Canadian racing fans feeling a bit of déjà vu as they anticipate the start of Robert Wickens’ sophomore Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters season just might be on to something.
After toiling in a satellite team where he had little chance of being a front-runner, Wickens moves to a factory Mercedes operation where he hopes to be a threat to win on most weekends.
“I’m definitely looking forward to the year and I am going to try to make the most of the opportunity,” said Wickens, who turned 24 in March.
“Of course I want a win but first things first: I want to get on the podium. I am not expecting my first podium to be a win but if it is, fantastic. I just need to rack up some points, try to finish every race and, if I do that, I think I can be in the championship fight at the end of the season.”
Although Wickens’ 2012 team, Mücke Motorsport, used the same AMG Mercedes C-Coupe as the top outfits, his satellite squad lacked the technical wizardry and experience available to the front-runners. In a series like DTM, where tenths of seconds spell the difference between first and 15th, the factory teams have a distinct advantage over the less sophisticated second-tier teams.
Wickens took three points finishes in 2012 and ended the year tied at 14th with his hugely experienced teammate, 13-time Formula One race winner David Coulthard.
If Wickens’ move to a top team after a learning year in a satellite squad sounds familiar to Canadian fans, it should.
Eight years ago, another Canadian racer, Bruno Spengler put up three points-scoring performances driving for a satellite team to earn a spot with a top Mercedes outfit the following season.
In his first year with the HWA team, Spengler became an instant championship contender and ended the year second in points. He was runner-up to veteran Bernd Schneider, who beat the Canadian in 2006 to take his record fifth DTM crown.
Spengler raced another six years with Mercedes and always finished fifth or better in the final standings. He jumped to BMW in 2012 and took home his first DTM title.
Although three points finishes should be considered a great performance in a car that was handicapped, Wickens felt strange not being at the front in 2012 – especially given that he has won races in every series and season where he’s run as a regular.
“Last year, I really didn’t know what to expect as a rookie coming into DTM,” said Wickens, whose best result last year was a seventh.
“I soon realized that getting a win would take a miracle race and the goal became to get as many points as possible and any time I could put myself in a points-scoring position improved the better chance I had of getting into a factory team the following year. Sure, it’s a bit disappointing but it’s also the first time in my career I wasn’t given an opportunity to win.”
Those who dig into the stats can see that Wickens got stronger as the he got more familiar with the car. He outscored three of the other five Mercedes drivers in the second half, including two in factory cars, and was the best satellite team driver in qualifying.
The Guelph, Ont., native’s prize was taking over the spot in the HWA team left open when former Formula One driver Ralf Schumacher announced his retirement last month. Until Schumacher decided to call it a career, it looked like Wickens would be left at a satellite outfit for a second season.
The move means that Wickens will need to go through an adjustment period for a second time as he acclimatises to his new surroundings.
“I’m coming into my second season but with a new team, so I am almost going to have to start from scratch again,” Wickens said.
“I am constantly trying to see how my engineers work and how we can work best together, but I am really excited for the first race.”
Those watching Wickens’ progress on will have no trouble picking his car out of the crowd. Sponsored by chainsaw maker STIHL, Wickens’ car is bright orange.
The 2013 season also promises to bring some surprises after the series added a Formula One-type Drag Reduction System (DRS) to the cars this year that should allow for more passing. The system flattens the rear wing and lowers the drag on the car to help it get a higher top speed.
In DTM, the drivers will be allowed to deploy the DRS once per lap anywhere on the circuit as long as they are within two seconds of the car ahead at the finish line. While DRS has made overtaking much easier in F1, the device will likely not bring the same dramatic gains in top speed to DTM.
“It won’t be as spectacular as F1,” Wickens said. “I honestly think it’s probably going to make it more like real racing because it will only create a little bit of a handicap [for the leading car] and not a massive one.”
Wickens thinks the real wild card this year is the new “option” tire rule, which mirrors the system used in IndyCar where Firestone brings a harder “prime” tire and a softer “alternate” – which offers more grip and faster lap times than the regular rubber but degrades more quickly than DTM’s sole tire supplier, Hankook, giving teams only one set of options that rubber must be used in every race. No additional option tires will be given to the teams to try in practice or qualifying.
With some drivers able to make the options last in pre-season testing while others struggled after only 10 laps, getting the most from the tires will be critical in 2013.
“We are getting a big performance gain with the new tires – depending on the circuit it can be up to two second per lap,” he said.
“It’s going to be interesting in the first race because we are kind of just going in blind: Every driver’s first go at the option will be in the race, and if you take too much out of it, you’re screwed. We will be dancing on a fine line between risk and reward.”
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