After Robert Wickens signed to race with Mercedes in the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters (DTM) series, the rookie went to a pre-season test last year and put up lap times as quick as the manufacturer’s veterans.
Having won races in every series he has competed in on a regular basis so far in his career, Wickens arrived at the DTM season opener last April feeling that a victory should be within his grasp in 2012.
That “blindly optimistic” outlook changed quickly after the top factory teams found another gear once the season began, while his satellite squad struggled to keep pace.
“I thought that I could win a race, but I soon realized that it was probably was not going to happen,” he said.
“Once we got into the season, it became pretty clear that it was going to be much more difficult to win a race than I had in mind.”
Satellite teams get the same equipment as the factory outfits but the level of support from the manufacturer is limited.
The 2011 World Series by Renault champion joined the newly reformed Mercedes driver program in 2012 and switched from racing open wheel cars to driving an AMG Mercedes C-Coupé in DTM.
Until last year, Wickens always scored at least one win in every season since he made his open wheel debut as a 16-year-old in the old Formula BMW USA Series in 2005.
While the win never came, Wickens took three points finishes in 10 starts last year, which he hopes is enough to earn him a ride with the top Mercedes team in 2013. The Guelph, Ont., native also showed the pace to score points on a couple of other race weekends but went home empty handed due to accidents or mechanical failures.
With Mercedes driver Jamie Green leaving the powerful HWA factory team for rival Audi, there’s a spot open for new blood at the hugely successful outfit. After being the top driver in a Mercedes satellite team, logic would put Wickens on the inside line for the open spot.
Whether or not the seat will go to him is anyone’s guess since Mercedes hasn’t even announced that he will stick around with the manufacturer for 2013.
“On a results basis, I think I did a good enough job to stay in DTM,” Wickens said. “With Jamie leaving the shop, there’s one slot that has opened up. I hope I did enough to go to HWA, but we will have to wait and see.”
No matter where he lands in 2013, Wickens feels he will be able to perform better this season after ironing out most of the DTM kinks in his first year.
“As a rookie you don’t know how things work and you’re learning how to drive a new car. Racing in a satellite team was tough,” he said. “Now I will know what to expect, so hopefully I have a better season.”
Fellow countryman and 2012 DTM champion Bruno Spengler knows exactly how Wickens feels. He also broke into the series with a Mercedes satellite several years ago hoping to show enough speed to earn a drive with a top factory team.
When Spengler joined DTM in 2005, he signed with a team that was running year-old cars designed to give young drivers an apprentice season before moving to a top outfit. Graduation depended on the driver’s performance in inferior machinery.
While all teams now must use the same car, the satellite outfits like Wickens’ Mücke Motorsport have huge handicaps to overcome racing against factory units like HWA which run like well-oiled machines, with more resources, the top engineers, and the best crews.
Like Wickens, Spengler scored three points finishes in his maiden season, which was enough to earn a ride with HWA, somewhere that the 2012 DTM champ feels Wickens belongs.
“I think he did a much better job than [Roberto] Merhi, but I was surprised he didn’t do better,” said Spengler, referring to the second rookie Mercedes driver in DTM this year.
“Wickens is a very quick driver.”
Spengler became an instant championship contender when he switched to a factory team, ending 2006 second overall and never finishing out of the top-5 overall in his next five seasons with Mercedes before taking the 2012 title in his first year with BMW.
The parallels between Spengler and Wickens also include ending their first DTM year 16th overall in points.
After his rude awakening in DTM, Wickens scored his first points in the season’s fifth race, taking ninth on the Norisring street circuit in Bavaria.
The 23-year-old’s best race was a seventh at the famed Nurburgring Circuit, where he qualified ninth and moved up three spots at the start before losing a place during one of his pitstops.
“It was just a great weekend for me,” he said.
“I didn’t make any mistakes on track, I was never under pressure, and I stayed close to the cars in front but then I couldn’t really overtake.”
He took one more points finish before the end the year, which tied him with teammate and Formula One veteran David Coulthard at 14 markers. Drivers get 25 points for a win.
Unfortunately, he did not finish the other three starts in the second half due to accidents.
The rough driving Wickens saw in 2012 hammered home the fact that DTM is one of the most hard-fought series on the planet. With the top-10 cars on the grid often separated by a two– or three-tenths of a second, a tiny mistake in qualifying can mean a starting spot near the back of the field, something Wickens would like to avoid in 2013.
That’s because while Wickens expected that a bit of fender rubbing would be de rigueur in his first season of driving sedans, he quickly realized that there’s no room for politeness when you are racing in the DTM pack.
“At the back, it’s war – there’s a lot of contact,” he said.
“Everyone is aware that it’s very difficult to overtake in DTM because the competition is so close, so everyone tries to optimize the first lap and so the first laps are just crazy.”
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