|Moderator:It’s been a long wait for you to get here, but how did it feel to get back in and feel a race car on a racetrack?|
Robert Wickens:It’s been great. I mean, honestly, first off, thanks for coming everybody. It’s been an amazing day so far. I mean, the weather hasn’t been super kind to us. It was a little damp to begin with. It rained overnight and it’s been changeable all day, but, nevertheless, it’s been just a blast and I honestly can’t thank Bryan Herta Autosport, Hyundai, and Michael Johnson (enough). It’s not everyday that someone can lend you a race car to go take an item off your bucket list. So, it’s been a great day so far.
Moderator:How many laps did you run so far and what are the plans for the rest of the day for you? Are you done for the day? Are you getting back in?
Robert Wickens:Yeah, to be honest, I wish I had a proper number for you on how many laps I’ve done, but I would say I’m around 25ish laps for the morning. Yeah, it’s been, been a lot of fun and I hope to get back in the afternoon. I haven’t really had a chance to talk with the team again. So, I just got out of the car and had a bite to eat and then been up here. So, we’re gonna see what we can do. I know it’s raining a little bit again right now, but, you know, I’ve always liked racing in the rain as well, so it should be, it should be good fun.
Question:Hey, Robbie, welcome back. I know it’s been quite a journey for you to get here but you promised us when this journey began that you would get back in a race car and today you lived up on that promise. So in many ways, how fulfilled do you feel about today?
Robert Wickens:I mean, I feel there was a lot of emotions. I think once I was able to put my visor down and get back on a racetrack again, you know, the whole week up leading to this, it wasn’t so much nerves. There was a lot of excitement and anticipation for this. And then once I put a suit on again and started putting in the earpieces, balaclava, the helmet, it just all went out the window and it was just like business as usual. Once I got back out on track, it was a slightly different story. You know, obviously the hand controls that Michael Johnson uses and the Hyundai Veloster is brand new for me. So learning that on a wet track, it wasn’t without its difficulties, but we took it step by step and slowly chipped away at getting quicker and quicker.
Question:And how are the hand controls? Because you’ve been trained as a race driver to do certain things, especially at a track like Mid-Ohio that you’re familiar with, to now all of a sudden reeducate yourself to use your hands instead of what you were able to do before.
Robert Wickens:Yeah, I think that that’s the hard thing with accessibility is, you know, there’s no textbook on it. It’s not like the gas is on the right and the brake’s on the left like every car, almost in existence. You know, with this, there’s been a lot of people in the past that have raced with disabilities. You know, you have Billy Monger, you have Alex Zanardi, you have Michael Johnson here in the IMSA Pilot series. They all have different systems and they’re all very successful at what they’re doing. Michael’s system here is, there’s a ring on the front of the steering wheel that you push for throttle. And then there’s another ring on the backside of the steering wheel that you pull in for brake, which I think is a great system. Having everything within fingers reach on the steering wheel has been pretty good so far. But yeah, like you said, it’s a really steep learning curve and there’s been a lot of mental focus, I guess, goes into it, trying to program in, you know, preplan what I’m doing with my hands before I get to the next corner. It’s slowly starting to take shape where I’m having to think less and less about it.
Question:Back to your day job, you work a lot with the young kids over at Arrow McLaren. One of them did pretty well on Sunday. What’s your reaction to what Pato was able to do? Finally got his first victory.
Robert Wickens:I mean, with, with Pato is a long time coming. I think he’s had three, maybe four second-places so far in his IndyCar career. And he’s been so close so many times. I see a lot of myself in him in terms of he’s doing so many things, right. And it’s in an IndyCar, especially in any professional form of motorsport, you have to do the little things well, and it’s the things that go unnoticed to the visual eye. You know, like your in-laps, your out-laps, stopping on the marks in the pit stops, your attention to detail. That’s what wins you races at an elite level. It’s never, as we say in the Arrow McLaren SP camp, you know, you have to do the not so sexy stuff well. Which is basically those in-laps and out-laps and those little parts of the game that can make the difference.
Question:Robbie, congrats, man. That’s awesome. So what are the plans here? I mean, moving forward, is this going to turn into something that is more full-time?
