Bryan Herta has wanted to run Robert Wickens in an Indy car since the two began working together last year with the Bryan Herta Autosport Hyundai TCR program in IMSA’s Michelin Pilot Challenge series.
On his end, Wickens has been searching for years to find the funding to outfit an Indy car with hand controls in order to resume a mercurial rookie IndyCar season that came to a premature end after suffering a punishing crash on the Pocono oval in 2018.
Having returned to racing last year with BHA in the 300hp front-wheel-drive touring cars and won with teammate Mark Wilkins, the Canadian driver is back in the groove and an expert at using the specialized rings and levers and paddles attached to the Hyundai’s steering wheel that allow Wickens to control the throttle, brake, and transmission with nothing more than his hands.
And most importantly, the NTT IndyCar Series is encouraging of Wickens’ efforts to find his way back to the open-wheel series as a competitor.
“Robert Wickens has been an inspiration for all of us,” IndyCar president Jay Frye told RACER. “We are certainly open to Robert, or that could be any qualified driver, racing with hand controls. It’s a technology we haven’t used previously in IndyCar, but we’re open to it. There’s also a lot of work to be done before it would have our approval and there’s the safety side of figuring all of those parts out, but I would never bet against Robert and his determination to make this happen.”
Herta’s set his sights on the 2024 Indianapolis 500 as the goal for Wickens, who was voted Rookie of the Year at Indy in 2018.
“You know, this has been a step-by-step journey with Robby,” Herta said ahead of their Friday MPC race at Daytona. “We started with a test turned into a race seat. And now he’s a winner. Then we talked about what’s next and he’s always said he wants to get back to a top level. I just feel like the Indy 500 is something that he could do.
“I’ve seen what he can do inside his car. There’s technical challenges that need to be overcome. There’s commercial challenges, and that’s the other piece we need to sort out. We need to find a partner that wants to be part of this journey financially. But working with Jay and IndyCar has been great. There’s been a reasonable amount of work done already in planning into how it could be done.
Kept private, an active research initiative has been under way for a long while, but Herta decided the time is right to take it public and rally the necessary support to make this concept a reality.
“I think we’re all satisfied that there’s a way to do it,” Herta continued. “Now it’s just, OK, instead of having a hypothetical conversation, let’s start having a real one that we’re setting a timeline and trying to make it happen by next year; but there’s a lot that’s going to have to happen, and there’s going to be new technology that’s never been put in a race car before it’s going to have to be developed.
“But I think there’s enough energy from enough places to make it happen. Everybody I’ve talked to has expressed a strong desire to see it happen for Robby. Certainly everybody in the IndyCar community. I feel confident there’s a way to do it. But it costs money to do these things. That’s obviously a big, big piece that we’re going to start getting active and trying to find the right partnerships commercially to carry this into reality. And it’s not a gimmick. This isn’t something to just do. Robby’s going to approach this the same way he’s approached everything he’s ever done in motorsport.”
Behind the scenes, legwork has been done by IndyCar’s official chassis partner to find the best solutions and packaging for a hand-controlled Dallara DW12 chassis.
“Dallara has done a study on how to do it, how to package it, and the system is very different from what we use in the TCR car (pictured above),” Herta said. “The requirements are different. And obviously the packaging and weight requirements are substantially different. So it’s not as simple as just taking our hand control system off this car and dropping it into an Indy car. Dallara has plan on how to do it that IndyCar is comfortable with and this this has been a conversation for seven months already.”
For Herta, whose BHA team won the 2011 Indy 500 with the late Dan Wheldon, an ongoing link with Andretti Autosport’s IndyCar program is maintained where the Andretti Herta Haupert Autosport Indy 500 entry for Marco Andretti has been active in recent month of Mays. At the early stages of planning for 2024, he continues to weight the best approach to fielding an entry for Wickens and whether BHA would make its Speedway return or if partnering with a team would be best.
“I’ve got partners now in the Haupert family with Herta Haupert Autosport and Curb-Agajanian, but I haven’t had the real serious conversation with Michael about how we would do it, or if we would do it with his program as some kind of technical help,” he said. “I’d be a little bit concerned about trying to go Lone Ranger on it, because it’s just so competitive out there. And I feel we have responsibility to Robby to make sure that we’re not just building a safe, operational hand-control Indy car, but a fast one so he can actually go show what he can do and go compete with all those guys.
“So, I think those are the questions we have to answer. How will we do it technically? How will we ensure that we’re putting competitive car out there for him? Those are the next steps in the journey.”
On the engine manufacturer side, Herta has been in talks with the same brand that powered Wickens to poles and podiums as a rookie.
“One of the first people we talked to is (Honda Performance Development president) David Salters, and from day one, he has been extremely supportive, encouraging, willing to help where Honda can and that’s a big part of it,” Herta said. “That’s an important puzzle piece and to know that they want to be part of this and that they’re willing to support the effort with the technical resource they have, because they have a lot of knowledge with hand controls.
“We’re looking at building a hand control system that’s going to have control units and inputs that are different from any IndyCar that’s ever existed, ever. And you’re gonna need partners like that who can help do that type of work, because that’s not something that we could do on our own.”