By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
Robert Wickens will make his much anticipated motorsports return in Saturday’s second round of the INDYCAR iRacing Challenge at virtual Barber Motorsports Park.
Wickens will be piloting the No. 6 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet as it’ll mark the first major step on getting back behind the wheel after his much discussed crash at Pocono in August 2018 sidelining him ever since.
“It’s weird. It’s kind of a mental overload. My brain was exploding from trying to figure out how to use the handbrakes, to learn the feeling of it and everything. A lot of work to do in a short amount of time. I was hoping I’d pick it up a lot quicker than I am,” said Wickens during Friday’s teleconference.
“The Barber track seems to be fairly low grip. I’m spinning a lot more than I intend to. I’m just so happy that I can get back and compete with these guys. It’s going to be a lot of fun.
“The biggest thing for me is although this is fun, I see this as the long-term project of getting me back into the racecar. I always knew through simulation was going to be the best way to trial different handbrake or paddle configurations. This is step one of a hundred to get me back into the NTT IndyCar Series.”
The Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama will also mark Wickens’ first true experience on home simulators like iRacing, but don’t let it fool you as he’s been aware of how simulators work during his time in Europe, but it’ll be a tremendous challenge and just hopes to keep his mistakes at a minimum.
“I did a lot of development work for Formula 1 simulators with Red Bull, Mercedes, Williams, Renault. I was the behind-the-scenes guy when I was in Europe in my pursuit of Formula 1,” said Wickens. “I’m aware of the simulators, the quirkiness that goes along with them. Every piece of software is a new animal. iRacing does a great job of giving the everyday person the chance to drive a very realistic car.
“Being a real driver, there’s always those things that take you away from reality. It’s an adjustment.”
However, Barber wasn’t initially meant to be his return as he was intending to run in last Saturday’s American Red Cross Grand Prix at virtual Watkins Glen International, but two things prevented him from competing against with the 25 drivers – his simulation equipment deal backed out two days before the race and a shipping miscue once he got a new equipment deal.
Wickens would get immediate help from Max Papis, who owns MPI which creates steering wheels and seats that can be dedicated for sim racing. He describes that Papis was already doing work with SimAbility to keep the 31-year-old on the grid, something he’d wished to have known beforehand.
“When Max found out that I was in the market for a steering wheel, he jumped on and just got to work. He actually had already been doing stuff in the background that I wasn’t even aware of,” Wickens on Papis. “He had been communicating with (SimAbility), already had the hardware in his shop. I guess he was just waiting for me to reach out. Silver lining is great, but I also wish I had known that a few weeks ago.
“But he’s such a good guy. He’s a competitor at heart. Although he’s retired from the cockpit, I think he sees his entrepreneurship as a new form of competition. He wants to be the best in the industry, he works hard. I think he’s doing a great job.”
All appeared to be good and ready to go, but the equipment that was supposed to arrive last Saturday morning didn’t come into fruition, leaving Wickens out for Watkins Glen as well as having time to try the equipment.
“It was due for overnight shipping to arrive Saturday morning. It was going to be a steep learning curve, let’s say, to get me ready in time,” said Wickens.
“The courier I guess misread the label, they didn’t put it on the truck for the Saturday delivery. Instead there’s a whole bunch of confusion, the wheel got sent back to MPI, and I only received it yesterday finally.
“I just want experience at this point. We were able to figure out another option for a steering wheel for this weekend. I’m going to be using a Fantech McLaren-based steering wheel because it has a clutch paddle. I’ll be using throttle with the clutch.
“I have a brake lever off to the side I’ll be hand-braking with for short-term until I can get more time to experiment with some other configurations.”
Instead of MPI, Wickens will use a setup from SimCraft for Barber before diving into something else and decide which one he feels most comfortable going forward.
“I can’t wait to try his steering wheel after this Barber weekend because it looks great,” said Wickens. “Just like I said, I’m not computer-ly inclined enough to figure out how to switch it over in quick order. It’s probably going to take me a good amount of time to get it calibrated, up and running.”
The key reason why Wickens will wait is because he just got the SimCraft equipment set up Thursday night and he would rather not deal with the hassle that comes with switching equipment.
“It’s not a quick disconnect, plug-and-play. I need to disconnect, calibrate it. I don’t want to spend half a day trying to get the steering wheel set up and see if I like it more,” said Wickens.
“It’s kind of a race against the clock to get competitive for Barber. I’m just going to commit to this system that we put on the sim right now, then after this weekend I’m going to start experimenting with Max’s wheel. Hopefully it’s a better solution than what I have now.
“For example, with the steering angle you need for turn five in Barber, I can’t reach the throttle at the apex. I need some adapting to carry enough entry speed to not lose lap time. It’s all a compromise right now. And until we can develop kind of my own custom steering wheel that suits my exact needs, I’m always going to face those challenges.”
Both Grahal Rahal and Will Power are thrilled to have the 2018 INDYCAR Rookie of the Year back on the grid in some capacity, as they shared how encouraging Wickens’ recovery has been to them.
Power commented that it’s been great to see Wickens’ progress and will be cool being able to compete against him once again despite the very early days back behind the wheel will be tough.
“He deserves to be back in the series,” said Power. “Tremendous talent that you know was going to be a champion. I really hope that he gets back, that he can create a system where he can get back in the car and use his talent. It’s such a pity to see that go to waste.”
Rahal said that he’s been racing against Wickens once they’ve hit double digits in the age category to which Wickens responded ever since they’ve been taking rocks in Jacksonville, Florida.
“To see his determination, to see his recovery process, to see his mentality and the way that he’s thought through this is admirable. But it’s not surprising from him if you’ve known him for a long time,” Rahal on Wickens. “I could tell you from going to see him in the hospital pretty early on after the accident, the determination was always there. It was always there. His positivity, really with Karli (Robert’s wife), I’d like to think if it happened to me, I have that in me. I’m not sure I always have that positivity. It was always really great for us to see and to be around.
“He’s a guy who is just from day one committed to getting back on his feet, to getting back in a racecar. It’s great to have him out here competing with us. The likelihood he’s going to figure this out and kick all of our butts again… Hopefully we can keep up with him a little better on the sim than real life.”
While Wickens is confident on being back behind the wheel, he smiled and said that he’s probably not ready for a race quite yet as he’ll be thrown into the “deep end” of things once the field of 29 cars take the green flag at the virtual 2.38-mile Alabama road course.
“We’re taking it one step at a time. I know I’m not going to set the world on fire in the race tomorrow. I do know that while everyone gets the hang of iRacing with the IndyCar, I think the most important thing is to keep the thing running and keep it on track,” said Wickens.
“That’s going to be goal number one for me, hopefully not make too many mistakes. So far I can only do about five or six laps without spinning, so there’s a lot of work to be done.”
Live coverage of Wickens’ return commences at 2:30 pm EST on NBCSN. The race consists of 45 laps as last week’s winner Sage Karam hopes to go 2-for-2 in the INDYCAR iRacing Challenge.