Robert Wickens:I mean, I wish I could give you guys a bit more insight, but at the moment there’s, there’s no real prospects. It’s just a great opportunity that, that Bryan Herta and Hyundai were able to present me with this track day. And I jumped on the opportunity, you know, I’ve been wanting to drive a race car for a long time now. And to finally tick that box is massive in my recovery and my journey back. Who knows what the future will bring, but I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself. And I just want to take today for really what it is.
Question:All right. So for not pushing the future too much, I have to ask, you know, with what Hyundai and Bryan Herta Autosport have done here, plus what you had mentioned off the top, what we’ve seen the likes of Zanardi, Billy Monger, Michael Johnson do here, could something like the Indy 500 now be in the cards?
Robert Wickens:I mean, I was never really ruling it out to begin with. I mean, I think the biggest thing for me is, the hardest thing of my injury was, I felt like I was just hitting the peak of my career and my abilities when this happened. We’re creeping up on three years now since the accident. And I feel like I’m not utilizing those prime years of my career. I would love nothing more than to get back at an elite level. And sure. I mean, selfishly, I would love to get back to IndyCar to close that chapter of my life on my own terms. You know, I think everyone can kind of relate, you know, if for whatever reasons, if something happens that you weren’t really planning, sometimes it leaves a bad taste in your mouth. I would love nothing more ideally, you know, to win an IndyCar race and then maybe move on. But, you know, I think right now, there’s so much to figure out. I mean, I think at the early stages of my recovery, I really wanted to return to IndyCar. I’m not saying I don’t now, but understanding what goes into accessibility. And I think making an IndyCar competitive with hand controls would be a massive undertaking. One that maybe with the current IndyCar regulations wouldn’t be entirely feasible. So, you know, but never say never. There’s a lot of great teams out there, and I honestly think crazier things have happened in the past, but for the time being, I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing, focusing on my rehab and hopefully, finally in due time, the right opportunity will come.
Question:I realize you don’t want to mess up Michael Johnson’s setups at all. But how easy is it to kind of like tailor and customize those hand controls for yourself? For example, if you wanted to make the brakes less sensitive or more sensitive or the throttle response, is it easy to address?
Robert Wickens:Ah, I’m still learning the system myself, but honestly I think, there’s definitely, probably some tunability. I know with the hand control system that Michael Johnson uses in the Veloster, there’s like a hydraulic big booster, like brake booster to help generate the pressure on the brake. And there’s a tuning aspect to that for if I want the brake more sensitive or not so sensitive. And, Stephen Simpson, who is Michael Johnson’s co-driver or other driver not co-driver, but a teammate. There it is. He does a great job of shaking down the car. So he was actually first in today and set up the brakes with what he believes Michael would have liked for me to try. You know, and then once the track started to dry out a little bit, we were talking a little bit and we changed the brakes a little bit again, once, you know, the track was getting a bit grippier and stuff like that. He’s been a great asset today with getting me up to speed along with Michael himself. I’ve been bouncing a lot of ideas and a lot of questions off of him and it’s been a really good day, but I think in terms of customization, I’m, I’m new to the IMSA world, but I believe the system is entirely homologated. So I think you can’t really do a whole lot of customizations without homologating a new system.
Question:As far as feel is concerned, obviously, a lot of drivers will say there’s not just the visual or the feel through the steering while also feeling through your backside as well. Do you get still get those same sensations that you did before you accident and how difficult is it for you to kind of like switch to like a front wheel drive car?
Robert Wickens:Yeah, I mean, in terms of transitioning to front wheel drive, it’s been entirely seamless. If I didn’t know it was front wheel drive, I probably wouldn’t have found out for a long time until I had an understeer on exit that was a bit unique in the rain. I was like, ‘Oh yeah, there’s the front wheel drive.’ But honestly, the Hyundai Veloster, it’s an amazing little car, you know, I didn’t really know what to expect. I’ve heard great things of, like a TCR car and the series itself, but it’s a lot of fun to drive. It’s very well balanced in the rain so far. It’s been, yeah, it’s been a pleasure to get up to speed with it, but in terms of sensation, there’s definitely been moments that I’ve been maybe caught off guard by something, but it’s more so what I’m doing with the brake pedal, you know, as most of, you know, braking is like 90 percent of motorsport. And, you know, I’ve had some like slight oversteer sliding moments that were related to the brake that I didn’t realize I was maybe braking as much as I was and had a small oversteer from that. But it wasn’t really, I think I’m having some pretty good sensation. I’m able to slide the car around and stuff like that. And I’m feeling kind of a bit what the car is doing, which, you know, obviously my first time back in a race car, you always wonder what that sensation is going to be like, but so far it seems to be there.
