Robert Wickens can finally smile freely in public. You see, the 23-year-old racer spent almost three months sitting on a signed contract to race German touring cars, but he wasn’t able to tell anyone about it.
Along the way, he had to fend off reporters, racing enthusiasts, Twitter followers and Facebook fans who all wanted to know where he would land in 2012.
So, when Mercedes announced reigning World Series by Renault 3.5 champion Wickens would be one of the final two racers named to its Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters roster for 2012 earlier his week, he could finally relax.
“It was tough and it was hard to deny,” said Wickens, who has already moved to Berlin and started learning German.
“I felt bad because everyone was asking me on Twitter and Facebook: ‘What's going on?’ But I couldn't talk about anything, so I kind of just kept my mouth shut and went off the radar for a bit. I'm happy it's announced and I can talk about it now and get the season started.”
While keeping his lips zipped was agonizing, seeing stories following the announcement saying he was “overlooked” by Formula One teams or was taking a chance on DTM because he couldn't find anything better only made him angry.
Wickens turned down two reserve driver roles in F1 and several offers in other series, including a seat in grand prix feeder GP2, to race for Mercedes. In fact, he made DTM a priority and chose it from the beginning because it offered him a chance to prove his mettle against top drivers in technically advanced cars, while also hooking up with one of the world's top automobile manufacturers.
“I think 2012 is the perfect time to get into DTM as a rookie — everyone is in the same 2012 car and there's a different tire from last year. Many of the drivers are telling me that the car characteristics are completely different, so everyone will have to learn it together,” he said.
“So far, I have been lucky enough to win a race in every rookie year I have ever had, so I am optimistic and my goal is to pick up a win. I want to win, get podiums and be a consistent points finisher and help Mercedes win the manufacturer's championship.”
In previous DTM seasons, some drivers not in the top factory teams raced in one- or two-year-old race cars that were sold to the lesser outfits by the manufacturers. This year, new rules do not allow those models to compete.
Although he's happy with the deal and with being able to talk about it, Wickens won't spend much time relaxing over the next few weeks as the Mercedes squad gets ready for the DTM season to begin on Apr. 29 at the German circuit of Hockenheim.
After competing in karts and open wheelers for his entire career — and racking up wins and titles in both – Wickens will race with a roof over his head for the first time later this month.
“I think I found my feet pretty good, but for sure, every time in the car I learn something new,” he said.
“It's effectively like my first year of racing again, because the car is quite a bit different to anything I've ever driven before. Hopefully, when the first race comes around, I can be competitive.”
So far, the Guelph, Ont. native has completed four tests with his new team, acquitting himself well in his first few experiences hustling his new Mercedes AMG C-Coupé around a racetrack.
In pre-season testing, only hours after being named an official Mercedes driver on Monday, Wickens ended the first day of a four-day session in Hockenheim with the sixth best time overall. He improved to fourth on Day 2.
One of the best parts of the deal for Wickens is having a seven-time Formula One world champion in his corner to help him, well, get around the corners quicker. Mercedes tapped Michael Schumacher as the coach of its 2012 junior drivers, which means that Wickens should have some time with the man who rewrote the F1 record book.
“Any time you can get even a sentence from Michael Schumacher, you just have to take it in,” Wickens said.
“You name it and he has been there, done that and set every record, apart from the youngest world champion. The guy is a living legend and anything he says will help immensely. It's not every day you get to have Michael Schumacher as a driver coach and mentor at the track.”
Along with his seven titles, Schumacher set the mark for career wins (91), most poles (68), most wins in a single season (13 in 2004), most wins at the same grand prix (eight in France), consecutive podium finishes (19 from the 2001 U.S. Grand Prix to the 2002 Japanese Grand Prix), most career points (1,518), laps led (5,111) and just about every other record that matters. Red Bull ace and reigning two-time champ Sebastian Vettel, who took his first crown at the age of 23 in 2010, is the youngest driver to win the F1 title,
And if having Schumacher in his camp isn't enough, Wickens can also lean on his Mücke Motorsport teammate David Coulthard of Scotland, who raced 15 seasons and scored 13 wins in F1. Coulthard moved to DTM after leaving F1 following the 2008 season.
“He was in F1 three years before I even did my first karting race,” Wickens said.
“The guy has had nearly a two-decade career at the top of motorsport; I mean I can learn everything from him. David is a great guy — we've spoken a few times now and he does not look down on me like he's the boss; we kind of just chat and talk like drivers. But any time you are teamed up with someone, you want to beat them.”
And while he's pleased with his new Mercedes, Wickens still hasn't given up on his F1 dreams. With 2010 DTM champion Paul di Resta parlaying his title into a F1 ride with Force India, which gets its motors from Mercedes, it's not a stretch to think the talented Wickens couldn't follow the same path.
“Of course F1 is on the radar, but right now my focus is on DTM,” Wickens said.
“Paul di Resta did a very good job in DTM, so I have to do the best job I can. At the end of the day, I can't control the future, I can only control the present and if I do a great job here, who knows what opportunities will come.”
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