2018 in Review: Schmidt Peterson Motorsports

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Robert Wickens and James Hinchcliffe

Today we continue with yet another Open-Wheels team recap from the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season.  Our latest organization going under the microscope is Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, the two-car all-Canadian team that made quite a bit of noise this summer and has high hopes moving forward.

This past season was filled with some highs, some lows, and a fair measure of adversity for SPM.  Through it all, they showed the character and poise that was necessary to overcome that adversity and it is for that reason that Schmidt Peterson Motorsports should have a very positive outlook moving forward.

We now present the 2018 season in review for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.

Lights, Camera, Action!

Before teams ever arrived in Florida for the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Peterburg, the series was abuzz with excitement surrounding the universal aero kit, new teams joining the fray, and exciting driver pairings for existing teams.

No duo held more potential than the one assembled by Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, teaming multi-race-winning veteran James Hinchcliffe with “rookie” Robert Wickens, a former DTM race winner with Mercedes Benz.

The fact that they were both Canadian was somewhat coincidental, but certainly not unintentional as Sam Schmidt paired a couple of childhood friends together for what would be a special 1-2 punch in IndyCar this year.

Robert Wickens

Wickens made the most of his debut, winning pole at St. Petersburg in March (Chris Jones/INDYCAR).

Schmidt Peterson took little time to settle in with a new driver line-up and a new race engineer for Hinchcliffe in Leena Gade.  Both drivers would qualify inside the top-10 for the season opener while Wickens would stun the series and take pole in his first career start.

The excitement wouldn’t end there for Wickens, as he dominated much of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg with 69 laps led out of the scheduled distance of 110 laps.

Unfortunately, a late-race restart would set the stage for one of the season’s most memorable moments, and it didn’t fall in Robert’s favor.

With two laps remaining, a tight restart would send both Wickens and Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi side-by-side heading into Turn 1 with the lead on the line.

In the end, neither driver would hold the position as Rossi carried too much speed into the marble-filled inside line, eventually hip-checking Wickens into the retaining wall while Sebastien Bourdais and Graham Rahal scooted by both of them.

In a surprising turn of events, Hinchcliffe became the team’s best finisher (4th place) after running a quiet, steady race while Wickens’ final classification would put him in 18th.

IndyCar racing returned from a multi-week break in Phoenix for what would ultimately be the final race for the series at ISM Raceway.  Hinchcliffe and Wickens would pick up where they left off at in St. Pete.

The duo made up the third row on the grid in qualifying as Hinchcliffe slotted in at 5th while Wickens was 6th on the time sheets.  It didn’t take the younger of the two Canadians (Wickens) very long to find his way to the front, firmly planting himself in the top three spots all night.

Another late-race caution set the stage for a battle between Wickens – who led 44 laps – and the defending series champion Josef Newgarden.

The Team Penske driver would have an advantage as he sported a set of fresh Firestone tires for the stretch run, eventually overtaking Wickens with 4 laps remaining and coasting home to victory.  While Wickens finished runner-up, Hinchcliffe put in a solid night to boot by finishing 6th.

While round three of the season at Long Beach would prove a bit more challenging for each driver – Wickens placed 22nd after facing gearbox issues, among other problems, while Hinchcliffe qualified 8th and finished 9th – both Team Canada representatives would notch top-five runs at Barber Motorsports Park to close April and bring some good vibes into the month of May.

In the INDYCAR Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, Wickens again led laps (20 this time) en route to his second podium finish of the season while Hinchcliffe recorded a respectable 7th place result.

The team was all set for the Indianapolis 500, but there was no way they could have been prepared for the whirlwind of emotions that would follow.

The Speedway gives, and the Speedway takes

As the story goes, James Hinchcliffe must have a love/hate relationship with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The Canadian driver has faced as much adversity at IMS as any driver in recent memory, enduring a five-year period that would make even an Andretti cringe.

In 2014, Hinchcliffe sustained a concussion during the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis when an errant piece of debris hit his helmet, and nobody could forget the savage crash from 2015 which placed the Canadian driver in the hospital following life-threatening injuries.

But only as James Hinchcliffe can, he punched back at the grand old Speedway and defiantly ripped the 2016 Indianapolis 500 pole award from her grasp.  Hinch would finish 7th that year, his second-best result in the 500 Mile Race.  After a relatively smooth month of May in 2017, Hinch came home 22nd after being involved in a lap 183 crash to end his day.

It would be safe to assume that Hinch had seen it all entering May 2018, though one of the greatest heartbreaks was yet to come.

Each of the three Schmidt Peterson entries – Hinchcliffe, Jay Howard and Wickens – plus their satellite partner in Jack Harvey with Meyer Shank Racing were all struggling with single-car speed during the opening week of practice.

James Hinchcliffe

A dejected James Hinchcliffe sits on his car after being bumped from the Indy 500 in May (Joe Skibinski/INDYCAR).

Most assumed that the group would figure it out by Saturday’s Bump Day qualifying and few predicted that an SPM driver could find themselves as one of two cars that wouldn’t make the 102nd running.

That left thousands of fans shocked by 6:00 PM Eastern on Bump Day when Hinchcliffe joined Pippa Mann as the two drivers cut from the field of 33.

The fallout from that day would claim the job of Leena Gade as she would be excused from her engineering duties on the No. 5 Honda for the rest of the season, though it wasn’t as if other SPM-affiliated cars lit the world on fire either.

Wickens qualified the highest of the bunch on Pole Day in 18th, while Howard was 28th and Harvey a mediocre 31st.

Hinch’s absence from the starting grid sparked a week’s worth of conversation about stars missing the Indy 500, how times have changed and if the rules should change (really, they shouldn’t), plus the speculation about what would happen with the enormous ARROW Electronics hospitality suite that was unmistakably planted inside Turn 1 in support of Hinchcliffe.

