In the spotlight – Pascal Wehrlein

This son of a German boxer is punching above his weight with Manor in F1. Adam Cooper spoke to him

Germany’s F1 superstars have a habit of making spectacular debuts, and while Pascal Wehrlein didn’t quite match the past achievements of Michael Schumacher and Sebastian Vettel, the Manor driver certainly got himself noticed in Melbourne.

At the wheel of what is still in theory the least competitive car in the field, he jumped from 21st to 13th on the first lap and kept several quicker cars behind until his tyres went off. Second time out in Bahrain he raised eyebrows by qualifying 16th before putting in another charging performance in the race. It’s already apparent that if the three-pointed stars align, he will be a works Mercedes driver at some stage in the future.

The impetus for Pascal’s involvement in racing came from his father, although Wehrlein Sr’s roots are in a very different sport.

“When he was a teenager he was a boxer,” Pascal says. “He was not too bad, I think he won the south German championship and he was third overall in Germany. Now he has an engineering company, he produces gearbox pieces and he has about 30-40 people.

“He was always a car fan, and we watched F1 together. I was a McLaren-Mercedes fan, so we always supported Mika Häkkinen. We went to Hockenheim when I was about five, in 1999 or 2000. I told my father that one day I wanted to drive there, so in 2003 we started in karting.”

He soon made an impact, but family backing could only get him so far. German governing body the ADAC came to his aid: “They support young drivers not only with money, but with fitness and media workshops. Then after that I had the Deutsche Post Speed Academy. These two programmes helped a lot to get me into single-seaters.”

Aged 15 Pascal moved into the ADAC Formula Masters series in 2010, winning the title in his second year with Mücke Motorsport. That led to interest from HWA and Mercedes, who supported him in Euro F3 in 2012. He finished second and he was then moved into DTM for 2013, initially with the subsidiary Mücke team.

It’s not easy to plot a course from DTM to F1, and while Paul di Resta managed it, many other youngsters have soon found themselves typecast. Despite his youth Pascal took an eminently sensible approach.

“I definitely thought that this wouldn’t be the easiest way, because I didn’t have experience in touring cars. I was 18, and I’d had only one year in F3. I knew it was going to be hard. I had to beat my team-mates and win the title as quickly as possible. If I won it after six years, no one would care. I also knew it had to be quick to not lose all the feeling you had in a single-seater. But it was the only way I could do it.”

He was at the bottom of the Mercedes totem pole in 2013, and it was a difficult learning year. Promoted to HWA in 2014 he won a race, and was second-best Mercedes driver.

“In 2013 and ’14 Mercedes’ DTM performance wasn’t great. The important thing was always to be one of the quickest Mercedes guys, and improve my standing in the team. Last year we had a car which was good for the championship.”

Indeed in 2015 everything came together. As Mercedes F1 reserve he impressed in the sim and in testing, and he won the DTM title. When Mercedes joined forces with Manor, an obvious opportunity presented itself for Toto Wolff to place his protégé. The rest is in Pascal’s hands.

“We will have some races this year which will be hard, but then there will be some tracks that are easier for us, and conditions that help. For sure we can show some highlights. The key is to be ready when the opportunities are there.”