but tragically the young German ran out of time.
- Win an Indy car race? This writer has been assured by veteran journalist Robin Miller that Lee Kunzman was Indy car racing’s equivalent of Chris Amon in the last 60 years.
One day – and we should all hope/pray it’s not the case – we may be forced to enter Robert Wickens in that last category. But not for now. Who would dare? The 30-year-old Canadian has demonstrated such an awesome blend of relentless fight but also sharp realism since his career-halting shunt at Pocono last August that nobody would bet against him making a comeback to the NTT IndyCar Series one day. Should he do so, we all know that Wickens’ perfectionist nature would mean it was only because he knew he could be as good as before. Which is to say, not just good but stunning.
IndyCar fans understandably like to boast about how closely matched the teams and drivers are in the series – 1.4sec covering a grid of 24 cars on a 1.8-mile street course or whatever – and therefore how fractional mistakes will penalize a driver here more than in any other top-rank series. Yet Wickens arrived in the Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports-Honda team for the start of the 2018 season, took pole position in exceptionally tricky wet-dry conditions on his debut at St. Petersburg and dominated the race until being bumped aside in the closing laps. He went on to rack up four top-three finishes in 14 races and lay sixth in the championship standings when the Pocono accident brought his upward trajectory to a shattering halt. Long before that, his peers and close observers of the sport had concluded that here was the newest member of the IndyCar elite, one who could regularly fight for wins and championships with the likes of Scott Dixon, Will Power, Alexander Rossi and Josef Newgarden over the coming years.
What came next
On his return to the IndyCar paddock at St. Pete this year, Wickens consults with longtime friend, rival and teammate James Hinchcliffe, and Arrow SPM general manager Taylor Kiel.
Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / LAT Images
Robert and his family, understandably upset that “unverified sources immediately following Robert's accident inaccurately and without permission portrayed his condition as less than severe” bravely elected to put everyone in the picture with a list of his major injuries. Among these were a thoracic spinal fracture, spinal cord injury, neck fracture, tibia and fibula fractures to both legs, fractures in both hands, a fractured right forearm, a fractured elbow, four fractured ribs and a pulmonary contusion…
In light of this frankly alarming catalogue of issues that needed to be overcome, the more skeptical among us raised a quizzical eyebrow when the same official statement included comment from his extended family. Team co-owners Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson stated that, “While Robert continues his recovery, we want to make it clear that the No. 6 entry is for Robert Wickens and him only. No matter the amount of time it takes for his full recovery, we will hold that seat for him.” Surely they weren’t thinking in terms of a comeback… were they?
They were, because they knew their man well, knew that Wickens would throw himself into the rehabilitation process with 100 percent commitment. From learning to stand to learning to walk, from pushing weights on a walker to climbing stairs, the documentation of recuperation that he has shared on Instagram and Twitter has been genuinely inspirational. Even hardened cynics will admit that watching Robert continually spurhimself into reaching ever-higher self-set bars has been the epitome of human spirit overcoming adversity.
That being the case, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at the swiftness with which he has found a way to get back in a sportscar, demonstrating an Acura NSX on the parade lap for this weekend’s Honda Indy Toronto, the 11th round of the 2019 IndyCar season.
“This is just the start”
The Acura NSX Wickens will demonstrate on the parade lap this Sunday in Toronto.
Photo by: Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports
Wickens is effectively now working on two parallel programs, and their point of convergence cannot yet be determined. The first, which has to be priority, is to try and fully recuperate. But there’s another one that reveals Wickens’ rampant Get-after-it-already! attitude, a trait essential to all top racecar drivers. It’s the program that acknowledges there may prove to be physical deficiencies that even he can’t overcome alone – say, for example, restricted ankle movement that would mean he can’t modulate brake pedal pressure in the necessary manner – and therefore needs technology to lend a hand. Or rather, a foot.