When the green flag finally fell, SPM would enjoy a bit more positivity.

In his first Indianapolis 500, Wickens handled the near-record temperatures exceptionally while many veterans struggled with car control.

Methodically, Wickens had worked his way through the field from 18th on the grid to 9th place in the final running order, even leading a pair of laps.  He would go on to win the 2018 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year award in a popular pick.

Not to be forgotten, Harvey’s gamble on fuel had him running 2nd to fellow gambler Stefan Wilson with just five laps remaining before both had to pit for fuel.  Harvey would finish 16th in his Meyer-Shank with SPM Honda while Howard placed 24th, running at the finish of an Indy 500 for the first time in his career.

As the dust settled from a wild month of May and teams shifted their focus to Belle Isle and the Detroit Grand Prix, Hinchcliffe continued a slide while Wickens maintained steady improvement.

Wickens would be a season-high 6th in the championship by the end of the Detroit doubleheader by finishing 8th in race one and 6th in race two.  Hinchcliffe would come home 11th in race one and 16th in race two, dropping to 11th in points and heading in the wrong direction of his teammate.

The Jekyll and Hyde nature of SPM’s finishes continued in Texas when Hinchcliffe rebounded for a much-needed top-five finish while Wickens was wiped out on lap 171 when he collided with Ed Carpenter.

Finishing 5th at the next race in Elkhart Lake, Wickens set himself on a torrid summer pace with finishes of 5th at Iowa, 3rd in Toronto and 2nd at Mid-Ohio.  Not to be outdone, Hinchcliffe regained his winning form following a 10th place run at Road America to take victory in the Iowa Corn 300.

The win was the 6th such occurrence in Hinch’s IndyCar Series career and his first since Long Beach in April of 2017.  An elated Hinchcliffe felt the weight of the world lift from his shoulders after the Indianapolis 500 qualifying debacle in May.

“Very good day. Very good day. The best day. You know, it’s so nice to be back up top after the kind of season that we’ve had, and obviously the month of May that we had,” said the Honda driver after a long 300 laps at Iowa Speedway in July.

Hinchcliffe would follow up his win at Iowa with a 4th place run at Toronto before finishing 14th at Mid-Ohio.  Entering the August race at Pocono Raceway, both drivers were back inside the top-10 in points with Wickens closing the gap on championship leaders Rossi, Newgarden, Will Power and others.

A Crushing Blow

Headed into the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway, Robert Wickens had led laps in each of the oval races on the 2018 IndyCar calendar with the exception of Iowa – where he still finished 5th.

The way in which Wickens had taken to the ovals so quickly as a rookie was remarkable, and when Robbie turned in a solid 6th place qualifying effort at the Tricky Triangle, not many onlookers were surprised.

Just as the August 19 race was beginning to settle in, the IndyCar world was turned upside down.

Wickens, along with four others, were all part of a terrifying lap 6 crash that occurred just past the Tunnel Turn at Pocono.  Fellow SPM teammate, Hinchcliffe, was part of that group and the accident debris entered his cockpit, causing cuts and bruising to his hands.  The injuries Hinch sustained would pale in comparison to Wickens’ ailments as his list of fractures and contusions was rather lengthy.

During the extended yellow flag period it became increasingly clear that Wickens would not only miss a few races, but the concern for his life was growing with each passing second he didn’t climb out of the car.  The race would go on, as it always does, but the thoughts were with our Canadian rookie.

When it was confirmed that Wickens would miss the next event at Gateway Motorsports Park, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports – in a classy gesture – decided to withhold Wickens’ No. 6 Honda from the entry list in his honor.  Hinchcliffe, driving with a heavy heart and injuries of his own, came home 15th at Gateway.

Karli Woods

Wickens’ fiance, Karli Woods, accepts Robert’s Rookie of the Year honor at the 2018 IndyCar Victory Lap in Indianapolis (Joe Skibinski/INDYCAR).

In the season’s stretch run the team would tap Carlos Munoz to fill-in for the final two rounds at Portland International Raceway and Sonoma Raceway.  The Colombian driver had run just once in 2018, finishing 7th at Indianapolis for Andretti Autosport, and expectations for strong runs weren’t necessarily present.

At Portland it was actually Munoz who put in a fine drive, leading SPM with his 12th-place finish while Hinchcliffe wound up 22nd.  To end the season in Sonoma, Hinch would finish as highest out of the two with a 15th place run (right where he started the day) while Munoz placed 18th out of 25 cars on the grid.

Certainly, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports was building toward a crescendo at the end of the season with both of their drivers starting to hit their stride before Pocono.

That race took the wind out of the team’s – and the series’ – sails for a while and it was understandably difficult for SPM to recover from that.

Despite the unfortunate circumstances to end the season, Wickens was strong enough in 14 races to best rookie challenger Zach Veach’s results in his full 17 races.

Wickens was crowned the Sunoco Rookie of the Year ahead of the season finale at Sonoma, and hopefully that serves as a bit of motivation moving forward.

Wickens’ racing future is unclear at this point with the Canadian driver working through the intermediate stages of what is sure to be a lengthy and challenging rehabilitation process.  Taking that into consideration, it will be a challenging offseason for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports as they attempt to prepare for 2019.

With all of that being said, no team showed more courage, poise or strength in the face of adversity in 2018 than Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.  They won a race, won a pole award, and handled an incredibly difficult situation with incredible gracefulness.  In my opinion, removing results from the equation, they were the team of 2018.

Open-Wheels wishes Robert Wickens the best in his continued recovery and we look forward to (hopefully) seeing Team Canada back on track together in 2019.

Header image by Joe Skibinski/INDYCAR.

Tanner Watkins

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