Robert Wickens is happiest when he’s functioning as a hunter-killer.
He’s a member of an elite group of drivers whose on-track persona and performances have the look and feel of a big cat chasing down and devouring its prey in the wild. In his natural state, Wickens unleashes sustained aggression on those who are locked into his sights, and there’s nothing polite about Wickens’ advances. He doesn’t probe and hint at his intentions to see if a pass is possible. It’s a series of quick and decisive strikes that come instinctively to the former DTM and IndyCar star.
And that’s where all of the adversity he’s endured in recent years has thrown the Canadian out of his normal state. In the wake of his punishing crash at Pocono’s superspeedway in 2018, Wickens applied his innate hunter-killer tendencies to conquering rehabilitation.
The on-track hunt was replaced by a resolute determination to restore movement in his legs, to heal the myriad bones and discs that were broken or fractured, to force communications from his brain through the stoppage in his spinal cord and down to his legs and feet. Given time and more intensive rehab, he took his first steps, unsure steps.
His mental commands were delayed, incomplete, but Wickens’ vigilant mind pressed on. The rhythmic moves involved with walking were erased by the accident, so he practiced them in a slow and arduous syncopated process that mimics carefree walking, but requires immense focus to perform in short bursts that feel alien.
Wickens’ wheelchair remains a valuable tool, and after three years of unrelenting investment to reclaim as much mobility as was possible, he came to the realization that major breakthroughs were in the past. It’s here, where Wickens set forth on a journey — a homecoming — to his version of the Serengeti.
Bryan Herta Autosport and Hyundai would become his facilitators, opening the door to a full-season of IMSA sports car racing in the Michelin Pilot Challenge series. The hunting begins anew on Friday at Daytona International Speedway.
— Robert Wickens (@robertwickens) January 26, 2022
“It’s amazing. First off, talking about routines, it started months ago when I decided I wanted to make sure I was fit and ready enough to race in case the opportunity came up,” Wickens tells RACER. “And, you know, with the help of PitFit, I was doing two sessions a day, five days a week, at the gym four hours a day, just making sure. So I feel like I’m in phenomenal shape. I feel like when I got into the car, I knew that there was there was no doubts that I was gonna be able to do it.
“And then being here, being in the paddock with a purpose, doing something that I am used to, getting ready to drive the car, is a routine I haven’t had for a long time. I think my work with the Arrow McLaren SP IndyCar team has kept my mind sharp — analyzing the drivers, the attention to detail and the little things that can bring performance has been quite helpful. So when I got into the IMSA paddock for the first time, it was just game on. I could already start looking at telemetry and start seeing areas where I could prevent issues and to be better for myself. It’s been a ride, so far. I’m looking forward to getting into the first race.”
BHA has paired Wickens with countryman and sports car champion Mark Wilkins, whose body of work at all levels of endurance and sprint racing is peerless. Together, they share the No. 33 Hyundai Elantra N TCR as part of the team’s six-car stable. Through the first full weekend of testing at Daytona, Wilkins and Wickens — “WilKens” — were closely matched on the timing reports. In a type of car that’s new to Wickens and well-known to Wilkins, the gap was less than 0.4s as the TCR veteran continues to help the rookie to master his new weapon.
“Mark has just been incredible. I’ve known him for what feels like my whole life because when I when I first got into kart racing, we were both from the Toronto area and he was at the same kart tracks in classes that were a little ahead of me. Then he moved up to cars, similar time as James Hinchcliffe and I think they were teammates,” Wickens notes.
“Mark’s had such a decorated career in the sports car realm. I’ve never met a more patient, easygoing teammate in my life. I’m used to the inner teammate competition, that fight to be the best, and Mark’s just so laid back and easygoing, he sees the bigger picture. He sees the team aspect of sharing a car, even from when we were doing our seat fits. I’ve never had to compromise a seat fit for someone else. It was always just exactly what I wanted my whole career. But Mark was so relaxed about it.
“I would ask him if he liked this, and he’s like, ‘Yeah, that’s good.’ Then I’d be like, ‘What about that?’ ‘Yeah, it’s good.’ I couldn’t ask for a better teammate, because I’m definitely a bit of a fighter. I like pushing people and I like making sure that no stone’s left unturned. So I think he brings me back down a little bit, and I think I might be lighting a little spark under his butt.”