That being the case, it’s kismet that he is working for a team whose partner is Arrow Electronics…
“Yeah, I’m so lucky to have a company like Arrow on my side and to be part of Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports,” he tells Motorsport.com, but in a manner that makes it clear this is not bland lip-service by a driver to his team’s sponsor. “This is right up their alley: they want to put in the research to make hand controls better for everybody because it’s not just about getting me back in a racecar. Racing has traditionally been about evolving the automotive industry and what we’re planning to do is an example of that. We’ll be testing things on the Acura NSX at various places throughout the fall and into the winter months. I’m also trying to convince them to make that NSX my road car, but we’ll see how that goes!
“We have big visions for the future,” he continues, “this is just the start. I want to use this NSX for practice. I want to get more and more familiar with hand controls and figuring out what works and what doesn’t work.”
Aiming to race again
Wickens leads from pole on his IndyCar debut at St. Petersburg, March 2018.
Photo by: Phillip Abbott / LAT Images
While most of us have been left slack-jawed by how quickly Wickens has reached the point at which he can turn fast laps in a sportscar, healing processes are impossible to predict, there can be unexpected setbacks on occasion, and so he is setting no timeline on when he might return to competition.
“If I can get one leg operational so I don’t need both throttle and brake on the steering wheel, that would be a huge deal,” he says. “Nerve regeneration takes two years before it plateaus – but there are so many people out there who are defying odds and redefining what’s possible, you have to keep pushing yourself. At the same time, I don’t want to rush anything because life is more important than work and so getting a better longterm future is smarter than getting back into a racecar too soon.”
But a return to competition is the ultimate goal?
“Yeah, definitely,” he says without hesitation. “It’s going to take a lot of hard work and it’s going to take time, but I’m prepared to put in the work and I have the time. And Arrow is up for the challenge too. We want to make the best system possible. Their whole philosophy, their slogan, is ‘Five Years Out,’ and that indicates the kind of methodical work they’re prepared to put into the evolution of systems like this. This is a great project for them.
“Honda is also very accommodating and eager to get me back, and we’re hoping to use a simulator as an option to trial stuff so we don’t waste money on track days. I’m trying to reach out to companies to get a home sim where you can customize it with hand controls. I actually feel I should have started this process a long time ago because I don’t yet know what I like and what I don’t like regarding the fine-tuning of hand controls for competition.”
Just as fans and competitors in IndyCar swiftly came to appreciate Wickens’ talents last year, so he fell in love with the series and so if he can get back in top form, it seems clear that the NTT IndyCar Series would be his ultimate goal. That said, there will be a couple of hurdles to overcome within the series regulations. For example, currently the rules don’t allow for fly-by-wire braking systems, and yet they will surely be essential for a hand-control car because the driver’s arm is never going to be able to generate the same amount of stopping force via mechanical means as stomping on a pedal. Robert will also have to practice exiting his car to make sure he’s under the maximum time permitted.
But that’s all to come: for now he is literally and figuratively taking things step-by-step.
“It’s crazy to think I could just get back into an IndyCar,” he says, “so part of me thinks I should retrain myself and start using hand controls in lower categories like Formula 3, and then an Indy Lights car and make my way up to IndyCar. And I should also try touring cars and sportscars along the way. I effectively need to relearn my craft. Hopefully my racecraft doesn’t get too rusty but learning how to be fast with hand controls is a whole new animal.
“But at the same time as I heal and get better, I also hope those hand controls will evolve too. It’s going to keep moving forward, and I hope to be part of that development and evolution. It’s very exciting.”
Gaining the loyalty and faith of partners
Photo by: Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports
And that’s a view shared by the other parties involved. Ted Klaus, president of Honda Performance Development that supplied the Acura NSX, recalls for Motorsport.com their meeting with Wickens in March.
“We were impressed with Robbie’s perpetual positive attitude,” he states. “He was saying, ‘This is a way for me to be fully engaged in life, it will have recuperative value and it will be the next step toward getting me in a racecar…’ Art [St. Cyr, Klaus’ predecessor] and myself left the conversation saying, ‘What can we do to make something happen?’… This project resonated instantly with us, with Arrow, and with Arrow SPM. I have to say, it was quite easy to say ‘Yes’.”
