News that Carlin Motorsport and the Marussia Formula One team have joined forces to field a GP2 Series outfit likely didn't register much with motorsports fans in Canada, but it should have.
When the newly-minted Marussia-Carlin team announced its drivers in F1's top feeder series, one conspicuous absence was Robert Wickens from Guelph, Ont. Many felt that Wickens' next move, after taking the 2011 World Series by the Renault 3.5 title, would be GP2, where he would demonstrate his considerable talent in the hopes of landing a F1 seat on 2013.
It wouldn't be a stretch to think that Wickens' best shot at a GP2 ride would be with Carlin, where he raced last year on his way to the World Series crown. With his inside line for a GP2 drive blocked, the rumour trickling out of Germany last week that Wickens, who turns 23 next month, has signed to race for Mercedes in that country's Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters (DTM) Series now carries much more weight.
Essentially, if the GP2 door has closed, taking one of the last two remaining DTM seats with Mercedes is really the only logical decision Wickens could make.
First and foremost, there's no benefit in going back to the World Series as defending champion, since anything other than another title would severely diminish his stock.
Moving instead to DTM offers Wickens a chance to measure himself against some seasoned drivers in pretty trick cars. DTM machines have loads of downforce, 470-horsepower V-8 engines and carbon fibre brakes, and the field is filled with successful racers from every kind of competition – from three-time World Touring Car champion Andy Priaulx to former rally racer and two-time DTM champion Mattias Ekström.
Although Audi driver Ekström has 17 DTM victories and two titles to his credit, he may be more famous for winning the individual crown at the Race of Champions in 2007 and 2009 by defeating seven-time F1 world champion Michael Schumacher in winner-takes-all final races. If weren't enough, Ekström defeated now eight-time world rally champion Sébastien Loeb to win the 2006 Race of Champions individual title.
To give an indication of the high respect drivers have for the series, the other empty spot left at Mercedes will likely be filled by 2011 Formula Three Euro Series champion Roberto Merhi of Spain, who turned down a seat in GP2 to get an opportunity to race in touring cars.
Another plus for Wickens in DTM would be manufacturer backing, which can never be underestimated in racing. For example, Dario Franchitti's move to join Mercedes in the old German touring car series in 1995 eventually led to his joining the Championship Auto Racing Teams (known as CART) in 1997, driving with Mercedes-powered Hogan Racing. The rest, as they say, is history, with Franchitti winning his fourth IndyCar title in 2011.
Considering that Mercedes used its position as an engine supplier to place its driver Paul di Resta with Sahara Force India following his DTM championship in 2010, hooking up with the Stuttgart-based car maker looks like a smart move for Wickens. The fact that di Resta did a stellar job in the mid-field team only raised the stock of DTM drivers in the F1 paddock. Conveniently, the boss of Mercedes' DTM program, Norbert Haug, also heads the manufacturer's F1 involvement.
Wickens' signing would also make sense to Mercedes, who likely wants to replace fellow Canadian Bruno Spengler, the only North American to have raced in the series. Spengler left Mercedes after 2011 to join BMW, which returns to DTM competition this year after a two-decade hiatus. The 28-year-old from Saint-Hippolyte, Que., has been the runner-up in the championship twice. With BMW also signing U.S. driver Joey Hand, having a North American might be a good idea, especially with DTM planning a satellite series across the Atlantic in 2013.
Finally, there's always the lure of earning a steady paycheque. It is not difficult to imagine one of his key mentors, veteran racer Ron Fellows, encouraging the young driver to sign a deal that pays him a salary and connects him to a manufacturer.
A similar move by Fellows in 1986 not only ended nine years away from the track toiling on gas pipelines, but also began a relationship with Chevrolet that continues today. Along the way, Fellows won titles in Trans-Am and American Le Mans, took the overall win at the 24 Hours of Daytona and two class wins at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and has four NASCAR Nationwide wins to his credit.
Should Wickens turn out to have a three-pointed star on his 2012 racing car, he would be a teammate to either six-time F1 race winner Ralf Schumacher or 2005 DTM champion Gary Paffett, who is also a McLaren F1 test driver.
Although Wickens was named a Marussia Virgin F1 reserve driver last June, he failed to secure a race seat with the team this year, despite posting the team's quickest time at the 2011 young drivers' test last November. Simply put, although he's supremely talented, the young Canadian doesn't have the deep pockets needed to deliver a race drive at Marussia.
Instead, that opportunity went to Charles Pic, who boasts a family fortune that more than outshines his racing success. Now, the team seems to have also taken the "show me the money" route in GP2 by naming a pair of well-heeled drivers who have had limited on-track success.
On the other hand, Wickens has delivered wins in every major category he's raced. He won the 2006 Formula BMW USA championship as a sophomore and took rookie of the year in the Champ Car Atlantic Series in the following season, where he finished third overall. In 2008, his then backer Red Bull had him enter events in A1GP, World Series by Renault, and the Formula Three Euroseries, and he won races in all three. He was championship runner-up in the inaugural Formula Two Series season in 2009, before finishing second overall in GP3 the next year.
With a track record like that, one thing is clear: If the rumours of Wickens' switch from open wheel racing to touring cars turn out to be true, Canadian racing fans will likely see him add a DTM win to his résumé sooner than later.
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