When Robert Wickens tested a Bryan Herta Autosport Hyundai at Mid-Ohio last year, many wondered if it would lead to a full-time program for the Canadian driver. In fact, that test was indeed a prelude to Wickens’ triumphant return to racing. However, for the first time in his illustrious career, Wickens would need a co-driver to share the car with. Bryan Herta knew the man he wanted for that spot: Mark Wilkins. The duo got off to a fast start, claiming a podium finish at the Daytona season opener (pictured above).
Wilkins was the 2019 IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge TCR champion and he has two wins at the 12 Hours of Sebring in prototype cars. In his championship-winning season of 2019, he collected four pole positions en route to four victories. Perhaps most importantly, Wilkins is a fellow Canadian and has watched Wickens’ career progress since his karting days. Naturally, when team boss Herta approached Wilkins with the prospect of pairing him with Wickens, he was quick to accept Herta’s proposal.
“It was really not until the fall of last year when Bryan came up to me and said, ‘What do you think about driving with Robert next year?’ Of course, I said what an honor and an incredible opportunity it would be to pair up with him and see him back in a car, just knowing what he’s capable of behind the wheel,” Wilkins told RACER.
There is a six-year age difference between Wickens and Wilkins so the two never got to race against each other in the Canadian karting scene. Wilkins knew he would savor the chance to drive with or against Wickens if the opportunity arose but as Wickens’ career took him to Europe, Wilkens thought their paths might not cross again.
Now that the twists and turns have life have brought the Canadian pair back together, Wilkins is cherishing their time as a duo in the Hyundai Elantra.
“It’s just an incredible opportunity to have just to experience what it’s like to work with someone who’s truly been at the top of the sport,” Wilkins said of Wickens.
Getting acclimated to sharing a car with each other was a simple process and the two worked out a seating arraignment that would allow them to avoid using inserts. Their seating position in the car is also similar which has helped streamline driver changes.
Unlike when Alex Zanardi raced with BMW at the Rolex 24 at Daytona, no steering wheel change is necessary when switching from Wilkins to Wickens or vice versa. The car has a simple toggle switch on the dashboard that transfers control from Wickens’ hand-operated throttle and brake to the traditional pedals for Wilkins.
“It didn’t feel like it was his first time driving with somebody,” Wilkins said. “He just got in and said ‘This is kind of what’s comfortable’ and I got in and said, ‘Well, that that works out great.’ Perhaps because we’re similar in size we eliminated some of those challenges.”
The process of swapping drivers has been streamlined thanks to the similar seating positions and whether the team is putting Wickens in and taking Wilkins out or the reverse, there is little to no difference in difficulty or time required.
At the track and behind the scenes, Wickens gives off no impression that he wants his injury to be used as an excuse or as a reason for him to be treated differently than anyone else, Wilkins explained.
“He doesn’t want to be treated in any sort of special way. He just wants to win. What’s really going to be great this year — and it already started at Daytona — is he’s got very high expectations. He’s been at the top so he knows what it takes.
“He’s worked with great people. What he brings to our program at BHA and Hyundai is just that level of work ethic. He’s just going to push us to be our best and get the most out of our guys and I think that’s really what he’s there to do — it’s just his job. He’s really goal-driven and motivated and focused on one thing, which is winning and I think that’s probably the way he’s always operated.” Wilkins said.