Wickens earned plaudits galore as a rookie last year for immediately being a winning contender in an IndyCar, as he applied his experience of a wide variety of open-wheel racecars and touring cars, as well as his inquiring mind and technical acumen, to great use. But arguably the most astonishing aspect of his season was his adaptation to oval racing, an utterly alien form of competition for a road/street course racer.
Arrow SPM drivers left preseason testing at Phoenix’s 1.022-mile ISM Raceway in February near the bottom of the lap speed chart. James Hinchcliffe was unhappy with the handling of his car, while Wickens – about as green as it gets having only completed his oval rookie test a couple of days earlier – wasn’t able to offer much assistance.
The team returned two months later for the race and the situation could scarcely have been more different: Hinchcliffe qualified fifth, led 20 laps and ultimately finished sixth, while Wickens started sixth, led 44 laps and came home as runner-up. It was as impressive an oval race debut as anyone could remember.
Wickens would go on to finish ninth in the Indy 500, earning the race’s Rookie of the Year accolade, fight in the top three at Texas until a late crash (not his fault) and finish fifth at Iowa Speedway, where Hinchcliffe won. It would be safe to say Robbie was a fast learner.
Now, as he sits on the sidelines and rehabilitates following his Pocono accident last August, Wickens remains very much part of the Arrow SPM team and is imparting his knowledge to another rookie. Marcus Ericsson, whose first oval race will be the 103rd running of the Indianapolis 500 next month, enjoyed his rookie test at 1.44-mile Texas Motor Speedway last Friday and said afterward that he’d leant heavily on his teammates. So what intel has Wickens imparted?
Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports' Marcus Ericsson tries an oval for the first time, Texas Motor Speedway, April 2019.
“Well the first thing I told him was that Texas Motor Speedway is way more foreign than Indy,” Wickens tells Motorsport.com. “Indy, for the most part, seems like it contains four turns that are more like your typical road course high-speed corners – if you can get used to walls surrounding you!
“The angle that you’re taking the corners and your steering inputs make it feel like an ultra-high-speed road course. You don’t really turn that much; if it’s a full-throttle corner, you don’t have much steering angle just because of the radius, and it’s the same with Indy. Watch the onboards, and you’ll see the steering is minimal.
“The craziest thing for me when I first went to Texas – or any of the ovals other than Indy – is how much steering angle you put in. On my first high-speed lap at Texas I went into Turn 1 turning the wheel nice and easy… and I kept turning and turning and turning! I must have missed the apex by two or three car-widths! Next lap through, I turn a bit more and a bit more until I finally hit the apex.
“Mentally, it didn’t fill me with confidence because you have all this steering angle in and you feel like the car is bound up, ready to snap its tail out at any moment. So it’s a case of learning through repetition to gain that reassurance that you’re not steering so much that it’s going to let go.”
This sounds unusual, because it’s become traditional for an oval racer to describe how his car naturally wants to steer left (all ovals are run anti-clockwise) so that he’s ‘holding the car up’ when it’s in a straight line – in other words, almost steering right – and then relaxing that pressure for the car to turn left.
“That’s true to some degree,” agrees Wickens, “but it depends on the radius of the corner. I can tell you that at Turn 1 in Texas, your steering is past 45 degrees; the knuckles of your right hand are properly out of the cockpit. Indy is more like you described, where it’s more physical effort to keep the car in a straight line because it naturally wants to go left.
“So I told Marcus about that, about what caught me off guard. Again, at Texas Turn 1, you need to take it flat but when you start to turn in, there’s not a lot of banking, so the car feels really on edge, and it’s hard to feel what the right-rear tire is doing. Then the track transitions to 20 degrees banking. At Indianapolis, there’s only nine degrees of banking, so there isn’t that much difference in feel between turn-in and mid-corner.”
That feeling of pushing wide at TMS Turn 1 is amplified for a rookie because teams will always dial in extra doses of understeer as this is the safe way for a newbie to learn his craft. Make the car too tail-happy and it will bite the unwary.
“Precisely,” says Wickens. “One thing I learned through my oval career so far is that a good oval car has understeer. I kept complaining to the team that I had this terrible understeer and that we need to get rid of it, and the team would turn me back a page, and say, ‘No, trust us, that’s what you want. You don’t want it any more free than that.’
Schmidt Peterson Motorsports teammates James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens lap Texas Motor Speedway together, June 2018.
Phillip Abbott / LAT Images
“But you can also have too much understeer, and that will damage the front tires which obviously make the understeer problem worse. So you’ve always got to find that fine line between too much understeer (push), and too free (loose). You will always have understeer in traffic because there’s not enough clean air going over your front wings, so if you have a lot of inherent understeer even before you hit traffic then you’re going to be in trouble. So you’re aiming for that sweet spot where you have a bit of understeer running by yourself, but you have enough tools in the cockpit to dial a lot of that out when you’re running in traffic, be they rivals or backmarkers.”
