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Robert Wickens: The Road & Track Interview

Sam Smith
Photo credit: Giles Clement

From Road & Track

As part of our feature story on Robert Wickens, editor-at-large Sam Smith sat down for an extensive interview with the racer. Presented below is a version of that complete conversation, edited for clarity and length, that gives further insight into what makes Wickens tick. - Ed.

Sam Smith: Racers are famously realists. You look at the data and lap times, you can’t disguise where you sit. But rehab runs on optimism. How do you balance that?

Robert Wickens: It’s the drive to get back, that’s the big thing. Positivity has always been a really important part of my life. I definitely have had some negative spirals in my career, where you just felt like you couldn’t do anything right. The common denominator has to be you-even if it’s an engine failure, or starting from pole and the guy from seventh misses his braking point and somehow T-bones you.

I’ve gone through all of that in the junior categories, sometimes all in one season. You just think, like, “How is this happening to me?” The biggest challenge, really, is that positive mindset. Because it’s so easy to just play the victim.

SS: To lose sight of the end.

RW: I would love . . . my right leg is really responding well right now. The left leg is behind, but it’s still progressing. You never know where it’s going to get. It’s a very long road. Maybe your nerves are like, “That’s all you got, now deal with it.” Then you learn how to deal with it.

The reality is, I will probably need hand controls, but by the same token, I’ve always aimed high. I’m seven months in. I’m what, 30-percent done with this rehab right now? In the grand scheme of things, here I am, trying to get back in an IndyCar for the 2020 season.

SS: How do you begin to define what that means, knowing the sands may shift under your feet?

RW: We don’t have a date, but I want to be back for 2020. That’s the dream. Here’s what I’m talking about, with the flipsides of everything: If I could make it back for 2020 with hand controls, do I want that? Or do I wait for 2021? Or maybe I don’t need them?

SS: Have you thought at all about what that moment of choice will look like?

RW: I think the racer inside of me is going to say, “F*** it, get me back in a race car as soon as possible.” If [that means hand controls and] halfway through the season, I switch to not using hand controls, I don’t know. I honestly have no idea how that works. I don’t even want to begin thinking how that works.

Photo credit: Giles Clement

SS: Drivers are improvement-chasers. Not being happy with the situation can make you quicker. Does that help here, or is it just one more frustration?

RW: It does and it doesn't. I've always been a perfectionist. I've always been OCD, and I'm very analytical. Everything you need to be a good race-car driver, I figured, but my problem is, when I'm walking, it's like . . . I want to walk in a way that no one knows there is something wrong with me.

I want my therapist to be in awe. I want to impress him every day. Same as every team I've been with. I wanted that prior team to tell their new guys what Rob Wickens was like, how good he was. Every step of the way. So far, I think it's worked.

With this, I know it's hard with therapists, obviously, because they can't show emotion. Or they can't tell me if I'm doing a good job, because they can't compare patient-to-patient. One, spinal cords are crazy, but then also HIPAA and everything else. They can't be like, "Well, John over there is way ahead of you."

SS: That’s part of the question, right? There is no data trace to look at. You can’t just pull apart the numbers, see where you need to go faster.

RW: With this, there are so many what-ifs, so many variables. One thing I've learned, and everything I got over the years, mental training [in driving], is that positivity breeds positive outcome. And to never have any expectations.

Photo credit: Giles Clement

SS: How on earth does that jibe with being positive?

RW: As soon as you expect something, you're setting yourself up for failure. If you expect to win and you finish second, you failed.

SS: Did it take a while to get there mentally? To come to it?

RW: In 2015, I had a really bad year in DTM. Just one of those moments where I couldn't do anything right. I'd be having a great race, the best Mercedes [in the field], doing unbelievable things, and get taken out or have mechanical issues.

It was that there. All that negativity. I started working with a mental coach at the end of 2015. He was an Austrian national skier. He said that he was never that good, but he made the Austrian team, so he must have been pretty damn good. He loved skiing, loved everything about it. There was this one race, he was basically like mid-twenties overall. He wasn’t going to medal, wasn't even going to make it into the points. He was really down on himself, but he thought if he really dug hard, had the perfect run, he could maybe crack the top ten.

