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Bad Hand Controls Could Derail Robert Wickens' Single-Seater Comeback

Photo: Formula E
Photo: Formula E

No one knew what to expect when Robert Wickens took to the track in a modified Formula E car almost two weeks ago at Portland International Raceway, including Robert Wickens. It was the first time the 35-year-old Canadian drove a single-seatrace car since the 2018 IndyCar crash which left him with limited mobility below the waist. While the 11-lap demonstration run was intended to evaluate Wickens’ prospects in the electric world championship, the category’s equipment wasn’t ready for him.

Wicken’s return to competition in 2022 has seen him racing touring cars in the IMSA Michelin Tire Challenge, a mixed-class sports car series. Last year, he won the TCR class championship alongside his teammate Harry Gottsacker. This success wouldn’t have been possible without acclimating to hand controls. Speaking with Wickens before his test in Portland, he said, “For 20 years, I was perfecting trail braking and throttle applications with my feet. Now, I’m trying to replicate that with my hands.”

Driving a Formula E car presents unique challenges, but the same issues crop up. Wickens uses paddles mounted to the back of the steering wheel in place of the pedals. He added, “Today, I’m using my left hand for the throttle and my right hand for the brake. If I’m turning more than 90 degrees, it’s hard to be precise and apply the throttle accurately.” In IMSA, he has access to the throttle on both sides of the wheel and the brake at any angle.

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Watching trackside, it was obvious to see that he was having difficulty accelerating out of Portland’s tight opening chicane. The electric single-seater is equipped with a single-speed transmission, so there is no shifting to complicate matters further. However, the car’s energy regeneration is operated using a paddle mounted to the back of the steering wheel.

Michael Andretti (left) and Robert Wickens (right) before the test - Photo: Formula E
Michael Andretti (left) and Robert Wickens (right) before the test - Photo: Formula E

The Canadian hopes this evaluation is the first step in the development of the car’s hand controls and towards a race seat in Formula E. The hand control solution that’s created could eventually be used by others. Wickens stated, “Hopefully, we can pave the way for future generations of drivers with disabilities and it can be easier from karting all the way up to the elite levels.”

For Wickens to get a shot in an official rookie test, he’ll need a team boss to give him the opportunity. Michael Andretti, IndyCar legend and Formula E team owner, acknowledged that the poor control setup hindered Wickens’ performance and added, “Unfortunately, I don’t think he’s ready yet. Down the road, who knows?”

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