Question:Robert, a few of us got to actually watch you today and stuff, and it seemed like every lap you took, you seemed a little smoother, a little smoother. Did it feel like that in the car? And did you get to the point where you had a little bit of a, I don’t know, for want of another term, a thrill factor?
Robert Wickens:Yeah, for sure. I mean, there was one stage there where it really started to dry out, when we were able to put slicks on for a few laps and it took a while to get them warmed up and get them going. Cause it was really like half wet, half dry conditions. But you can’t, I mean, I did a lap that I pit right after it. Cause I was just like, I feel like if I don’t like take a breather here, I might take things a little too far. So it’s been a lot of fun so far, but it’s been such a big learning curve and the cool thing is I’ve been able to drive this car and almost every condition here at Mid-Ohio. It’s been, we started the day in pretty heavy rain conditions and then it’s been a constant evolution and drying out throughout the day. So yeah, I’ve been able to experience kind of full wet and intermediate crossover to dry. It’s like it’s been a fun little day so far.
Question:I was going to say in your mind when you’re thinking, well, of course there’s going to be a little bit of rain today. You know what I mean? Your first time back in a race car, et cetera, it’s almost like they’re putting you through it. I was talking with Bryan during a break there and what is the sensation that you need to get to? Like you were talking about the braking, for example, it seemed like you got smoother as the session went, but what is that sensation you’ve really got to get to where you feel, for want of another term competent again?
Robert Wickens:Oh man, that’s a loaded question. You know, I mean, ultimately, there really isn’t one aspect to it. You know, I want to keep looking at the telemetry, try to look at onboards, but between the other drivers here at this track day and, and to improve myself slowly. I mean, I haven’t had a chance really, to look at the data from my last run to see how I can improve to go forward. But I’m sure, like I touched on at the beginning, braking’s probably one of the low hanging fruits of trying to find lap time right now. But I’m at the stage right now in my progression in this car today that I need to see that telemetry. I need some coaching basically on, on how to get the most out of this Veloster.
Question:Hey, real quick, one more quickie, watching you pull out and stuff. Can you go through the procedure? You’ve got a clutch, you got a clutch lever, right? You have shift paddles, right? You gotta go through the procedure of just getting going so people can understand what you’re doing there.
Robert Wickens:Yeah. So, uh, it’s a bit busy. So basically we have a lever to the right of the cockpit. That’s the clutch. So normally obviously people have a pedal clutch, mine’s a hand operated clutch. So I need to pull in the clutch select first gear and then use the throttle on the steering wheel to leave like you normally would. All while trying to not hit mechanics and other things as I drive off. So you know, I think honestly, that’s one of the more complicated things is when the car is stationary. I think once you’re moving, it’s pretty seamless. But, you have, you need one more set of hands, I think to leave smoothly.
Question:Hi there. Thanks so much for the time again today, Robbie. I know you mentioned that you felt like an IndyCar return might be a little bit farther off or just more complicated to put together, given regulations and everything right now. What would you feel like a realistic timeline would be if you got an opportunity from the right team in IMSA to make a comeback. I mean, would you with the right amount of testing feel potentially comfortable trying to put something together for next year? Is that something that you’re even focused on right now?
Robert Wickens:I mean, absolutely. I mean, I’ve not been shy to admit that I want to return to an elite category again and to continue my journey and my career. I mean, no one has a crystal ball, but first and foremost, I think getting up and running comes with finance. Unfortunately, that’s the motorsports world. That’s what we live in. It doesn’t matter if that’s IndyCar, if it’s Formula E, if it’s IMSA, you know, I think getting up and running with the hand controls, I would like to make some small, personal changes to hand controls to better suit maybe what I would want. But, you know, I think at the end of the day, first and foremost, finances is the first hurdle and once we can get up and running, then we kinda have the whole world at our disposal. But at the moment, it’s pretty tough to get started.
