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Robert Wickens at the Nuerburgring circuit. (Mercedes-Benz)
Robert Wickens at the Nuerburgring circuit. (Mercedes-Benz)

Motorsports

Canadian driver at home behind the wheel in Germany Add to ...

After six months of living in Berlin, Canadian Robert Wickens still isn't feeling too confident when he talks to his local grocer.

Although he's taking German lessons and picking up some phrases here and there to help him get by, Wickens is far from comfortable in the language.

"I started one-on-one lessons and hopefully 'alles ist gut' (all is good)," he said.

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"My goal by the start of next season at least to be able to do somewhat of an interview in German — although it will be completely broken German. That's the plan and I have the lessons three or four times a week until November, so we will see."

None of that matters when he's behind the wheel of his Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters (DTM) Mercedes, where he's fluent in any language and makes his AMG C-Coupé sing like it's in a Wagner opera.

In fact, even though he'd never raced a sedan before the season opener at Hockenheim, Wickens never really felt out of place in his new Mercedes.

“At the first race, I was already confident in the car, but I think what is important is that I feel like I am learning every weekend,” he said.

"While I felt comfortable in the car, I think it's fair to say I feel more on top of in now than I was at the first race, although I think every driver would say that."

After a successful open wheel career that culminated with a reserve driver role with the Formula One Virgin Marussia team last year, Wickens decided to walk away from the Grand Prix circuit temporarily to take a spot on the Mercedes-Benz Junior Team.

The exclusive membership package included a seat in DTM as a teammate to former F1 driver David Coulthard.

So far in 2012, Wickens has shown he's quick, outqualifiying his more experienced teammate six-to-one. In races it has been a bit more even. With both drivers retiring from the last event in Zandvoort, Holland, they have each beaten the other to the finish line in three of the six remaining starts.

"David is a great teammate to have. He is quick but he is also so level-headed because he's experienced everything in the world," Wickens said.

"I've learned a lot from him — even when he tells me random stories, I have to listen because I can learn something from it. For my rookie year in DTM, I don't think I could have a better teammate than David."

With three races left in 2012, Wickens is six points behind Coulthard in the overall standings and he makes no secret that he'd like to be ahead when the season ends next month.

Drivers get 25 points for a win in DTM, which adopted the F1 scoring system this year.

Although it would be logical to assume that Wickens’ high-profile position on the Mercedes Junior Team would deliver a multi-year deal, it is also possible that his contract contains clauses that allow Mercedes to dump a poorly performing driver. With the best gauge being against his teammate, finishing ahead of Coulthard may be a critical milestone.

Wickens will get back to work on that goal this weekend as the DTM series gets back on track at the Oschersleben circuit in central Germany.

Wickens' best finish came last month at the legendary Nurburgring, where he started a season-best ninth on the grid and overtook three cars at the start to get up to sixth. He lost a spot in the pitstops and ended the day seventh.

"Nurburgring for sure has been the highlight of my season so far because it was a well-rounded weekend for me," he said.

"I was quick in practice, made it to Q3 for the first time, and then it was kind of a boring race where I didn't really overtake anyone after a good start. But a dream race in terms of managing it.

DTM uses a knockout-style qualifying where slower car are eliminated until the 10 quickest battle it it for pole.

While DTM is also a spec series, which means all the cars are the same, it doesn't necessarily mean it's a level playing field. In most races, Wickens’ pitstops have usually between one to three seconds slower than the top Mercedes teams, which means he loses about two to six seconds per race.

At the Nurburgring, for example not losing the four seconds he did in the pits in his two stops would have put him in fourth place at the finish rather than seventh.

"At the end of the day, Mercedes knows exactly where things stand," he said. "I just try to do the best job I can in every session and every lap."

Wickens is hoping to repeat the successes of the only other Canadian to race in the series, St-Hippolyte, Que.'s, Bruno Spengler who has been a top performer in DTM for the past six seasons.

The first North American in DTM , Spengler started his career in the German touring series in a similar way. He spent his rookie season in a year-old Mercedes — the equivalent to the non-factory teams today — and scored points in three of his 11 starts that year.

A year later, Spengler was promoted to a top Mercedes team and challenged for the 2006 series title as a sophomore, taking four wins in 10 starts and finishing second overall. After seven seasons with Mercedes, Spengler moved to the fledgling BMW team in 2012 and is a surprising third overall in points.

Unfortunately, Spengler was always overlooked by Mercedes when it came to their F1 involvement and the Canadian never got a test in his tenure with the manufacturer while other DTM drivers in its stable were put in a grand prix racer several times.

While he's yet to drive a Mercedes grand prix car, Wickens participated in F1's rookie test last year.

He tested two cars in the rookie session, the Lotus Renault as a prize for winning the 2011 World Series by Renault 3.5 title and the Marussia in his reserve driver role. He was the quickest driver in both cars but his speed ultimately meant nothing when it came to securing a spot on the grid since the size of young drivers' bank account figures more prominently into who gets a race seat in F1 than actual performance on track.

With his modest means, Wickens' only real hope of making it to grand prix racing is the backing of a manufacturer like Mercedes. So, despite the detour to touring car racing, Wickens still dreams of F1.

"I'd be lying to you if I said I didn't want to be in F1," he said.

"DTM is the career path I have chosen and F1 is still my goal as it has been my whole life. I just opted for a different strategy to try to get there."

Zanardi to get 2013 Indy 500 start?

It looks like Alex Zanardi will be racing in the 2013 Indianapolis 500. Well, that's if Jimmy Vasser makes good on his promise.

The 1996 IndyCar champion turned team co-owner promised Zanardi that he'd put him in a car for the famed race if he won a Paralympic gold medal.

Last week, the 45-year-old brought home gold in both his solo events — the Individual H4 time trial and Individual H4 road race — and grabbed a silver in the Mixed H1-4 Team Relay.

Reports have Vasser already talking to Zanardi's old Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) owner Chip Ganassi about figuring out how to get him in next year's Indy 500. Zanardi won two consecutive CART titles beginning in 1997.

Not only was the performance good enough to put Vasser on the hot seat, but it also conferred the honour of carrying the Italian flag in Sunday's closing ceremonies.

The two-time CART champion lost his legs in a horrific accident at a 2001 race in Germany. He returned to racing full-time in 2005 driving a specially modified BMW 320i in the World Touring Car Championship. He drove the hand-controlled car to four victories.

He gave up racing two years ago to dedicate all his time to training on his handcycle for the 2012 Paralympics.

Zanardi told the Globe and Mail last month that he would like his next challenge to be racing a hand-controlled IndyCar in the Indy 500

For more from Jeff Pappone, go to facebook.com/jeffpappone (No login required!)

Twitter: @jpappone

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