Nobody was more surprised by his first career Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters (DTM) podium than Robert Wickens.
After a rough qualifying saw him start 13th on the grid, Wickens went into Sunday’s DTM race hoping to steal a top-10 finish and salvage some points with a bold pitstop strategy in the season’s second race at the U.K. circuit of Brands Hatch.
It didn’t exactly work out that way after the 24-year old from Guelph, Ont., ended up scoring his first career podium by climbing an incredible 10 places on a track with a well-earned reputation for making passing difficult.
“I think it’s a miracle,” the Mercedes driver said with a huge smile following the race.
“It was a race I didn’t expect – my goal was just to score points. I don’t think any of us [in the team] expected that starting 13th on the grid that we’d be on the podium in Brands Hatch of all circuits. So, it’s something to take forward and some positives from the weekend when it looked like there weren’t many positives going into the race.”
Wickens, who qualified 14th but moved up one spot due to a disqualification, originally crossed the line fourth, before learning that his Mercedes teammate Gary Paffett had been slapped with a five-second time penalty for a caution period speed violation, moving an already elated Canadian up to third while the 2005 DTM champion was bumped to sixth.
The only trouble was that Wickens had already walked to the opposite end of the pitlane for media interviews by the time he found out the final order had been revised.
“I wasn’t sure they were talking to me to be honest,” Wickens said when asked about his reaction when he was told he was classified third.
“I was actually in the middle of an interview and they were like ’Robert, Robert, you’re on the podium’ and I was like ’What are you talking about?’ Everything was in a panic and then they told me I had to run and I said: ’Do I really have to run? I’ve just done 98 laps and I really don’t want to run, and they said ’no, no, no, you’re already late, come on hurry up.’”
Wickens sprinted the length of the pitlane to get to the podium just in time for the German national anthem played for winner Mike Rockenfeller, who drives for Audi. The other Canadian in the series, defending champion Bruno Spengler of St-Hippolyte, Que., was second in his BMW. It was the first time that two Canadians stood on a DTM podium.
Rockenfeller now leads the DTM standings after two races with 29 points, followed closely by Spengler with 28. Another BMW driver, Augusto Farfus, is third with 25. Wickens is eighth on 15 markers. Drivers get 25 points for a win.
While a 400-metre dash might not exactly be the best way to cap off a physically draining race, Wickens wasn’t complaining too much. “It was well worthwhile. It was a great feeling to taste champagne for the first time in my DTM career.”
Wickens joined a factory-backed Mercedes DTM squad this season after spending 2012 in a “satellite team,” which get the same equipment as the top outfits but don’t necessarily have the experience or resources to field a winning car. Nevertheless, he took three points finishes last year which was enough to earn a promotion to the factory outfit HWA.
Although he caught Paffett late in the action, Wickens held station behind his teammate, who is the acknowledged No. 1 Mercedes driver, and instead protected him from a pair of BMWs that were threatening from behind.
There were two keys to Wickens’ getting that position on Sunday.
The first was using his faster but less durable option tires to get around three cars on the first lap to move up into 10th position. That put him ahead of all the runners on the standard tire who might have slowed his progress. DTM went to two tire compounds this year with a softer “option” being introduced to the series. Although the top-9 started on the option, Wickens was the only driver between 10th and 17th on the grid who started on the softer tire.
The second big factor that played into his favour was the speed he was able to find on the standard tire.
“The pace was surprising on the standard and I wasn’t expecting the lap times to be as good as they were and I guess it was even better than I thought it was because we stayed out and stayed out and stayed out on the standard,” he said.
“I was behind people on the option and kind of catching the DRS (Drag Reduction System) all the time even though I was on the standard tire. So, I kind of got lucky because I think my whole middle stint I was on DRS every single lap but not overtaking and not being compromised in any way. So, I’d say my middle stint was probably perfect.”
DTM also introduced a Formula One-style DRS feature for drivers this year. The system flattens the rear wing which reduces downforce and increases top speeds. Unlike F1, the DRS may be activated by DTM drivers once per lap anywhere on the track as long as he is less than two seconds behind the car ahead at the start-finish line. In F1, the driver must be less than one second behind the driver in front at a DRS “detection line” and then is only allowed to use the device once in a pre-identified zone.
While the race came to him and he knew things were going well, Wickens’ choice of a different strategy from most of the frontrunners meant it was difficult for him to know exactly where he stood in the race. And his position once all had played out raised his eyebrows a bit.
“Only at the start of the third stint did I realize what position I was in and I was a bit surprised to hear ’P4’ on the radio. I was thinking I would be happy if I were in eighth or something,” he said.
“But I am not aiming to be third, I am aiming to be first, so we still have some work to do.”
The next DTM race I June 2 at Austria’s Red Bull Ring in Spielberg.
Dumoulin also gets a first
Dodge driver Louis-Philippe Dumoulin, of Trois-Rivieres, Que., scored his first career NASCAR Canadian Tire Series victory in Sunday’s Pinty’s presents the Vortex Brake Pads 200 at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park.
Dodge swept the podium in the Canadian Tire Series season opener at the famed Bowmanville Ont. track with Jeff Lapcevich, of Grimsby, Ont., second followed by Dutton, Ont.’s Jason Hathaway.
Polesitter J.R. Fitzpatrick retired after only seven laps with a broken drive shaft. The Ayr, Ont. native is a three-time winner of the 10-turn, 3.957 kilometre road course.
The Canadian Tires Series is back in action on June 15 at the Delaware Speedway in Delaware, Ont.
For more from Jeff Pappone, go to facebook.com/jeffpappone