After months of speculation, it is now official: Robert Wickens of Guelph, Ont. will race German touring cars this season as a Mercedes factory driver.
He will join the squad in the highly competitive Deutsch Tourenwagen Masters (DTM) Series as he continues to find a way to get to Formula One.
"DTM is a fantastic series – you're competing against top-notch drivers," said Wickens, who turned 23 last month.
"I'm proud that Mercedes-Benz are giving me the chance to show what I am capable of in this environment in the Junior Team. My main aim will be to finish every race and to deliver decent performances."
Wickens hopes to follow in the footsteps of Force India driver Paul di Resta, who moved to grand prix racing after taking the DTM crown in 2010.
Mercedes made the official announcement in Germany on Monday. The Canadian driver will debut for Mercedes at the 2012 DTM season opener at the German Hockenheim Circuit on Apr. 29. The 11-race season wraps up at the same venue on Oct. 21.
Wickens will drive a Mercedes AMG C-Class car for Mücke Motorsport, alongside former F1 driver David Coulthard.
Roberto Merhi of Spain and German driver Christian Vietoris were also announced as part of the Mercedes Junior Driver line-up.
Rumours of the Canadian driver's signing emerged about a month ago when several German websites reported that he and 2011 Formula Three Euro Series champion Merhi had agreed to deals to drive cars with three-pointed stars.
Wickens, the reigning World Series by Renault 3.5 champion, had been made a reserve driver for the Marussia F1 team last year, but the team asked him to hand over an exorbitant amount of cash for a race seat. The spot went instead to Charles Pic of France, whose family fortune made him a much more attractive candidate than a hugely talented Canadian of somewhat more modest means.
Looking at the 2012 F1 grid must be doubly frustrating for Wickens, who must also watch French driver Jean-Eric Vergne race for Toro Rosso after being beaten to the Formula Renault crown by the Canadian.
While not the F1 seat he coveted, DTM remains an excellent proving ground for talent. The field is full of quick drivers, including several with F1 experience, and the cars are fast and technically advanced. The vehicles include some features used in grand prix racing, such as carbon fibre brakes.
Wickens replaces fellow Canadian Bruno Spengler at Mercedes. Spengler was the first North American to race in the series, but that changes this year with the arrival of Wickens and U.S. driver Joey Hand. Spengler, a 28-year-old from Saint-Hippolyte, Que., has been the runner-up in the DTM championship twice.
Wickens will have to succeed where Spengler failed when it comes to convincing Mercedes that he's got the right stuff for F1. Although several other Mercedes DTM drivers got a chance to drive an F1 car during Spengler's time with the German manufacturer, the Canadian always seemed to get overlooked by motorsport boss Norbert Haug.
Asking Haug when Spengler would get an F1 test became an annual tradition during the media lunch hosted by the car maker at the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal. It got so ridiculous that on one occasion, Haug actually told reporters – with a straight face, too – that the Canadian had no interest in F1.
No matter what happens with his F1 aspirations, Wickens should be a threat to win as he continues a career that has been marked by success wherever he has raced. He took the 2006 Formula BMW USA Series title in his second season of racing cars, and followed it with rookie honours in Champ Car Atlantic in 2007, when he finished third overall.
Wickens then posted victories in multiple series against the top talent in Europe after he moved across the Atlantic at the end of 2007. He finished second overall in the inaugural Formula Two season in 2009, and was championship runner-up in the new GP3 Series the following year.
He brought home a European title in Formula Renault last year, becoming the first Canadian to win a major open-wheel racing crown in Europe since Jacques Villeneuve took the 1997 F1 world championship.
Bahrain push begins
With less than three weeks to go before Formula One is scheduled to visit the Gulf kingdom of Bahrain, the campaign to keep its grand prix on the 2012 schedule has shifted into high gear.
"Of course the race is going to happen," the sport's ringmaster Bernie Ecclestone told reporters at a media lunch in London last week hosted by the Bahrain race organizers.
"What I don't understand are the negative statements being made, people catching them and continuing them. They're saying things they don't understand ... it's all nonsense."
Ecclestone was joined at the media event by several F1 team bosses. A cynic might say that the teams' support of a Bahrain Grand Prix may have something to do with the roughly $50-million in prize money that's reportedly up for grabs in the Apr. 22 race.
Unfortunately for Ecclestone, things on the ground in Bahrain may not be so rosy. A man apparently filming security forces during a protest on Friday was shot dead in a town outside the capital of Manama.
While Ecclestone appears unconcerned, British risk analysis firm Maplecroft asserted that the kingdom's ruling Al-Khalifa family may be worried about the potential for another large-scale uprising.
Because the government wants to show stability has returned, F1's arrival may lead to more abuses by its security forces.
"Given the importance of the event in terms of investor confidence and government revenue, Bahraini authorities will almost certainly take strong action to prevent protesters from disrupting the event," said Torbjorn Soltvedt, Maplecroft's Gulf analyst.
"While the security threat posed to teams and fans is likely to be low, there is a high risk of indirect complicity in human rights violations carried out by security forces."
The 2011 grand prix was cancelled due to bloody democracy protests early last year. At least 80 people have died and about 2,700 more have been injured since anti-government protests began in Bahrain early last year.
The government-established Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry issued a report late last year that detailed excessive force used by government security personnel, torture of detainees and other human rights abuses directed at protesters.
But none of that matters to F1. In fact, Ecclestone said last year that his concern is "making the best deal possible for F1". So he'll happily pocket Bahrain's sanctioning fee – believed to be in the $40-million range – no matter what might be going on outside the circuit's gates.
"These people [of Bahrain]were brave enough to start an event in that part of the world, and that's it," Ecclestone said. "We'll be there as long as they want us."
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