INDIANAPOLIS -- The last time Robert Wickens was racing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the then-IndyCar rookie was battling legends Scott Dixon and Will Power for a win on the road course, nearly pacing Indianapolis 500 practices, basking in the roar of nearly 300,000 fans as he took the lead of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing and taking home Rookie of the Year honors.
Saturday night’s runner-up finish in the TCR class of IMSA’s Michelin Pilot Challenge by 1.138 seconds undoubtedly feels a little different.
There’s irritation with a questionable-at-best drive-thru penalty teammate Harry Gottsacker was handed within the race’s first hour for leaving his pit box with the fuel hose still attached. “I thought it wasn’t deserving. It was borderline, don’t get me wrong, but in the video we saw, we stayed within our pit box, still with the fuel hose connected, so we corrected our error,” Wickens told IndyStar of the No. 33 Bryan Herta Autosport Hyundai Elantra N TCR car’s 6th runner-up finish of the 2023 season – and fourth in their last five starts.
“We corrected our error, and we almost self-penalized, because we lost five seconds.”
Then there was the task of navigating the 2.439-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course in a drizzle for hours Saturday afternoon and evening – before it transformed into a relatively short circuit hosting more than 40 cars under the lights for the second time. “We could do with a bit more,” said Wickens with a half-hearted chuckle on the temporary light fixtures set up around Roger Penske’s constantly evolving project of a racetrack.
“The visibility is fine on the racing line, but if you’re defending your position, it was hard to see the brake markers, so that made for a challenge for sure.”
And then there was the ever-frustrating – or satisfying, depending on what side you’re one – and constantly evolving Balance of Performance game IMSA drivers have to adjust to each year, one that Wickens and team-owner Bryan Herta wouldn’t outright say BHA finds itself on the tough side of in 2023, but…
“It was just going to be a game of survival,” Wickens said. “Because, frankly, we don’t have the fastest car, and that’s no fault of Hyundai’s. That’s just the way it goes in this kind of racing. We knew it was going to be a challenge on a track like this with long straights and lots of acceleration. That just doesn’t cater to our strengths, and that’s the way it is.
“I’d built a gap a little in sector two, but not nearly enough to be able to run cleanly back into Turn 1 and not have to be defending, and when you’re having to defend all the time, I can’t use my strengths to open up a gap in the corners. It’s kinda like a Catch-22.”
Adversity, though, is where Wickens shines, and in describing the thrill of a late-race wheel-to-wheel battle with eventual TCR class-winner Mikey Taylor, that the 34-year-old Canadian’s Hollywood smile finally cut through the sting.
He’s become a beacon of grit and positivity in the North American racing world since a violent crash near the end of that rookie IndyCar campaign left him in a medically-induced coma five years ago, the victim of a laundry list of injuries that included a thoracic spinal fracture, as well as fractures to his neck, both legs, right forearm, elbow and four ribs.
But it wasn’t long before Wickens was racing wheelchairs with his longtime buddy James Hinchcliffe … and then turning laps in a modified Acura NSX with hand-controls … and then testing a racecar … and then racing.
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Even if the wins haven’t come nine races into the 10-race 2023 campaign, the battles have left scars that leave Wickens feeling like he’s back in the cockpit in Europe, jockeying for F3 and F2 victories as an early-20-something with his sights set on Formula 1. With just next month’s season-finale at Road Atlanta remaining, Wickens and Gottsacker are clinging to a 20-point cushion at the front of the title race – less than the difference between finishing 2nd and 1st in that final race (350 points vs. 320).
“What I missed most about racing was competing for race wins and for championships, and we’re competing for wins every weekend and still competing for a championship – plus, we’re doing it through consistency and not just outright speed,” Wickens said. “Hopefully, we can change that at Road Atlanta. To get our first win of the year there would be very nice.”
Wickens’ return to Victory Lane last summer sandwiched a burst of rapid life change – the birth of his son, Wesley, with his wife Karli – but also came in an up-and-down season that featured three DNFs and just one other podium. He finished 6th in points, watching BHA teammates Taylor Hagler and Michael Lewis edge the field with seven podiums across 10 starts and just a single win to their names.
And Wickens craved that consistency – that constant, week-in-and-out battle at the front again.
“I felt like I had to block coming into Turn 1 like 80% of my laps the final hour. The problem is, the (JDC Miller MotorSports Audi) closing rate at the end of the straights was just so much higher than us, that if they’re 2-3 car lengths back, they can still throw in a lunge. So I have to protect every time,” Wickens explained. “But I’m really proud of my team. We had to fight through a lot of adversity just to get back into contention, and we’ve been doing that all year. I think this is the sixth 2nd-place, which is irritating, but at the same time, we should be really proud of that consistency – and that we’re still leading the championship. And anything can happen.
“It just stings. I think this is the third race this year where I’ve been leading with two or less laps remaining, and we come home 2nd-place. I just feel like we deserve that win. We’ve been doing everything right. It’s just that we keep getting beat.”
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That final pass for the lead from Taylor, with just two-and-a-half minutes remaining in Saturday’s race in Turn 8 after the pair ran side-by-side through Turn 7, didn’t come without contact – yet another incident that appears to have left Wickens ready to run elbows-out on-track before the final checkered flag of the year in four weeks. And if the last three rounds are any indication – races where the BHA No. 33 (3rd, 2nd and 2nd) has finished one spot back of the JDC No. 17 (2nd, 1st and 1st) to leave the Audi and the Hyundai 20 points apart in the championship – there’s little doubt who those elbows will be meant for.
“I don’t want to be the poor loser, but I’ve never raced the No. 17 yet this year where there hasn’t been contact,” Wickens said, “I can race everyone else without any contact, but it’s just the way he is. And if that’s how he wants to play, that’s how we’re going to play.”
But when the season ends – championship or not – and in the years to come, that’s not how this day is going to be remembered. Wickens assures that, because when it comes down to it, Saturday was a day back racing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, finishing on the podium, leading laps and knocking wheels for the lead.
As if he’d never left.
“Indy fans are one-of-a-kind, so coming back here and feeling the love and support of everyone here in Indy, that’s just always special,” he said. “And being back on the podium again, that was great.
“Just like 2018.”
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: IMSA: Robert Wickens 'irritated' with 2nd-place in IMS return