It’s a pretty good bet that this win will stick.
Three weeks after Canadian racer Robert Wickens had a victory taken away, the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters (DTM) driver put one in the books on Sunday that left no doubt about who should be standing on the top step of the podium.
Racing in changing conditions at the famed Nürburgring Circuit in Germany’s Eifel Mountains, Wickens put on a spectacular show with some inspired driving and sensational passing moves to go from seventh on the grid to first as he scored his maiden DTM victory – again.
“I wasn’t expecting it to be honest with you,” Wickens said after taking the win in his 17th career DTM start.
“I had a good first lap in very difficult conditions and after the safety car it was really tough. The team did a fantastic job calling me in for wets when they did because it could have gone either way. You never know here (at the Nurburgring) if it’s going to continue raining or if it’s going to dry, and when it does become dry, it dries very fast.”
Wickens finished only 47 of the scheduled 49 laps of the 11-turn, 3.629 kilometre circuit before the maximum race time limit of 75 minutes was reached. The Mercedes driver crossed the line 2.158 seconds ahead of BMW driver Augusto Farfus. Fellow Mercedes driver Christian Vietoris was third.
It was the second time in a month that Wickens took his first DTM win. In mid-July, Wickens finished second at the Norisring race but was promoted to top spot after winner Mattias Ekström was disqualified. Ekström, who drives for Audi, was penalized after his father emptied water bottles into the pockets of the Swedish racer’s overalls in parc fermé before the post-race weigh-in.
Although the appeal court of the German motorsport federation upheld Ekström’s exclusion in a July 30 hearing, it also ruled that the rest of the field would not be promoted one spot, which took away the Canadian’s win. The finishers at the Norisring were classified from second place and down.
It wasn’t a terrible thing in the end, since Wickens now gets to look back on a magnificent drive in difficult conditions that delivered his maiden DTM victory instead of having to tell people he got his first triumph handed to him in the steward’s office.
Sunday’s race started in a downpour which began just as the cars lined up on the grid waiting for the red lights to go out. With the cars all on dry weather tires, the drivers tip-toed around in treacherous conditions before a couple of incidents saw the safety car emerge to pace the field. Wickens and just about everyone else ducked into the pits once the pit window opened on Lap 5 to swap their slicks for treaded rain tires.
Points leader Mike Rockenfeller spun on the first lap and pitted for wet tires immediately, giving him a huge advantage over the rest. As the field drove cautiously in the rain on slicks, Rockenfeller used his treaded tires’ extra grip to scythe through the field and take the lead by almost 20 seconds when the others pitted three laps later. But the lead came with a price: Rockenfeller still needed to make two pitstops inside the window as mandated by the rules, while those who waited until Lap 5 only needed one more.
The turning point for Wickens came at about one-third distance when the track began to dry. The then fifth-placed Mercedes driver turned things up a few notches, putting in a series of quick laps to reel in three rivals ahead.
In four corners beginning at the end of Lap 18, Wickens went from fifth to second with two spectacular overtaking moves. He dove inside the Audi of Miguel Molina going into the final chicane before the start-finish straight to take fourth and then trained his sights on the pair of cars ahead, Adrien Tambay in a Mercedes and the BMW of Augusto Farfus.
In a move that could only be described as unbelievable, Wickens swung wide going into Turn 2, found some grip near the edge of the track, and left tongues wagging as he powered around both cars on the outside of the corner to take second spot in one fell swoop.
“I took some risks with some overtaking and I thought this might be my only chance and I went for it,” Wickens said with a huge grin.
“Luckily, it paid off and I was able to then have clean air. As soon as I got past the three cars in front of me I was able to just put my head down and put in some good lap times. And again, the team made a very good move to pit me when they did for the dry tires and then it all just worked out in the end.”
The pass on Lap 19 was effectively for the lead, since leader Rockenfeller, who is known as “Rocky” in the DTM paddock, still needed to make that extra pitstop. They both came in 10 laps later and switched to slick tires. From there, the STHIL-sponsored Mercedes driver got the bit between his teeth and left no doubt that Rockenfeller wouldn’t be able to pit again and keep the lead. In just nine laps, the 24-year-old closed the gap to the Audi driver from 26 to 12 seconds.
The 25 points for the win pushed Wickens up three spots in the overall standings to third with 70, one behind Mercedes teammate Christian Vietoris. Rockenfeller, who ended up fourth, leads with 106. With three races left, there is a maximum of 75 points up for grabs.
DTM’s decision not to award Wickens the win at the Norisring may also figure in the championship fight. While moving everyone up one spot would have also helped Rockenfeller and Vietoris, Wickens getting an extra seven points for the win (25 instead of 18 for second) would have delivered four extra markers on Vietoris and five on Rockenfeller. In that scenario, Wickens would be second overall with 77 points with the Audi driver still first with 108. Vietoris would be third on 74.
The other Canadian in the field, St-Hippolyte, Que.’s, Bruno Spengler, is fourth with 67 points. The defending DTM champion who drives for BMW had a tough race after sustaining damage to the left rear of his car early in the action and fighting its handling as the track dried. Although he ran in the top-6 in wet conditions even with bodywork hanging from his car and causing blue smoke as it rubbed on his left rear tire, Spengler dropped to 14th once the track dried as the aerodynamic penalty of the damage increased.
It was the second consecutive race where Spengler hasn’t scored any points. At Moscow Raceway two weeks ago, he was hit and spun by another driver three laps into the action, which damaged his car and ruined his race. He ended the day 19th.
Before the two-race drought, Spengler was second overall and just two markers behind points leader Rockenfeller.
But as Spengler stumbled, Wickens accelerated with two podiums in his last three starts.
Now that he has that first win in his pocket and seems to be surging as the season goes down to the final three races, Wickens looks to be a factor in the championship battle.
But when asked whether or not he had arrived in DTM with his win, the Guelph, Ont., driver suggested that it might be much too early to pick him as a title favourite.
“I’ve gone into every race like I have from the beginning of the year and I just want to score as many points as possible,” he said.
“Some days you can challenge for a win and other days you can struggle to get points – DTM is really tough and I think that’s what separates a champion from someone who can just get a couple of podiums. If you look at the season that Rocky is putting together, it’s unbelievable how he is always there every race. That’s something I have to work on in the future and I like to think I am making some steps forward toward that.”
For more from Jeff Pappone, go to facebook.com/jeffpappone