It’s only a pole, and there are still 17 races to run, but Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ big staffing additions and the hiring of Robert Wickens look like a step in the right direction.
With Wickens’ pole and teammate James Hinchcliffe set to start seventh for Sunday’s 110-lap event in St. Petersburg, the Sam Schmidt- and Ric Peterson-owned outfit had the best overall performance in the paddock. No matter how they finish tomorrow, it’s clear the two-car Honda-powered squad has moved closer to the bigger teams in the paddock than they were after an underwhelming 2017 championship run.
“Obviously, feeling really good about the decisions at the end of the year, and it’s not just the driver,” Schmidt told RACER. “You never know how it’s going to work out, but you do the best you can to bring on the best people you can find. We had a busy winter doing the bodywork testing for Honda, and it looks like some of the effort we’ve put in has made an impact.”
Hinchcliffe flirted with making it inside the Firestone Fast 6, and Schmidt admits to being surprised that SPM’s rookie came out ahead in his first qualifying session.
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“I fully expected Hinch to be in the top six because he’s always good here, and I wish we had both inside the top six, but we’ll take it to the bank and hope we do well,” he said.
In Wickens, Schmidt says he sees a lot of former SPM driver Simon Pagenaud, who went on to win the 2016 IndyCar championship with Team Penske. If there were any misgivings about hiring Wickens straight out of the German DTM sports car series – especially after he’d been out of open-wheel racing since 2011 – Schmidt pointed to the 28-year-old’s record, which includes winning the World Series by Renault 3.5 championship at the expense of future Formula 1 star Daniel Ricciardo and fellow IndyCar driver Alexander Rossi.
“I just looked at his 2011 season and who he beat in 3.5, and saw the desire was there,” he continued. “With the time I initially spent with him, he reminded me of Simon. He understands the business of racing, is a very serious character, wants all the information you can give him, and he’s done his homework, obviously.
“He’s been methodically quick all weekend, having not been here before or having a ton of test days before this. And in your wildest dreams, this pole isn’t something you’d predict because of it. You aren’t surprised when you get it out of Hinch, but for a guy in his first weekend… He and James have been setting the same speeds and sharing information back and forth and been helping each other. It’s good situation we’re in.”