This country’s best-kept racing secret is one of James Hinchcliffe’s closest friends, and the “Mayor of Hinchtown” can’t wait for word to spread about Robert Wickens.
“I’m convinced, as soon as Canada learns a little bit more about this guy, they’re gonna fall in love with him,” says Hinchcliffe.
North American gearheads will get a much closer look at Wickens now that, after nearly a decade racing in Europe, the 28-year-old Guelph, Ont., native is set to join the Verizon IndyCar Series in 2018 as Hinchcliffe’s teammate at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.
The pair — who’ve been tight since their earliest karting days — announced on Wednesday that they’ve both signed multi-year deals with SPM. Hinchcliffe and Wickens represent the first all-Canadian open-wheel duo since Paul Tracy and Patrick Carpentier competed in the Champ Car World Series for Players-Forsythe Racing in 2004.
“‘Maple Leaf Mafia’ has got a nice ring to it,” says Hinchcliffe.
The first notion the two might become a tandem sprung up roughly a year ago, when Hinchcliffe and Wickens had one of those lunches that lasts until dinner and beyond. They hatched a plan whereby Wickens could drive Hinch’s No. 5 Arrow Electronics Honda and Hinchcliffe could take a turn in the seat of the Mercedes-Benz Wickens had been racing on the popular German Touring Car Series (DTM) since 2012.
“By the end of the night it was set in stone; but also, we barely remembered it,” Wickens says with a laugh.
The two did actually find a way to make it happen in the off-season and last June, Wickens was an emergency replacement for SPM driver Mikhail Aleshin when visa issues threatened to keep the latter from an entire weekend of racing at Road America in rural Wisconsin.
As it turned out, Wickens only got to drive in the free practice on Friday before Aleshin got his situation sorted. The seed was planted, though, and when Mercedes announced it was pulling out of DTM after 2018, Wickens knew it was time for a change. The first step, of course, was getting all kinds of advice from his old buddy Hinch.
“I spoke to him more than my girlfriend,” Wickens says of the time when he was negotiating with SPM.
Wickens was no different than Hinchcliffe as a youngster, picturing himself following in the Indy footsteps of Canadians like Tracy, Carpentier and Greg Moore. But in 2008, he decided to make a hard push for Formula 1 and, after winning the 2011 Formula Renault 3.5 Series, Wickens was positioned to turn that goal into a reality. For all the glamour surrounding F-1, however, Wickens knew it was going to be a tough go.
“I had some Formula 1 options to consider,” he says. “It was either DTM on a multi-year deal or go year by year, grinding it out, struggling [with a back-marker] team in a Formula 1 car where you’re [always] trying to find money to keep your seat: You never know who’s going to come with more.”
Having opted for the security offered by Mercedes, Wickens let his talent shine, winning six races in six years with 15 podium finishes and five pole positions to his credit.
“I was there to compete, not just wave at the fans and be another driver on the grid,” he says.
And while reuniting with Hinchcliffe is wonderful, one of the main pulls back to North America for Wickens — who’ll be piloting open-wheel cars for the first time in since 2011 — is the opportunity to challenge for checkered flags every time out.
“Any driver-engineer-team combination can get it right and win a race, and that’s something that’s really appealing to me in IndyCar,” he says.
Hinchcliffe, naturally, is motivated by the same thing, though the 30-year-old is also getting reflective and downright wistful in his (not really) old age. The Oakville, Ont., boy can’t help but shake his head at the odds-defying journey he and his pal are on. Once upon a time, they were two skinny teens in the basement of the Wickens family house, “smashing Pizza Pizza” and going on 24-hour Grand Turismo binges.
Hinchcliffe breaks out the air quotes when he notes that 99.9 per cent of the kids they raced against now have “real jobs,” while he and Wickens live out their wildest dreams.
“I’m so fortunate I get to do what I do,” Hinchcliffe says. “But then you start appreciating what it means to be able to do that with good friends. I’ve got some really good friends on the IndyCar circuit, we’ve become very tight, Robbie knows some of them already and he’s going to fit in so well in the family we’ve got there.”