Canadian Robert Wickens may seem to be struggling early in his first season of competition in Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters (DTM), but looks can be deceiving.
That’s according to his German touring car series teammate David Coulthard, a 13-race winner in Formula One and a veteran of 242 grand prix.
“I think he’s probably not entirely happy with the results but he’s showing good potential and good pace,” said Coulthard, of Scotland, who raced 15 seasons in F1.
“It’s a different discipline and, in any truly competitive championship, I think it would be surprising if someone came in from a different type of racing and was winning straight off the bat. You are either a single-seater guy or you are a touring car guy and very few people manage to master both, but it is a hell of a lot of fun trying.”
In four races in the highly competitive DTM series so far this year, Wickens has failed to crack the top 10 and has scored no points. His best finish so far was a 13th earlier this month in Austria.
Wickens joined the Mercedes squad in DTM after winning the 2011 World Series by Renault 3.5 championship, a series that many have used as a stepping stone to F1. Although Wickens signed as a reserve driver with the Virgin Marussia F1 team last year, the only race seat available with it for 2012 went to another driver with pockets as deep as the Grand Canyon.
Essentially, Frenchman Charles Pic showed up at the team with a big fat cheque and Wickens was out of luck. Pic’s family runs Europe’s largest transport company.
The 23-year-old from Guelph, Ont., moved to DTM after seven seasons in open wheel cars, which began with Formula BMW USA in 2005. He moved through several series in North America and Europe and won races in every one where he had a regular drive. He was also 2006 Formula BMW USA champion.
Switching from formula cars to sedans is not easy because the characteristics of the cars are different. Anyone who doubts the degree of difficulty need only ask the numerous open wheel racers who have struggled after a jump to NASCAR.
Open wheel cars are light, quick, highly manoeuvreable and usually have lots of down-force to keep them stuck to the track.
DTM cars have ample down-force, 500-horsepower V-8 engines, and carbon fibre brakes, but they also tip the scales at 1,100 kilograms, which is almost double the weight of an F1 car.
Even so, the performance gap is not as huge as some may think. For example, the last time an F1 car raced at the Hockenheim Circuit in Germany in 2010, Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel put up a pole time of one minute 13.791 seconds, while earlier this year, two-time DTM champion Mattias Ekström, of Audi, was quickest in qualifying with a lap of one minute 34.680 seconds.
Although Wickens hasn’t figured out all the secrets to getting a DTM car around a track quickly, he probably shouldn’t feel like he’s lagging behind since his more experienced teammate is in the same boat.
“I don’t actually know the answer because otherwise I’d be winning,” said Coulthard when asked about key to a successful switch from open wheel to touring cars.
“It’s very different. The DTM is a lot heavier and there’s a different response – I jump back in a single-seater and it feels like my home and when I jump in a touring car it feels alien. I can’t put it into words but why does someone feel more comfortable at tennis than squash? Some sports feel right and others, even if they are essentially the same, they feel different.”
Coulthard is in his third season of DTM after racing single-seaters for the better part of 26 years. He is also a commentator for BBC’s F1 broadcasts.
Although DTM previously allowed manufacturers to supply lesser teams with one – or two-year-old cars, that rule was eliminated after 2011 and all the outfits must all run new models this year. But that does not mean that all the cars and teams are equal.
The Mücke Motorsport outfit that runs Wickens and Coulthard certainly is not a match for the top-flight HWA operation that features championship points leader Gary Paffet. HWA is owned by Mercedes and supplies all the cars to its teams. It has won six of the last 12 DTM driver’s titles.
In a situation where some teams are more equal than others, the best way to gauge a driver’s progress is how he does head-to-head against his teammate.
So far this year, Wickens has outqualified Coulthard 4-0 and finished ahead of the more experienced driver twice in four starts.
“You can only get the maximum from your package and the only comparison is with your teammate,” said Coulthard who scored the team’s only points this year with an eighth place finish in the season opener at Hockenheim.
“He’s been quicker than me in qualifying but he hasn’t had luck in the races. I don’t think there is anything wrong with his overall performance. I think it’s good for his development and I admire his career choice because I think it will work for him if he performs well for Mercedes.”
The next DTM race goes Canada Day at the Norisring street circuit in the Bavarian city of Nuremberg.
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