Just before his run, there was a crash. It was snowing quite a bit. If you know anything about skiing, fresh snow creates a lot of drag. There was a crash and a [course] repair, and the snow kept falling and falling.

In skiing terms, the first man [to run] is called the snowplow, because you just clear the way for everyone else. He was just so mad that had happened to him. Why me, blah blah. Then he just said, "You know what? Screw it. I'm just going to go down the hill, just have fun, just be in the moment and ski." Because he loves skiing.

He finished second. This is like the first of two days. Then the second day, he was like, "Oh man, I medaled in a run that shouldn’t have even been in the top ten." So he said, "If I just try, I'll win." The next day, he tried. He thought he gave the best run of his life. He finished 28th.

Photo credit: Giles Clement

SS: How do you reconcile that with focus and actually trying? Because you can go out there and not care, but you can also not care and do it right.

RW: It's that balance. It’s hard.

SS: How you give zero f***s while simultaneously giving all the f***s.

Wickens: That's the magic question, right? Somehow you find that sweet spot every now and then.

SS: Does it apply here?

RW: It's way harder than motorsports.

SS: Are there any other tools from that world that makes sense here? Or is it just so different-the only thing in common is your brain?

RW: I think the drive, the determination, the commitment. I had to work so damn hard to make a professional career for myself. I couldn't be further from the silver spoon.

I trust my gut. I've gone with my gut decision every single step of the way of my life. It has got me to here. You tell me if it worked or not.

SS: That’s a hell of a question.

RW: With regrets, maybe you feel like you have them like right away. But down the road, you realize that [your choice] was actually the smarter move. You realize that you actually did the right thing, even if it didn't feel like the right thing in that moment. Yet somehow, you pull through, and a new chapter starts.

In 2011, when I was racing Renault World Series, I was a reserve driver in Formula 1. That was my year to really prove myself, that I'm good enough. Put me in and I'm ready to rock.

It was a good year. I won the championship. What people don't notice is, I had three mechanical retirements while leading races. I won the championship by two points over Jean-Éric Vergne, who's now Formula E world champion. I should have clinched it with, like, three races remaining.

Photo credit: Giles Clement

Then you think of all the what-ifs. Everyone has what-ifs. The drivers from that year, the ones second, third, fourth, and fifth in the championship, they all went on to race in Formula 1 at some point, but I never did. You think, "Why?" I had a great career in DTM. The goal was to win championships for Mercedes, but I never won a championship for Mercedes. The best Mercedes, three out of the seven years, three out of six or whatever: I was there, good enough. Maybe the car wasn't quite good enough to win championships. Maybe as a team, we didn’t execute.

Then in IndyCar . . . the rookie sensation. And [because of the accident,] I don't get to close the year out and challenge for a championship. I feel like I definitely could have. I mean, obviously, you don't know where life's going to take me, maybe I still can.

What I hate about my career-I’ve always been so close to extraordinary. So many times.

SS: You realize that feeling is pretty common, no matter what you do for a living.

RW: I believe it.

SS: It’s easy to dwell on your screw-ups, because no one knows them as well as you do. But you just laid those out with a smile on your face. And you’ve talked about the accident-how you don’t think about your choices there. How do you shut that stuff off?

RW: Right now, the point is that I’m alive. During all my career moves and fumbles, honestly, there were times when I was pretty miserable. Sometimes hindsight is not seen immediately. Sometimes you see it a year later.

The bigger scheme of things was like, “Why am I a race-car driver? Why did I want to be a Formula 1 world champion?” Because you want to compete. Do you want to spend your entire career in Formula 1 hustling to get to that dream team so that you can challenge for a world championship? Spend six years, getting lapped every race, fighting for an eighth? What do you want?

DTM was fighting for podiums, wins, challenging for championships. That’s ultimately what took me to IndyCar. Even DTM, as great as it was, it was very political. IndyCar is just a breath of fresh air. You race for yourself. You have a fairly equal chance to everyone else. Obviously, there’s good teams and bad teams. But you play your cards right, anyone can win.

