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Lewis Hamilton in the cockpit during Formula One testing this week (February 4-8, 2013). (Mercedes-Benz)
Lewis Hamilton in the cockpit during Formula One testing this week (February 4-8, 2013). (Mercedes-Benz)

Motorsports

With BlackBerry’s support, will we finally see a Canadian F1 driver? Add to ...

When its deal with the Mercedes AMG Formula One team was announced, smartphone maker BlackBerry called the sport “a natural fit.”

It may be wishful thinking, but Canadian racing fans can hope that the Waterloo-based technology company feels that backing a homegrown driver is a good thing.

While it’s still early in their F1 adventure, maybe BlackBerry will make a call to Canadian Robert Wickens, who coincidentally is also in the Mercedes family, driving an AMG C-Coupé in the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters (DTM).

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It would be a welcome reversal for Wickens, who is thought to be the last Canadian driver to approach BlackBerry to pitch an F1 sponsorship opportunity. The 23-year-old prospect, who is Canada’s best hope to get a driver in Formula One, hails from Guelph, Ont., which is about 28 kilometres from the tech giant’s headquarters.

Although F1 may not have been in BlackBerry’s plans before, that has obviously changed. There has been a change in management at the company, formerly known as Research in Motion, since Wickens was looking for the support he needed to secure an F1 role a couple of years ago.

Unfortunately, Wickens’ pitch came at about the same time as company co-founder and co-chief executive Jim Balsillie was preoccupied with buying a National Hockey League franchise and moving it to Hamilton.

Wickens is the only Canadian to hold the “superlicence” required for grand prix racing and he is the only driver from this country to have participated in an official F1 test session since 1997 world champion Jacques Villeneuve left the sport in 2006.

Now that the Canadian company has finally joined the grand prix circus, it should be a no-brainer for BlackBerry to use its influence to get the 2011 World Series by Renault champion into a Mercedes F1 car. It would also be a good move for the car manufacturer, which signed Wickens to its revived Mercedes-Benz Junior Team last year along with Spanish driver Roberto Merhi and German Christian Vietoris. All three drove in DTM in 2012. Having one of the trio in an F1 car would validate the program and be a good publicity.

Although Mercedes is yet to announce its drivers for 2013, Wickens had a good rookie season driving for a satellite team in DTM. He took three top-10 finishes and scored a total of 14 points, all of which came in the second half of the season. Wickens finished 16th overall in the standings.

Vietoris was the top scorer among the three junior drivers, although he was in his sophomore season in DTM and driving for a factory team. Merhi failed to take a top-10 finish in 2012 and did not score any points.

It is thought that Wickens will move up to a factory seat in 2013, although it likely depends on whether or not former F1 driver Ralf Schumacher – the much-less-successful brother of seven-time world champion Michael – stays in DTM for another year. The 37-year-old German ended the 2012 DTM season 17th overall in points.

There’s no doubt Wickens has the talent for F1, but he likely won’t get there on his speed alone. Unfortunately with his modest means due to not-rich parents, the only way Wickens will get there is through a strong backer who helps him meet the steep financial demands teams make for a spot on the grid.

Although some people wondered about the decision to move into touring cars in the DTM Series, signing with Mercedes was hugely important to his career aspirations because the Stuttgart-based auto maker can make F1 happen. The German manufacturer not only runs its own F1 team but it also supplies engines to two other teams on the grid, McLaren and Force India.

The close relationship with the teams it supplies has seen several Mercedes-backed drivers from DTM test in F1. For example, 2013 DTM championship runner-up Gary Paffett has been a McLaren test driver since 2005, while Paul Di Resta joined Force India after taking the 2010 DTM crown.

Then again, that equation hasn’t always worked out in favour of Canadians racing for Mercedes. St-Hippolyte, Que.’s, Bruno Spengler spent seven seasons with Mercedes in DTM, winning nine times and taking 10 poles and finishing no worse than fifth overall after moving to a factory squad in 2006. Despite being the most successful DTM driver over the six seasons he spend with a factory Mercedes team, he never won a title, which seemed to be the ticket to an F1 cockpit.

Although he got time in the McLaren simulator and performed well from all accounts, Spengler never got more than that. He won the 2012 DTM championship after switching to BMW, leading the manufacturer’s return to the series after a two decade absence. Spengler won four of 10 races last year on his way to the title.

While an F1 role eluded Spengler, he also didn’t have a successful high-tech company from just around the corner in his camp.

BlackBerry’s arrival in F1 gives Canadian fans optimism that Wickens will finally get the homegrown backing he deserves, which will allow him the opportunity to climb to the pinnacle of motorsport where he belongs.

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

Twitter: @jpappone

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