The signing of Formula One veteran Marcus Ericsson to drive in 2019 will in many ways allow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports to build on the foundation that Robert Wickens helped lay this year.
There's no doubt the spinal injury Wickens sustained at Pocono Raceway in August, which will keep him out of a race car indefinitely, is a huge setback for the team. But the sheer spirit and direction that he and teammate/long-time friend James Hinchcliffe played an integral role in developing at SPM will carry on with Ericsson as Hinchcliffe’s new teammate.
SPM made numerous changes last offseason to put all the right pieces in place inside and outside the car to be a Verizon IndyCar Series championship contender for years to come. Until Wickens’ accident, it looked like the plan was well ahead of schedule.
“He brought so much to the team and he's still very much a part of our team,” Hinchcliffe said.
“We talked a lot through the first three-quarters of the year about what a big change 2018 was for the team and how big a part Robbie played in that. Certainly, post-Pocono, I think as a team we kind of struggled to find our stride again and we definitely felt not having him there.”
Bringing a seasoned driver like Wickens on board was the most visible addition to the team, but it was only the tip of the iceberg, with changes in personnel and processes touching almost every part of SPM's operation.
“We knew the season was going to be about all the new people we put in different places and figuring out how to get the team running on all cylinders,” Hinchcliffe said. “It really was more than just personnel, it was a real culture shift and we knew elements of that would take time.”
The results, however, came almost instantly as the team delivered a standout performance in the 2018 season opener on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida. Wickens started on pole and led until a penultimate lap collision robbed him of the win. Hinchcliffe just missed the podium in fourth after qualifying seventh.
Twelve top-five finishes followed, including Hinchcliffe's win at Iowa Speedway, and only boosted expectations of greater success for the pair of Canadian drivers. That changed suddenly at Pocono.
Now, SPM must move forward as a team while Wickens concentrates on his rehabilitation program.
While co-owners Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson vowed to keep the No. 6 Honda reserved for if and when Wickens can return, the team will move ahead with two cars in 2019 after signing Ericsson to drive the No. 7 Honda.
It also appears that Ericsson's commitment to the Verizon IndyCar Series will ensure the driver continuity begun this season with Wickens, something missing with Hinchcliffe's teammates prior to 2018.
“I see it as a long-term project,” said Ericsson, who has raced in F1 since 2014. “I want to be here and do well and be successful. I see myself being here for many years. I want to come over here and do well, you know, make myself a career over here.”
Ericsson will benefit next season from the hard work Wickens did this year to help the team succeed and grow.
“For next year, we are going to take everything that we learned and apply it with everything we know how to do better and make sure that this team is even stronger than when Robbie was last in the car,” Hinchcliffe said. “We are leaps and bounds ahead of where we were at the end of 2017.”
Having his close friend injured was not easy for Hinchcliffe. He said dealing with Wickens' accident was “in some ways even harder” than coping with his own devastating practice crash at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2015, which kept Hinchcliffe out the rest of that season.
“Regardless of when it happens, Robbie will be back in our team in some capacity or another because, in such a short time, he's built quite a strong bond and friendship with people in the team,” Hinchcliffe said.
“This is Robbie's home.”