Robert Wickens’ bone-shattering, career-halting, life-changing crash at Pocono Raceway is now more than 18 months ago. What he’s achieved since then is nothing short of inspirational, writes David Malsher-Lopez.
At times like these, it seems trite to apply the word ‘hero’ to anyone who isn’t involved in trying to save and protect the world’s sick, but surely most of those who have listened to Wickens and tracked his physical progress on social media over the last year-and-a-half will have been stirred by his efforts.
To go from this…
…in the space of five weeks is simply remarkable. The ice-cold determination that Wickens previously demonstrated in every team in every racing category, is these days pushing him to redefine the limits of limited movement. Admirably, he does this while laying out the facts laced with occasional dark humor, rather than going the “I’m a hero” route or lapsing into “Woe is me”. As a general outlook, he’s chosen to count his blessings and (re)build on them.
“Fortunately I’m still progressing, each day at a time,” he tells Motorsport.com. “The only thing is, obviously I’m impatient and wish things were moving along a little quicker.
“But it’s hard to complain: I could very easily have gotten nothing back, so I’m very fortunate to have gotten quite a bit back. And there’s more to come.”
“My big thing is saying I will race again. I don’t know if it will be IndyCar: that’s the goal but obviously there’s a lot of engineering hurdles we need to work through first.”
As was his tendency with his race engineers, Wickens swiftly whittles away the niceties in order to discuss practicalities – something that, as Arrow McLaren SP’s driver advisor, he’s trying to drum into his young guns Patricio O’Ward and Oliver Askew. That’s when the scale of what he’s planning to achieve hits home.
“Right now we’re on a bit of a hiatus because we need a budget to start building a test team,” he says. “Our team doesn’t have engineers on a shelf who we can poach and put on a project like that, and it’s the same with McLaren over in Britain. Obviously it’s a whole different ballgame there in terms of quantities of employees, but everyone there has a purpose too and they can’t just stop what they’re doing and do something else – something like this.
“So that’s where we are for in terms of development, but we’ve done a lot of prototype steering wheels – 3D-printed concepts of what I would need in terms of hand controls. In that respect it’s moving along. Obviously, again, it’s not at the rate I’d like it to be – I was hoping to step in an IndyCar in 2020. But I also see it as taking months to get a suitable car for me on a racetrack.
“Priority is to get that steering wheel wired so we can get on the simulator and start pounding laps to make it second nature. And meanwhile, in the background, we need to keep working on how we can engineer the racecar to 1) be reliable and safe, and 2) be competitive. To be honest, there’s going to need to be a lot more changed on the car than just introducing a steering wheel with a couple of extra paddles on it and right now, some of the things that we believe we’ll need from an engineering standpoint have never been done before, especially on an IndyCar. There’s always going to be a ripple effect of overstraining something that can cause something else to fail somewhere on the car.”
“So it will be quite the undertaking, and that’s why I’m trying to campaign a budget with the help of Arrow, McLaren and all our partners in the team, but of course these things don’t move quickly. I’d love to have a phone call with a CEO and say, ‘I need X millions of dollars’ and the next day it’s in an account and we’re off and running! But it doesn’t work like that.”
A good starting point, says Wickens, would be technology that’s already proven by a race ace who defied odds (and then some!).
“My next step is to get in a racecar,” he says, “and I would love nothing more than to get hold of Jens Marquardt at BMW and ask if he can let me in the DTM car that Alex Zanardi raced, or the GTLM M8 that Alex ran at Daytona, just to see what different hand controls look like. Because right now I have this hypothetical in my head of what I think I need, but you can come up with a million scenarios in your head but ultimately you’ve just got to drive the thing to work out what you really need. So although I’m working with engineers and design people at Arrow McLaren SP and coming up with different steering wheel concepts, at the end of the day I really need to drive one to validate the theories and give them something more definite to go on.
Photo by: Jake Galstad / Motorsport Images
“That’s why it’s so critical to get a steering wheel adapted for me and wired up on a home sim so I can keep turning laps at home. Once I’m totally familiar with it, that’ll be the time when I feel I can say, ‘Hey, I need a paddle moved two millimeters this way’ and so on, and then take it to Pratt & Miller’s IndyCar sim which is a lot more intensive and financially straining.”
