Robert Wickens says it’s been a “plug and play” experience in the buildup to his racing return just over three years after an IndyCar accident that left him with spinal cord injuries.
The former IndyCar driver is using hand controls to drive the No. 33 Bryan Herta Autosport Hyundai Elantra N TCR that he’s sharing with Mark Wilkins in IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge competition.
In addition to his landmark return to racing, Wickens has also needed to adapt to a new car in the Elantra after previously only testing the previous-gen Veloster N TCR model at Mid-Ohio last spring.
He shook down the car at Palm Beach International Raceway last week, immediately before turning his first laps of Daytona International Speedway in the Roar Before the Rolex 24.
“The biggest thing was the system that Bryan Herta Autosport adapted and made an evolution of in previous years,” he said.
“It’s been made really reliable. We’ve never had to worry about losing track time because of a finicky thing with the hand brake or throttle lever. It’s been plug-and-play.
“I’ve been able to focus on myself, get up to speed and understand how to adapt to hand controls. But also how the Elantra TCR car needs to go quickly.
“There have been some long conversations with Mark Wilkins; I keep asking him hundreds of questions a day and he’s been very patient. I’m learning as I go.
“Right now I feel about 70 percent to where I want to be with the car. It’s my first time sharing a car with someone else.
“Looking at the schedule, five hours of track time looks like a lot of time to get up to speed, but then with sharing the car, red flags and unforeseen long changes in the pit lane, suddenly you’re getting five to ten laps each session.
“But we’ve been working a lot behind the scenes and looking at the data to see where we could go quicker.
“I’m taking it one step at a time. I was hoping for a lot more in that qualifying session, but there is still a lot more to do tomorrow.”
Wickens’ hand control system, which uses a metal braking ring and steering wheel-mounted throttle pedal, has been “adapted” since his initial Veloster test.
The system that he uses is now the same configuration as the one used by fellow BHA driver Michael Johnson, who also uses hand controls.
“We adapted the same system for the two of us,” Wickens explained.
“Over the winter, leading up to this race, there was a lot of back and forth after what I felt during that track day at Mid-Ohio in May, and where there were opportunities to give the driver more feeling.
“We have identical hand control systems. For Michael it’s a new adjustment for him, and for me it’s something new.
“I think it’s a good step forward and a good evolution from what Michael was using the last few years.
“It’s all thanks to the guys and girls at Bryan Herta Autosport. It really shows their ingenuity and what they’re capable of doing in this championship.”
BHA team boss Bryan Herta added that working with Johnson over the last few years enabled it to offer a suitable hand control solution for Wickens’ racing return.
“It would have been impossible without Michael Johnson Racing and the relationship there,” he said.
“The basic system that they started and developed around Michael and adapted to various cars over the years, and then brought to us and we adapted it to the Veloster, is the basis of the evolution of the system that we now use this year.
“I don’t know without all the groundwork that they have done, that we would be in a position to have Robert driving one of our cars.”
Wickens Has “Game Face All the Way Through”
Despite the significance of Wickens’ return to competition, the 32-year-old Canadian is not letting emotions overcome his preparations for the opening round of the Pilot Challenge season.
“I’m not emotional about it yet,” he said.
“If anything, I’m emotionally frustrated that I qualified seventh! When you’re planning your return to motorsport for three years, you hope to qualify better than seventh.
“But I’m learning first-hand just how competitive this championship is. I definitely didn’t underestimate the abilities in this championship, but I was just hoping [for more].
“I knew more was possible but we just missed the strategy a bit with the tire choice. And I think I pushed the tire too hard, too soon.
“I didn’t have enough tire left when the track was in slightly better shape.
“Tomorrow, I don’t really know how I’m going to feel. It’s going to be game face all the way through, and hopefully be satisfied with my return to racing again.
“But I don’t think there is going to be much emotion other than the job at task ahead of the race.”