The 32-year-old Canadian, who suffered a severe spinal injury in a crash during the 13th race of a startlingly strong rookie IndyCar campaign in 2018, today announced his return to racing, as he joins the Bryan Herta Autosport Hyundai team.
In a media conference that followed the announcement, Wickens admitted that his amazing rehabilitation from a litany of injuries – thoracic spinal fracture, spinal cord injury, neck fracture, tibia and fibula fractures to both legs, fractures in both hands, a fractured right forearm, fractured elbow, a concussion, four fractured ribs and a pulmonary contusion – has now leveled off.
“I would say honestly what you see is what you get,” he said. “I’m at the point in my life now where my recovery has more or less plateaued in terms of neuro recovery. I’m not regaining any more muscle function so I think unfortunately it looks like I’ll be in a [wheel]chair for the remainder of my life, as long as modern medicines and science stays where it is.
“But it’s a great life, I was able to regain a lot of function. I can stand with support and I can take a couple of steps with support, but in terms of leaving the chair permanently, I don’t think that’s in my pipeline right now.”
He described his aim this year in the IMPC as wanting to “tick the boxes that I’ve set for myself internally – win some races, get on the podium and show the world what can be done. From there, opportunities are endless. I’m so grateful for what I have now and let’s see where that takes me.”
Regarding the possibility of racing in the Indy 500, in which he scored Rookie of the Year honors in 2018 with a ninth-place finish, Wickens replied: “First thing for me is that I want to race in the Michelin Pilot Challenge in my Hyundai Elantra N TCR car to prove to myself I can do it again. It’s almost a proof of concept I guess – understand the hand controls, compete again. I haven’t raced in three-and-a-half years. I just want for myself and everyone around me to know I can do it again, and once we check that box, nothing’s out of the question.
“I think it would be awesome to race Indy 500. On the same side, I would be very interested in exploring new avenues. I’ve never really done any sportscar driving. I think racing at the highest levels of IMSA, in the WeatherTech series would be amazing. The LMDh cars just look insane. Formula E is something that is very appealing to me. So I’m interested in exploring other options of motorsport outside of IndyCar.
Asked if he thought fitting hand controls, such as those he’ll use in the Hyundai Elantra N TCR he’ll share with Mark Wilkins, could be fitted to an IndyCar, Wickens admitted, “I think it’s tough to say.
“IndyCar is in an evolving state, there’s new regulations coming in [for 2023] and I was hoping they were going to go to more of a brake-by-wire system, especially with their hybrid elements that they’re including, and to the best of my knowledge they haven’t done so, so we’re stuck in the same circle we were in originally. I think anything is possible with the right time, money and resources, right?
“It’s a big ask – a colossal ask, in fact! – but I’m honestly at the point in my life where if I never return to IndyCar, I’m very satisfied with that. I’m really looking forward to the opportunity I have here from Bryan Herta Autosport and Hyundai to get back behind the wheel and feed that hunger that I’ve had for so many years watching on the sidelines. If things in the future arise, we’ll address them as they come, but for the time being I honestly don’t see IndyCar as a feasible option on my return.
“Knowing what I know now, the physicality of the IndyCar, to adapt it to me and my hand controls will require a lot of customizations that I’m not sure the series would really sign off on. The braking system would have to change, the power steering I would probably need, whereas we don’t have power steering in an IndyCar. So it would take a one-off IndyCar, which I don’t know if other teams would agree to.”
Wickens, who will continue working with the Arrow McLaren SP team in IndyCar, expressed his gratitude to team co-owners Sam Schmidt, Ric Peterson, McLaren CEO Zak Brown and team president Taylor Kiel for allowing him to let his IMPC commitments take priority this year. He admitted that what he’d lacked most over the past three seasons as he attended races as AMSP’s driver advisor was the pre-race adrenaline hit he once felt as a driver.
“There’s a lot of different aspects you miss, especially that moment before the start of the race… just you and the racecar to do what you have to do. Working with Arrow McLaren SP, I don’t get that kind of adrenaline before the start of a race, as a driver. That’s why it was so important for me to return, for good or for bad, to see if it’s possible, and move on from there.
“I’m looking forward to that adrenaline. The fulfillment of winning a race, as a driver – that’s what I’m most looking forward to.”
Robert Wickens with Karli Wickens, Bryan Herta Autosport, Hyundai Veloster N TCR
Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images
Working the hand-control system
Last May, Wickens was able to test the BHA Hyundai Veloster of Michael Johnson, another wheelchair-bound driver who relies on hand controls, and it will be a modified version of his system that Wickens will employ in the #33 Elantra this year.
“I think hand controls are an open book on what you need and every driver’s different,” Wickens observed. “We’re trying to make small improvements to try and make it a little more comfortable and get more consistent lap times, but right now the braking system will be very much the same as it has been for Michael Johnson. It’s worked very well for him and he’s had a lot of success, so I’m looking forward to getting comfortable with it and just trying to gain enough experience before we go racing at Daytona…
“The hand control system that Michael was using is something he got very familiar with, so that speaks volumes. To me, it wasn’t second nature [so] we’ve changed the control positions: [the throttle] was on the front side of the steering wheel and you’d push it in with your thumbs. I felt like, for me and my experience of driving able-bodied, I couldn’t feel the steering wheel as much because I didn’t have my thumbs in the wheel ever. They were always kinda floating on the throttle.
“So we’ve moved the throttle to almost like a clutch paddle-type system that you’d see on a formula car. So the throttle is on the backside of the steering wheel. The shift paddles are in the same place, and the brake is going to be a ring on the back side of the steering wheel, which is more or less identical to what Michael has used in the past. The shape is changed slightly just to allow me to see the dashboard a little better.”
Given that he’s yet to test the Elantra – that will come next week in the IMPC test at the Roar Before the 24 in Daytona – Wickens isn’t certain how much he’ll be able to finess his braking technique with this system.
“I can only recall back to the track day back in May,” he said. “In most racecars you have to apply the brake pedal with a lot of force, more than one can develop by squeezing their hand. So we have a hydraulic actuator to help develop brake pressure – but the problem with that is it’s not a linear feel, like you feel with [a brake pedal under] your foot.
“So the biggest adjustment is the balance between master cylinder size versus hydraulic assist to get that good feeling. I think that will take some time to tune, but it’s easily accomplishable.”
Wickens said that thanks to an adapted simulator at home, he is no longer instinctively trying to use his feet to brake.
“What’s the rule… 10,000 hours and you might figure it out?” he grinned. “I think I did that on my simulator at home, putting in countless hours trying to get there. It’s crazy what you can do now with home simulation.
“I can honestly say I’m not going to my legs any more in the online racing world when I’m racing wheel to wheel. I use hand controls on the road, so I’m confident I’m not going to react by going to my feet to do something.”
However, a sim that emulates his new Hyundai’s setup has not yet been developed.
“Proof of concept is probably going to be at the Roar,” he said. “The brake system is the most complex part, and that’s a carryover piece. It was a time crunch to get it done in time, so we didn’t really get time to test it on the sim. We’ll get [to Daytona] and learn in reality.”