Question:What kind of timeline brought this together? I mean, was this something that has been in the works with Bryan and his team for a while now? Is it something that kind of came together last minute? How long have you known that this could be a possibility?
Robert Wickens:I would say a bit of both. Bryan approached me a few months ago and basically we were just chatting and he asked if I’d ever want to drive a race car again. I said, ‘Of course.’ And then that was kind of it for a little bit. And then things started to slowly come together one step at a time. And then he was able to let me know that Hyundai was doing a track day here at Mid-Ohio. And there was an opportunity for me to drive Michael Johnson’s Veloster and it was kind of the perfect opportunity, just great timing, really, you know. IMSA’s here in a couple of weeks and, you know, they’re doing their program to get things ready for the upcoming race and I’m just kinda hanging out in the background and just having fun.
Question:One last one, I know you took part in the IndyCar iRacing Challenge last spring, when we had the pause for the series due to the pandemic and you had a pretty, pretty solid success in that first race. I know a sim race and actually driving the car is very different, but maybe kind of take me through what you had to check off between April of last year and now to get to the point where you were either ready or cleared, or comfortable actually getting back in a race car.
Robert Wickens:Yeah. I mean, I think first and foremost, you know, I have to get a lot of thanks to Simcraft, because they were able to provide me with a simulator at home, which was really the first step on this road back. I was able to compete again, like you said, even though it was virtual, I was able to kind of feel that competition again and to improve. And not only that we were able to evolve the hand controls to something that I’m very comfortable with on a simulator at home. The irony is that’s not what I’m driving here today in the Veloster, but nevertheless, just getting more used to using your hands, you know, was massive for me. So yeah, it’s been, it’s been amazing, but yeah, just it’s been, been a blast.
Moderator:In addition to the IndyCar iRacing series, you also did made some appearances in the IMSA iRacing Pro Series last year. Were you in the one that we had at Mid-Ohio?
Robert Wickens:No, I did Road America, I did Watkins and I believe, VIR.
Moderator:Okay. I was going to ask you if it was helpful for today.
Robert Wickens:So, I’m also doing Road Atlanta this Thursday. So I’m making my IMSA virtual comeback.
Moderator:You heard it here first folks.
Question:Thanks for joining us. Really appreciate it. I just wondered, you know, you kind of, as a driver coming up through, you’re kind of trained not to feel any emotion when you’re behind the wheel, and that’s kind of like a prerequisite of being able to battle against your rivals. I just wonder kind of what you felt today on the first lap going into Turn 1. If you let yourself kind of have a moment there, or if there was any kind of a real feeling of realization of what you’d actually achieved just by testing today in itself.
Robert Wickens:To be honest, there wasn’t. You know, there was so much going through my head on, like, what I’m doing with my hands that I really don’t think I thought of a single emotion apart from making sure I was pulling the right thing to stop the car. You know, I think that was the priority. I mean, as you guys know, Mid-Ohio Turn 1’s a pretty daunting corner. So, going up to that the first time in the wet with an entire system that I’ve never used before, it was definitely daunting. But I definitely, I took baby steps and took it nice and slow, you know, I didn’t want to be the hero on lap one. And yeah, I think, we progressed nicely throughout the morning and I’m looking forward to getting back in the car here in a little bit.
Question:Hey Robbie, it’s great to see you back in the car. What surprised you the most in getting back behind the wheel today?
Robert Wickens:I think the thing that surprised me the most was how mighty that Hyundai Veloster is. Honestly, it’s a really fun car. And just to have the opportunity, I was really happy that I got a run in on slicks at the end, before I took my lunch break here to come up and speak to you friendly people. But yeah, it’s the fact that, you know, in the rain, it was very well balanced. Mid-Ohio Is not an easy track here in the wet. It’s very slippery, very low grip and no room for error anywhere. But it handled it well, you know, the brakes are strong, the cornering speed, everything. I was very blown away by actually how quick this car is. I’m not trying to discredit what it was, but, you know, I was very pleasantly surprised with how much of a real race car it is.
Question:You mentioned there’s still a lot to figure out moving forward into the future, but what are the long-term goals that you’re looking at now that you’ve gotten this chance to get behind the wheel?
