When I think back to the 2018 season in the future, I’ll remember it as a time where all manner of unexpected outcomes ruled our worlds of open-wheel and sports car racing.
Some years go down as rather boring affairs in racing, and on rare occasion, most of the easy predictions, as we just witnessed, turn out wrong. I love those years.
Robert Wickens, the Canadian flash, is the first and biggest surprise. When 2018 comes to mind, Wickens is atop the list; winning the St. Petersburg pole on his IndyCar debut, nearly winning the race almost happened until Alexander Rossi introduced him to the Chrome Horn…the series’ favorites were put on notice from the opening round, and it was pure magic.
He was in position to win his second race — which doubled as his first oval — at Phoenix until a blown strategy call took that opportunity away. How about eight finishes inside the top six, including a fine ninth on his Indy 500 debut, during Wickens’ abbreviated rookie season? Out of nowhere, he became the best show in town. Only the cruel ending at Pocono was capable of stalling Wickens’ rise.
And what have we received from Robert during his daily fight to reclaim his former life as an elite driver of race cars? An almighty inspiration. His tears in rehabilitation have become our tears. His regular triumphs and failures to regain the use of his legs have also served to remind some of us that whatever frustrations or setbacks we face in our lives, he’s staring at a steeper climb to overcome his own.
Few drivers transcend the sport by touching something deeper inside of us, and like Alex Zanardi, Wickens has become an inspiration in ways he never imagined, but has embraced with humility. All this from someone we barely knew nine months ago.
Will Power’s Indy 500 win wasn’t the unexpected part; it’s the personality who emerged from Victory Lane. Power’s raging passion, expressed on the cool-down lap in his barking ‘Respect me, mother-effer’ quote to nobody in particular, and again with his wild eyes and screams of joy and relief while sitting in the cockpit, to all of the post-race interviews…the real Will Power finally emerged.
Some fans were turned off by the big explosion of personality from Power; he’d spent the past decade fitting nicely into a more demure zone in the media, but for those who know the Australian, the Indy 500 revealed his true self. If we’re lucky, the playful, engaging, high-energy character from Indy will make more frequent appearances going forward.
Scott Dixon has been a pre-season title favorite for most of his career. The same was true when 2018 arrived, but if we’re honest, it was a trio of Penske drivers and half the Andretti squad that looked like the clear bets to win the championship. Without the luxury of a stout teammate to share the development load, Dixon entered the season as a one-man band against imposing multi-car teams. And yet, with the odds far from being in his favor, he banked useful points through the Indy 500 to keep himself in the hunt, then went on a points-scoring rampage to close the year.
Out of the 11 races that followed Indy, Dixon finished inside the top five in all but one event. Penske, Andretti, and the rest of his rivals were powerless as his fifth title was secured.
And if we’re talking about the truly unexpected, who will forget Portland where, in one of the great ‘hand of God’ moments, his Chip Ganassi Racing Honda was all but unharmed in the huge melee that broke out at the start. Driving off from the multi-car pileup, restarting at the back of the field, and motoring his way to fifth at the penultimate round — ahead of Rossi, his main title rival — is one of the better forms of proof that miracles do indeed exist.
Young Patricio O’Ward can also stake his claim as one of the most unexpected stories to emerge from 2018. A rookie alongside sophomore Indy Lights driver Colton Herta at Andretti Autosport, O’Ward would have been an easy pick to place third in the standings behind Herta and third-year veteran Santiago Urrutia. Well, that didn’t happen — not by a long shot.
Despite his relative inexperience, O’Ward took a full 2017 season in IMSA’s Prototype Challenge class where he and the Performance Tech team won every race bar one, used the heavy sports car mileage to accelerate his experience, and promptly mopped the floor with his Lights rivals.
Nine wins from 17 rounds, including three of the first four and four of the final five, sent a powerful message that this teenager from Mexico was something truly special. As if confirmation was needed, he qualified inside the Firestone Fast Six at Sonoma on his IndyCar debut, started fifth, made some mistakes in the race, and recovered to finish ninth. Other than Pato, and maybe his family, nobody saw this coming. We won’t make that mistake again.