Photo credit: Giles Clement

SS: There’s a purity there.

RW: It’s just crazy, but it became very clear that the fulfillment of racing and winning is more important to me than that lifetime hustle to get to a team where you can win an F1 championship. Am I right? I don’t know.

SS: It’s funny-racing drivers aren’t known for being adults, no matter their age, but that’s an adult view of things.

RW: I’ve always been told I’m-what’s that called? The old soul or whatever.

SS: I get that a lot. It’s mostly when somebody says I’m being a pain in the ass. [Laughs.]

RW: [Laughs.]

SS: You talked about how difficult it was to watch this year’s first IndyCar race, not driving. Did you have to make yourself watch it?

RW: I’m still helping out the team as much as I can. I was involved in the engineering meetings and the strategy meetings. I was giving my input on setups, talking to the drivers, speaking with the driver coach, looking at all the onboard footage, giving suggestions. I was heavily involved over the weekend even though I wasn’t there.

I was emotionally tied into the race from a working standpoint. I want the best for the team. My good friend James [Hinchcliffe, his teammate and childhood friend] and Marcus [Ericsson, Hinchcliffe’s new teammate and a former F1 driver]. Because I want Marcus to hopefully have an easier time through it than me. My whole life, I never had that driver to help me through things.

Photo credit: Giles Clement

SS: James has talked a couple of times about his crash at Indy-you each had this traumatic event in a car, and everybody wants to discuss it. Then, a few days after you start doing press, you’ve given the same spiel 300 times.

RW: It’s about 299.

SS: Do you get to a point where you’re just done talking about it?

RW: I don’t know why, but it was never really difficult for me to talk about it. It just gets annoying that you repeat yourself so many times. It's like, “Why can't everyone just take this one piece? Done with it.”

SS: One of the things that hurts, as a student of motorsport, is watching a bright spark come in and make a dent like you made last year. You want to shout it from the rooftops, but it’s racing in 2019, and so nobody cares. Then you gets hurt and Good Morning America is at your door. Is that frustrating?

RW: I think it's just life.

SS: Because it's frustrating as hell on this end.

RW: Everyone wants their story when something gets exciting. It would be interesting if I got this response for my talent and not so much because of my mind and my perseverance, which it is now, I guess.

SS: None of which is to downplay what you're doing now. Please don’t take it that way.

Wickens: No, I know. It's frustrating. The thing is, I think fans, even drivers, they want . . . IndyCar because there's that risk factor. To go faster through a corner without being scared, it's something special. That moment of breaking through a fear barrier at 240 mph. Just committing to the car.

Photo credit: Giles Clement

SS: I just assumed somebody with your resumé comes in and is like, "All right, screw it. They say it’s flat, it’s flat."

RW: You work towards it. You're doing it and you're building up to it, but then as you're going quicker, you're wearing your tires and the car starts [moving a little]. And you’re like "Nope, don't like that. Did not like that."

You come in, they say, We're going to put tires on it. Then it’s that leap of faith. It's like, I'm on new tires. I have more grip. I was close last time but not that close. They say I have to be flat.

You just commit to it. And once you do, you're like, "Easy, I could have done that ages ago." The thing with superspeedways, I think, for rookies, it takes them a long time to build to that. I think where I was maybe stupid, or naïve, is that I got to that very quickly.

SS: Wait. You felt . . . naïve?

RW: Yes, like . . . maybe I took too many risks too quickly.

SS: Did that moment come after Pocono?

RW: Post-injury? Yes, post-injury. That's just like in the grand scheme of things. The qualifying performance I had on ovals was pretty extraordinary, if you look back. I remember Phoenix, especially, because of the crash. I had to go very early in the qualifying and the track always gets faster and faster.

The fact that I qualified seventh, that blew me away. I was just like, "How did that happen?" There's no way, it's crazy. I think I got ahead of like a Penske or something, I don't know. I was like, “Wow. I'm shocked."

But the race just kept moving forward, I kept moving forward. Blah-blah-blah, nearly won, didn’t win, story of my life. [Laughs.]

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