Joe Verrengia, Arrow’s global director for social responsibility, points out that there are comparable but also contrasting philosophies behind this latest NSX project for Wickens and the SAM car – the Semi-Autonomous Motorcar that the company developed for team owner Sam Schmidt, who was rendered quadriplegic by a heavy Indy car shunt in 2000.
“Ultimately, the purpose is for us to develop a system whereby [Robert] can drive not just in a demonstration but to compete again, because we know that’s his goal. And that’s really different from what we were doing with Sam because he was now a team owner and just wanted his mobility again – to be able to drive on the road and occasionally perform demos on track. Rob is far earlier in his career and there’s more that we can do for his medium-term future. That’s what we’re working on.”
If the differences between the two projects are their practical applications, their commonality is the emotional fulfillment they deliver to their pilots.
“Sam and Rob identify as drivers,” Verrengia continues, “and if they can’t drive, they feel they aren’t the best versions of themselves. So part of their recovery is therefore the enticement of driving again. That’s how they define it. So a part of the mission here is, ‘Get Rob driving and he’ll do even better.’ By the time Sam drove the SAM car, he hadn’t driven in 15 years and had pretty much come to the conclusion that he would never drive again. And although he had had a remarkable second chapter as a business man, he still felt like he wasn’t himself because he wasn’t driving.
Sam Schmidt drives the Arrow-modified semi-autonomous Corvette up Pikes Peak, CO.
Photo by: Arrow Electronics
"The mental improvement we saw once he achieved what he had set out to achieve with his drives in our converted Corvette are the same kinds of things we expect to see when Rob gets behind the wheel.”
Verrengia, like Wickens himself, is not about to set out a schedule of steps and targets over the next few years of working together, but it’s clear that Arrow is intrigued by the remarkable individual it has in its midst. Robbie’s intelligence, talent and determination to improve his situation have made him a hero in the sport and also to those with only a passing interest in racing, but they are also qualities that have engendered a strong relationship with Arrow, and that bond is one that the company is apparently eager to strengthen.
“Any way you look at it, from where Rob was less than a year ago to where he is today, it’s a remarkable story,” says Verrengia, “but at the same time he’s realistic about how much further he has to goand that it’s not a straight line – there are periods of improvement, then plateaus, and so on. By the same token, I think that our development process for his car will have periods of progress but also there will be times where ideas won’t quite work to Rob’s or our satisfaction, even if the overall trend is positive.
“For example, if we take the same approach as we did with Sam, I would anticipate that we will have some simulator time with Rob for research purposes to work out the best modifications for him. But what I have observed is that in laboratory conditions or even open-room conditions, you can make certain decisions that seem to work and which we get pretty excited about, but because the car itself is a much smaller and in some ways more hostile environment, those things won’t necessarily work on track.
“But that’s what researching practical solutions is all about, and having someone like Rob providing feedback is going to ensure that we help each other make as fast progress as possible.”
Through the most unfortunate circumstances, therefore, not only has Wickens discovered the perfect team partner in Arrow, so too Arrow has its ideal brand ambassador.
“One of our philosophies at Arrow is not to develop technology for technology’s sake but instead integrate and customize technology to make people’s lives better, says Verrengia“We’re trying to humanize technology, so like I said earlier, we’re allowing Sam and Rob to be more of who they are by helping to enable them to drive. They’re not being replaced by technology; it’s allowing them to take command, to make decisions, and that has a profound ripple effect throughout their lives.”
It would be foolish and pre-emptive in the extreme to make any predictions about just how far Robert Wickens’ determination can take him on the road to recovery, but with the support of companies such as Arrow, Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and Honda, and that eternal flame of desire burning deep within his soul, he will likely remain an inspirational figure for years or even decades to come. What we can say with absolute certainty is that whatever is humanly feasible, he will make it happen.
About Arrow Electronics
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Arrow Schmidt Peterson Hondas of James Hinchcliffe, Robert Wickens and Marcus Ericsson.
Photo by: Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports
Wickens to demo Arrow-modified Acura NSX in Toronto
2019 IndyCar Honda Indy Toronto schedule