MADISON, Illinois – When Arrow McLaren SP chose the past two Indy Lights champions for its two-driver lineup for 2020 in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES, the team needed someone to mentor the young talents.
That mentor was already in place.
It was Robert Wickens, who continues to recover from injuries suffered in August 2018 at Pocono Raceway and remains a key part of Arrow McLaren SP.
Wickens works closely with both 21-year-old Pato O’Ward of Monterrey, Mexico, and 23-year-old Oliver Askew of Jupiter, Florida. Although both drivers won the Indy Lights championship – O’Ward in 2018 and Askew in 2019 – both are in their first full season of NTT INDYCAR SERIES competition.
O’Ward dominated much off the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 on Saturday and Sunday at World Wide Technology Raceway. He had the No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet in front for 130 laps over the course of the two 200-lap contests before finishing finished third on Saturday and followed that up with a second-place finish in Race 2.
The performance showed O’Ward’s time in victory lane is coming soon.
“Pato is doing a great job,” Wickens said. “Week in, week out he is showing he is more experienced than what his age tells us. This is only his second short oval in an Indy car. He hit the ground running from that first 30-minute refresher session on Friday. I was surprised the time he set in that refresher stood up for P1 for quite a while Friday.
“He is doing a great job. His feeling for the car is getting better. He is gaining more confidence every day he is in the car, which is amazing how quick he was out of the box for us.”
O’Ward, who competed in seven NTT INDYCAR SERIES contests in 2019 and is not eligible for this year’s series Rookie of the Year title, also had a dominating race last month at Road America in the second race of the REV Group Grand Prix on July 12. He started on the pole and led 44 laps in the 55-lap contest, losing the lead to eventual winner Felix Rosenqvist two laps from the finish.
Since that race, he finished fourth and 12th at Iowa and sixth in last Sunday’s 104th Indianapolis 500, earning this year’s Indy 500 Rookie of the Year Award. O’Ward is third in NTT INDYCAR SERIES points behind two-time champion Josef Newgarden in second and the leader, five-time INDYCAR champion Dixon.
“He’s a down-to-earth kid,” Wickens said of O’Ward. “When you talk to him, he knows what he wants to be quick and how to get the most out of him. We are trying to provide that to him this year.”
Wickens, 31, has enjoyed working with O’Ward and Askew as the two young talents continue to develop into outstanding race drivers. O’Ward was asked about Wickens role in helping him develop into a potential INDYCAR winner.
“He’s a great guy to have on our side,” O’Ward said. “It's nice to have someone to tell you kind of what little things caught him off-guard so we're better prepared. It's been a really enjoyable time as a person, as someone that knows what it feels like to be in our shoes.
“Ultimately, he basically drove this car, just without the Aeroscreen. A lot of the things he learned translate to us right now.”
The language of racing and the ability to communicate with two young drivers and the engineering staff is where Wickens’ mentorship pays off.
“The biggest thing for me is I thought one of my best attributes as a driver was my ability to get the most out of engineering,” Wickens said. “Even though I’m not driving the car, I feel like I’m a great bridge between the driver and the engineer.
“When the driver says something, I can ask a very particular question to give clarity on the situation. I think we are doing a good job there. From a driving standpoint, these cars are driving so differently with the Aeroscreen this year I think the car wants to be driven a little different. We are learning as we go.”
Wickens and O’Ward have clicked, and the results show.
“I like him,” O’Ward said. “He's very honest, which I really like. He honestly is very technical. He finds a lot of little details that me or Oliver might miss sometimes. It's good to have him in our head, just keep improving the little things that ultimately make a race a win or a lose situation.
“It's been great having him here. I really built a very strong relationship with him.”
Askew’s rookie season has been a bit rockier, but that young talent has shown flashes of brilliance and speed during his initial season. Askew’s best finish is third in the first Iowa race.
Askew’s place in the championship was hampered when he crashed in the double-points paying Indy 500, but the gains made and lessons learned will make his first season in INDYCAR valuable.
“It’s teething and you expect that with young drivers,” Wickens said. “A lot of drivers make their mistakes in junior categories, and by the time they get to the top, they are iron pros. But both of our drivers are so young they make their mistakes in the spotlight.
“There is more pressure, but he is doing a good job. He is quick. We just need to find a bit of rhythm.”
Wickens one day hopes to return to the cockpit of a race car and continues to make impressive progress in his recovery from serious spinal cord injuries suffered in the accident during his impressive rookie season in 2018.
But the 31-year-old driver from Guelph, Ontario, remains a vital part of his race team, serving as the team mentor for INDYCAR’s stars of the future.
“These kids, they make me proud,” Wickens said. “They make my job easy sometimes.”