A New Incarnation Of Team Canada

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On Wednesday, we finally got confirmation on the 2018 lineup for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (SPM). Most felt confident that James Hinchcliffe would re-sign with the Verizon IndyCar Series team he has driven for since 2015. But until the ink is dry on the contract, you never know. As time went on, more and more people were speculating what Hinchcliffe might do. That speculation included driving the No.10 car at Ganassi that Tony Kanaan once occupied, seeing as how that’s the best open seat left.

But as we learned Wednesday, Hinchcliffe has signed a multi-year contract with Schmidt as many people had suspected in the first place. What we also learned is that the rumor that had picked up steam in the last couple of weeks also came true. Robert Wickens will pilot the No.7 car driven the past two seasons by Mikhail Aleshin.

I’ll be completely honest. Before we arrived at Road America this summer, I had never heard of Robert Wickens. Mikhail Aleshin had driven at Le Mans and was having trouble getting back into the US with his visa. When we arrived at the track for the Friday morning practice, someone told us that Robert Wickens was in the car. My immediate response was “Who?”.

I’ll admit, when it comes to racing – I have tunnel vision. I focus entirely on the Verizon IndyCar Series. I sort of keep up with NASCAR and Formula One, but my interest in both of those series has waned in the past five years or so.

I know what I’m about to say is a sacrilege, but I don’t really follow the Mazda Road to Indy (MRTI). I’m not opposed to it, mind you. From what I can tell, it is now the preferred route for a driver to reach the Verizon IndyCar Series. It’s just that minor league sports or feeder series have never held much interest with me.

I follow Major League Baseball, but I couldn’t care less about the minor leagues. The Nashville Sounds apparently have one of the best Triple-A baseball parks in the country, but I’ve never set foot in there. I never keep up with recruiting in college football or basketball. Just tell me about them once they start playing. I really don’t care what they did in high school.

It’s the same with racing. There are so many different routes that a driver can go. Most of today’s IndyCar drivers started out in karting. Many stay in North America and eventually get into the MRTI with US F2000, Pro Mazda and Indy Lights. Others go to Europe or Japan and chase the ladder series in those respective regions. It’s just too much t keep up with. I’ve got enough going on in my life to immerse myself in some feeder series (or minor league) to follow a bunch of drivers who will probably never be given a shot at the big-time. Now that it has been announced that Kyle Kaiser will run four races for Juncos Racing next season, I’m going to have to study up on him.

When James Hinchcliffe joined Newman/Haas for the 2011 IndyCar season – I had heard the name, but I knew nothing about him other than some people referred to him as The Mayor of Hinchtown for some strange reason, and he was Canadian. But I also knew that those that followed Indy Lights were very excited about him getting an opportunity. Once he got a few races under his belt, I got to know a lot more about him – his personality and his driving ability. I understood why he was so well thought of.

Seven seasons later, it’s much the same for Robert Wickens. I know very little about him, except that a lot of people whose opinions I trust think very highly of him – and he’s Canadian.

Growing up in Canada, Wickens and Hinchcliffe used to race karts against each other as kids – much like Tony Kanaan and Helio Castroneves did in Brazil while they were growing up. The two competed against each other in 2007 in the Champ Car Atlantic series. Wickens finished third, while Hinch finished fourth. While Hinchcliffe stayed in North America to race Atlantics, Indy Lights and ultimately IndyCar; Wickens went to Europe where he raced in Formula Renault 3.5, Formula 3, Formula two and GP3. Wickens drove in the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters series up until this past season since 2012, with a best finish of fourth in 2016. With Mercedes leaving DTM at the end of this season, Wickens was suddenly available.

If having Hinchcliffe on board wasn’t enough to make SPM Canada’s unofficial team; being paired with Wickens, his longtime friend and countryman should cinch the claim of Team Canada for Schmidt Peterson Motorsport.

For a few of years, Scott Goodyear drove the MacKenzie car, which was a Canadian mutual fund. In the nineties and early 2000’s, Team Canada resided wherever the Player’s sponsorship was. The Canadian cigarette company was the sponsor for Canadian Jacques Villeneuve at Forsythe/Green Racing, owned by Australian Barry Green and US businessman Gerry Forsythe, in his rookie year of 1994. When he won the CART championship and the Indianapolis 500, the sponsorship stayed with the Team Green side for a year before switching to Forsythe Racing, who would field Canadian Greg Moore as a rookie in 1996.