By expressing his wish to check out Zanardi’s BMW system, Wickens is tacitly acknowledging that his leg and foot movement won’t have the necessary precision and/or power to allow him to race at a high level of the sport with the same dexterity (and let’s face it – we all know he was going to be an IndyCar megastar) he displayed before the fateful crash. And the brake-by-wire systems are not yet at a level where his left-hand can fully substitute for his left foot.
“In an IndyCar, if it had a hydraulic handbrake off the steering-wheel, I wouldn’t have the leverage to create the same pressure,” he explains. “The drivers are pushing 300-350lbs on that brake pedal and trying to do that with your arm is not super-easy! Furthermore, when I’m also using a throttle on the steering-wheel, it’s critical that my hands stay on the wheel at all times at racing speed.
“So we’re trying to come up with some type of electronic actuator where I can pull a paddle on the steering wheel to operate the brakes – something like the little tiny master-cylinder hand-operated front brake they use in karting. Unfortunately, the hardest thing about a brake-by-wire system is the response speed. With a regular foot brake, a driver can create 2000psi of pressure in less than a tenth of a second, whereas using a paddle on the steering wheel that feels like a brake pedal in terms of being able to adjust your braking, there isn’t an actuator that can create 2000psi instantaneously: it takes about half a second.
“So that’s not good enough when you’re thinking in terms of ultimate performance, when you need to have that peak pressure, at the highest speed and when you have the most downforce. We need to make sure that we haven’t created a disadvantage for ourselves anywhere.”
Arrow Electronics being team partner with McLaren SP could reap dividends in this area. The Denver, CO-based company developed and evolved the remarkable SAM cars (the semi-autonomous Chevrolet Corvettes adapted so that quadriplegic Arrow McLaren SP team-owner was able to drive them ‘no-handed’) and also came up with hand-controls for the Acura NSX used by Wickens in a demo at the Toronto IndyCar race last season.
The chance to battle with the likes of Will Power and Scott Dixon again – something Wickens did as a rookie! – is part of what drives him on.
Photo by: Scott R LePage / Motorsport Images
“You’re right, I’m fortunate that we have Arrow as a partner,” he says, “because this is something that’s right up their alley: their mission is to be innovative and make differences for the future. Their slogan is “Five Years Out” because they’re always looking five years ahead. And so I think this is a great opportunity for all of us – a great way to help me get back in the racecar and a great win for me to be able to push them from an engineering standpoint as well.”
All Wickens’ investigations into alternative throttle and braking systems is while retaining the ultimate goal of racing IndyCars again. But he’s also at a stage where he’s “trying to get a foot in the door with any category,” and one has sprung readily to mind.
“I’m strongly looking at Formula E,” he admits. “They don’t change gear, so already there’s two fewer paddles needed on the steering-wheel. They already use brake-by-wire which, as I say, I believe I’d need for braking from the steering wheel. And in race configuration they do a lot of braking on the steering wheel anyway with their re-gen paddles. So there are a lot of things about Formula E that are pretty ideal for someone with my needs.
“But then again, your brain starts racing and you think about other problems. Formula E has crazy turning radiuses as some of their corners are so tight because almost all their races are on street courses, so I was wondering how easy it would be to control all those paddles when the wheel’s upside down! Again, it’s one of those things where I want to gain experience of various categories to find out what’s feasible and what isn’t. Being able to drive a tin-top like Alex used would be huge for me to understand a few things, and so would trying out a Formula E car.
“But yes, medium or long-term, once we’re comfortable with the sim and if lap times look good, I want to be back in IndyCar. I’m aware the series would have to tweak some regulations to fit the extra equipment on my car, but I do think it will be possible.”
Whatever is possible, Wickens will make it happen, because what he’s been through over the last near-600 days has put more perpetual call on his courage and determination than running side by side with a rival at Pocono, Road America or Indy. But as well as resolve, he also has the brainpower to make optimistic ideas become realistic actualities.
If he isn’t already one of your racing heroes, he soon will be.
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