Robert Wickens:Yeah, I mean, I think long-term goals for me, haven’t changed. I want to return to an elite level of motorsport again. It’s been really since day zero of my recovery and we’re still chipping away. This is a massive step in my journey back, but that’s really all that is here today. Unfortunately, there’s nothing really in the pipeline, because of that, but you know, I’m going to keep doing what I can keep working hard and I believe that hard work always pays off. And I believe I deserve to still race at a high level and at an elite level. And hopefully that can come true sometime soon.
Question:You mentioned the recovery and the road you’ve taken to get to this point. What’s been the toughest part of that recovery?
Robert Wickens:There’s been many, there’s been many tough times. I mean, I think, something that a lot of people, try not to talk about, but the mental health aspect of a recovery like this is extremely daunting. That’s been really one of the biggest struggles. I think a lot of people can put in the manual work and then to try and get better and get stronger, but to do it day in and day out and keep a positive outlook, it’s extremely, extremely tough. And, you know, then there’s the whole different world of emotions that come through, you know, then you go through different phases of your recovery and it’s the mental aspect has been hands down the hardest thing of this recovery. And I’ve had a great support system. I have a lovely partner with my wife that has always had my back and has always been there for me. But then even from family, from friends, from colleagues, you know, I’m so fortunate to have such a great surrounding around me within the motorsports community that I really, I feel sometimes I don’t know how I got so lucky to have such a great support system around me.
Question:Hey, Robbie, just want to throw one more in. You were talking about your support system to be able to have Sam Schmidt involved. I mean, nobody can relate to what you’re going through any better than Sam Schmidt. And how important of a role has he had in helping you through this mental aspect of it.
Robert Wickens:You know, Sam was very good for us at the beginning of the injury. You know, obviously he had experienced everything there is with, with paralysis. So at the beginning of all this, he was able to answer a lot of questions that we had, he was able to help us when we were discussing what would be the best rehab facility to try to go to. So just to have that person to bounce questions and names of doctors and this, like, he’s just very well connected within the industry. Yeah, I mean, I think in that stages, he was definitely very helpful.
Question:Thank you. Great to see it back, Robbie. And I just have one question. Everybody else asked pretty much the questions that I would ask. You mentioned Formula E . Have you been in touch with anybody at Formula E? You know, your old pal Toto Wolff. Mercedes has got a team in that series, maybe the regulations, particularly, as far your situation are a little different. In any event, have you talked to anybody there about possibly getting involved?
Robert Wickens:You know, I mean, yeah. Luckily I was able to end my relationship with Mercedes on very good terms. And Toto has been a regular person that I’ve been able to lean on throughout my recovery. Whether it be him coming to visit me when I was in the hospital still in Indianapolis to just kind of monthly or bi-monthly phone calls to check in, to see how everyone’s doing. You know, he’s such a great person. With that being said, there, there is no formal discussions with any Formula E teams. I mean, I would love the opportunity, but you know, right now at the moment, I think that that’s a great championship, especially for accessibility given the advances in the technology that they have at their disposal there.
Question:Hey, Robbie just wanted to follow up. So, you know, support systems on at any point, did you ever talk with like Alex Zanardi after say the 24 hours of Daytona or even, or even going longer for that, for that matter?
Robert Wickens:I have actually. Yeah. I mean the whole support system in motorsports is phenomenal. You know, the amount of drivers that reached out to me and have talked to me, I’m sure a lot of sports are the same, but it’s been amazing. And Alex was one of the first people to reach out to me. Once I was ready to take phone calls and you know, we immediately started talking shop and talking about what I needed to go racing again. And he gave me a lot of very good feedback on his experiences. Same with Billy. And not even that, like Trevor Carlin, who is the team boss for Billy, I was able to pick his brain on more of a technical aspect of what Billy used. But then, you know, every injury has its own kind of unique fix. So a lot of the things that they were using actually wouldn’t work for me for example, but it’s still very interesting to hear what they did and how they fixed or got around their problems.
Moderator:I’m not seeing any additional questions and I understand the weather has improved there at Mid-Ohio. So we’ll go ahead and let you get back in the car here for a little bit more, and we’ll be eager to hear what that sounds like. We’ll keep an eye on your socials for a final update once you’re done for the day, but we really do appreciate your time to join us today, Robbie.