Moore spent his entire four-year career in CART with Players/Forsythe Racing. He had already signed with Team Penske for the 2000 season at the time he was fatally injured at the season finale at Fontana on October 31, 1999. By that time, there were two Player’s cars – Moore and fellow-Canadian Patrick Carpentier.

For the 2000 season, the Player’s cars were driven by Carpentier and Canadian Alex Tagliani. This pairing stood until Canadian Paul Tracy replaced Tagliani in 2003 and promptly won the CART championship that same year. It would prove to be the only championship for Tracy or Forsythe, without Barry Green associated with the team..

By 2004, Forsythe Racing was beginning to lose the Player’s support due to the pending US tobacco legislation. They also began to lose their Canadian identity as drivers from the US, Mexico and even Spain had stints in one of Forsythe’s cars. When unification came about in February of 2008, Gerry Forsythe wanted nothing to do with the new series. He packed up his team and left Paul Tracy as a driver without a team, but continued to exercise his contract for a few months, thereby preventing Tracy from getting a new ride in the unified IndyCar Series. Nice guy.

Since the days of Player’s/Forsythe Racing, and drivers like Moore, Carpentier, Tagliani and Tracy; there had not been any Canadian drivers of any significance come along – unless, of course, you count Marty Roth – until James Hinchcliffe came along. When Hinchcliffe joined Andretti Autosport in 2012 as the unfortunate replacement for Dan Wheldon, it looked like this would be his big break – much like Helio Castroneves replacing Greg Moore at Penske. He won three races in the 2013 season and appeared to be headed for stardom. But Andretti was hit with sponsorship problems and Hinch was the odd man out for 2015, when Andretti scaled back to three fulltime cars.

Instead, Hinch went to Sam Schmidt’s team in 2015 as a teammate to James Jakes. He won in only his second race with the team – the rain-soaked race in the swamp at NOLA. But then he had his near-fatal accident in a practice crash in May, just a few days before the Indianapolis 500 – and spent the rest of the season recovering. Hinch won his second race with SPM last April at Long Beach for his fifth career victory.

Now he is teamed with his oldest friend from growing up, and things are looking up for Hinchcliffe, Wickens and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports – the new Team Canada. Although he will be an IndyCar rookie, it sounds as if Robert Wickens is a quick study. It also sounds like the teammate that James Hinchcliffe has been needing and wanting. No longer saddled with the Honda aero kit, I’m looking for great things next season for the new Team Canada.

The only thing about the new moniker is that rumors now say that Juan Montoya may drive a third SPM car in next year’s 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500. I guess next May, they cannot be called Team Canada when they may be one-third Columbian. Stay tuned for updates on that story. That could make things very interesting.

George Phillips

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7 Responses to “A New Incarnation Of Team Canada”

  1. Wickens is a 6 time DTM winner with a 4th best in the championship.

    I wonder if SPM can elevate their game to make it worth the effort.

  2. I will never forget seeing Greg Moore win at Milwaukee nor will I forget how he did it. Magical. I wish Hinch and Wickens well also, eh?. That DeMelo kid from Montreal will also work his way into a IndyCar ride IMO.

  3. billytheskink Says:

    Good news, but man this would be doubly cool if it involved a major Canadian sponsor (other than Rick Petersen, of course).

    • Perhaps a consortium of Canadian beer makers could be a major sponsor under the name “Canadian Beer”. And who among us does not like Canadian beer? (He wrote while quaffing a ice cold bottle of Moose Head beer-Hinchtown Hammerdown not available in this area sadly)

  4. Even though living in Germany, during the past few years, I haven’t followed DTM as closely as I used to. But the name Robert Wickens is familiar. He’s a proven race winner and has performed rather well amongst internationally more well-known team mates such as Paul DiResta and Pascal Wehrlein. Wickens has won at least one race in every of his DTM seasons save for his rookie year. The tracks he has won at include DTM’s prestigious Norisring street circuit which is their short track of sorts, and road courses with undulating terrain such as the (new) Nürburgring, Zandvoort and Wolokolamsk.

    I’d say him vs Zach Veach is going to make the Rookie of the Year standings pretty interesting next year.

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