Guelph’s Wickens on pole for his first IndyCar race

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Robert Wickens of Guelph secured the pole position for Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, the first race of this year’s Verizon IndyCar Series.

Wickens turned in a lap of one minute, 1.6643 seconds on his final lap in the top-six qualifying session on the street circuit Saturday to capture the top qualifying position for Sunday’s race, his first ever in the series.

“I’m a little speechless,” Wickens said in an interview on the series’ internet coverage of qualifying shortly after climbing out of his car. “First off, Q1 was full dry, normal and the best of the best rise to the top and I was happy to make it through. My goal going into today was just the top 10. If I made fast six at all it would have been amazing and the fact that we topped Q2 was already for a surprise.

“From there, I was already in the top six so it was just ‘Let’s go have some fun’ and it was a great strategy to get out right at the end and get a lap on the track when in my opinion it was probably at its best. It was tough, but the Lucas Oil car was fantastic and my whole team behind me all kept our cool and we made the right changes at the end there for the last qually and we got it.”

The 28-year-old Bishop Macdonell Catholic High School graduate moved to the IndyCar series following the 2017 German DTM touring car series after Mercedes announced that it would be pulling out of that series following the 2018 campaign. He joined fellow Canadian and long-time friend James Hinchcliffe in the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team.

The pole victory was a bit of a surprise for Wickens.

“I didn’t really know where I was the whole session with the track evolving,” he said. “My first lap was like six seconds slower than what I did on my last one. It was a little surprising, but never the less I’m still happy.”

Wickens competed in 84 races in the DTM series in six years, winning six of those races and finishing in the top 10 in the series three times including a fourth-place finish in 2016. He won pole position five times.

A champion in the Formula BMW USA series in 2006 and the Formula Renault 3.5 Series in 2011, Wickens has scored race wins in almost every race series he has competed. He had six race wins in Formula Renault 3.5 Series, five in Formula BMW USA, three in GP3 Series, two in FIA Formula Two Championship, one in Champ Car Atlantic, one in A1 Grand Prix and one in Formula 3 Euro Series.

The move to IndyCar also means a return to racing open-wheeled cars for the first time since 2011 with the exception of a qualifying session with his current team at last year’s Kohler Grand Prix at Road America filling in for Mikhail Aleshin of Russia who couldn’t get back to the U.S. in time for that session. Aleshin had competed in the previous weekend’s 24 Hours of Le Mans. Aleshin had one pole position in 47 races with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.

Saturday’s qualifying sessions featured variable weather that saw the track get damp and then start to dry in time for each driver’s final lap of top-six qualifying.

Including Wickens, three series rookies made it into the top-six session and they qualified in the top four spots.

“The mixed conditions probably helped the rookies because no one could get the best out of the reds (softer alternate tires used only on road and street circuits),” Wickens said. “I’m definitely going to take this pole position and hopefully we can get a good result (Sunday).”

Veteran Will Power of Australia, the 2014 series champion, was second fastest for Team Penske at 1:01.7346 and was followed by rookies Matheus Leist of Brazil in third for A.J. Foyt Racing at 1:01.7631 and Jordan King of Britain in fourth for Ed Carpenter Racing at 1:01.7633.

Indy 500 winners Takuma Sato of Japan (2017 winner) and Ryan Hunter-Reay of the U.S. (2014 winner) were fifth and sixth respectively while Wickens’ teammate Hinchcliffe was seventh at 1:00.9986. Sato, racing for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, had a time of 1:01.8821 while Hunter-Reay, racing for Andretti Autosport, was clocked at 1:02.0385. Qualifying times for drivers are the ones they recorded in the final session in which they competed.

A total of 24 drivers started the first session of qualifying. That total was cut in half for the second session, the top-12 session and that was knocked down to six for the final top-six session.

The race is to be broadcast on Sportsnet 1 and ABC Sunday starting at 12:30 p.m.

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