The numbers contained on the time sheets from Friday, June 23, 2017, weren’t particularly impressive.
Based on cold lap time data alone, there was no reason to believe last-minute stand-in Robert Wickens would become an almighty force in the NTT IndyCar Series the following year with Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.
Presented in 20th following his first practice session at Road America, the Canadian wasn’t last among the 21 cars entered, but with a gap of 2.3 seconds to the fastest driver, the Mercedes DTM driver was anything but a talking point in the paddock afterwards.
As the team dealt with questions of whether Mikhail Aleshin, the regular pilot of the No. 7 Honda, would be able to resolve the visa issues that stranded the Russian in Europe and drive his car in Wisconsin, Wickens prepared for the second practice session. Like the first, the 28-year-old would complete the session in 20th position, one spot from last, but the deficit to first was cut by a half-second.
Progress was on display for the IndyCar rookie, but he knew the only benchmark that mattered — his close friend and teammate James Hinchcliffe — closed the session in fifth place, 1.2 seconds ahead on the stopwatch. A chance to sleep on all he’d learned and draw down the gap on Saturday was quickly forgotten as Aleshin’s travel problems were resolved.
It was one day, two 20th-place results, and in theory, not much else to use as a bargaining tool to lobby for a second chance in the series. And that’s where, in looking back two years after Wickens’ first official IndyCar outing, the fallacy of using nothing more than lap times to judge a driver’s full potential is revealed.
A pre-season media event at Sebring International Raceway where Hinchcliffe and Wickens partook in a ride swap — one where Wickens spent a half-day in his countryman’s No. 5 Honda on Sebring’s short course — was enough to pique Arrow SPM’s interest. Despite the lack of competition to judge Wickens against, or enough time to run through a standard set of test items, a remarkable impression was made during a private outing that was never meant to showcase Wickens’ talent to the team.
“It’s funny; when we did the ride swap, we knew that Robbie was special,” Arrow SPM general manager Taylor Kiel told RACER. “We had a lot of time to marinate on that. Fast forwarding to Road America, it all came together so quickly. We knew that Mikhail had some visa issues that he may encounter coming back from Le Mans and, certainly, he did. Piers Phillips, the GM at the time, hopped on the horn and called Robbie and said, ‘Hey man. Are you interested…and how quickly can you be here?’
“He had to check with the bosses at Mercedes and they signed off on it. He was on a plane the next day. I think behind the scenes, we were all pretty excited because this was a real bona fide opportunity for us to throw him right into the fire and see what he could do. Looking forward from that event, we knew that Mikhail was on a one-year deal. We were going to be looking for a secure future in that seat, some good momentum with Arrow.”
Driven by that half-day sample of the Robert Wickens Experience at Sebring, Kiel viewed Aleshin’s travel delays as a rare chance to get a head start on planning for 2018.
“We were going to be able to put ourselves in a position to secure funding to get a guy like Robbie in the car,” he said. “That weekend was a lot bigger than just him coming in and filling in for a couple of practice sessions. It was a really great opportunity for us to see him live, in action. Honestly, when the weekend was over, I think we knew right then and there, we needed to do whatever it took to make sure that he was driving for us the following season.”
“It was an opportunity for us to just turn over one more stone. It was a big shiny stone that we liked, so we wanted to see it in action…”
The expected decision for Arrow SPM’s leadership would have been to call a familiar Indy car driver who was on the sidelines at the time, a Gabby Chaves, Sage Karam or Oriol Servia, perhaps, to deputize for Aleshin.
“It may have been a bold decision to call Robbie,” Kiel continued. “I think it was pretty easy for us. I think we had a lot of faith in James Hinchcliffe as a leader of this team. He vouched for Robbie. As you can imagine, they’re friends but he said, ‘Man, this guy is legit. You give him an opportunity, you won’t be disappointed.’ Even though it was a half a day and it was fairly informal in Sebring, we knew the kid had talent. When you start to look at it in terms of securing your future going forward, we’d already seen what some of the available guys had done. They already had IndyCar resumes.
“It was an opportunity for us to just turn over one more stone. It was a big shiny stone that we liked, so we wanted to see it in action, so it was a no-brainer for us. We had seen what the other guys had done. We wanted to see what one more guy did, and we’re glad that we did obviously. I think that there’s a lot of things to take away from that.”