Another culture shock awaiting Ericsson is the relentless speeds at Indianapolis or indeed any speedway. Although he will have gotten close to an IndyCar’s terminal velocity while racing Formula 1 cars at Monza and Mexico City, sustaining that speed all the way around IMS for lap after lap will be new experience.
“The speed doesn’t faze you much, because the car’s pretty stable even at 225mph,” Wickens remarks. “The weirder thing is knowing that if you have any oversteer, you’re basically screwed, so you have this anxiety as you’re waiting to feel that. You try to relax, but you’re white-knuckling because you’re not comfortable yet. Then you gain confidence, but in the back of your mind you know the car has to be freer (looser) to be quick, and as a rookie you don’t know how free is too free. That was the strangest feeling for me at Indy – I mean, even now I don’t know what’s too free for an oval car.
“I had a small crash at Turn 2 at Indy on the Monday after qualifying last year, out of pure inexperience. I had a miracle tow-lap from the car in front, one of those laps that could have kept me in the top three for the entire day, despite it being just three minutes into the session. And one lap later I’d have probably been fine – I’d have had enough heat in the tires. But the tires were cold and the rear stepped out. I caught it, straightened up, caught it again, straightened up and then into the wall!
“My point is, the biggest thing for Marcus in his first 500 is knowing how free is too free in setting up these cars, and there you have to rely on the experience of your teammate in terms of car setup. Problem is, Hinch was unhappy with how his car felt entering into the turns last year, and I wasn’t bothered by mine – but I was bothered by not knowing how much ultimate grip there was. Our car setups were the same on paper, but at that point we kinda ventured off to do our own thing a little bit. Then James might adapt his car a little to what we had learned, even though I didn’t think my feedback was that good on ovals. I couldn’t give my engineer or the team much direction.
“You know, I think my feedback is generally very good but even now, I don’t fully understand oval setups and how everything works. I know what the weight-jacker does in theory, but I couldn’t tell you what a 100lb stiffer right-rear spring will do. OK, if I think about the theory, I can figure out it should help rotate the car better, but I don’t know how it will feel. If we went 100lb stiffer on the rear spring on a road course, I would know exactly how the car would feel at the first corner, because I’ve done it so many times. Whereas on an oval…”
So like the old cliché goes, there ain’t no substitute for experience when it comes to oval racing. You simply need that mental data bank.
“Yeah, I’d say that’s definitely the biggest hurdle for a newcomer,” Wickens says. “You don’t know how to advise the team what you want, because you don’t know what you want or what the car needs to be fast.
Robert Wickens, Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda, consults with James Hinchcliffe, St. Petersburg, March 2019.
Michael L. Levitt / LAT Images
“And having said that, everything is so much more defined or exaggerated on an oval. Like I told Marcus, if you rate your oversteer on a scale of 1-10, then an “Understeer 2” on a road course is like an “Understeer 8” on an oval: I mean, you’d be blowing the wall down! But if you have an “Understeer 1” on a road course, you have almost oversteer balance on an oval, because you’re that close to being neutral and free. So you have to relearn everything you’ve experienced in your career and start again.
“But it is fun so long as you have that mindset of wanting to learn. I honestly thought I was going to dread oval racing and I ended up really enjoying it.”
You might think that Wickens, who was a rookie just last year, might be more useful to Ericsson than would be Hinchcliffe, who has probably forgotten more about ovals than either of his younger teammates have learned. In other words, James, as a former Indy polesitter and two-time Iowa winner, may be so accustomed to oval racing that he may now take for granted certain procedures that will still be alien to Ericsson – as they were alien to Wickens 12 months ago. Robbie, surely is going to be quicker to flag up those aspects for Marcus.
“Hmm, I know what you’re saying,” says Wickens, “but I’m still a relative novice. I actually think this combination of James and myself will be great for Marcus because, like you say, I have really recent memories of trying to learn all this stuff in a short space of time. But James has been doing it so long now that his first Indy was in 2011, so that means he’s lapped the Speedway in four different generations of IndyCar, and that’s a lot of experience to bring to the table. So whatever I tell Marcus, I’ll then tell him to listen to James and lean on him for oval setups because of that."
So how long will it take for Ericsson to feel comfortable about lapping IMS?
“Well, I think last year we ended the first day mid-pack and I felt we weren’t in too bad a shape,” says Wickens. “To the extent that you can ever feel comfortable there, I think we were happy with progress after a whole day of lapping. You still have to go away, take a deep breath and process what you’ve learned – you get a good night’s sleep because it’s mentally exhausting, absorbing everything and going over everything.
“But I think any good racecar driver likes the chance to learn some completely different branch of racing, and as long as you have an ego-free approach – listen to everyone’s feedback, listen to everyone critiquing your performance – you should take on board every little bit of information.
“To my mind, at the stage Marcus is at now, everything he can learn about oval technique and understanding is valuable. There’s something to learn from every conversation.”
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Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports cars of (left to right) James Hinchcliffe, Robert Wickens, Marcus Ericsson.