Red Bull built him up, then knocked him down. But this DTM ace just doesn’t know when he’s beaten, says Damien Smith
There’s a common theme brewing in these columns: how to bounce back after Red Bull and its fierce driver boss Helmut Marko fires you. Canadian Robert Wickens has such a tale, but like others he’s not bitter. He can even laugh about it now, from his perspective as a factory Mercedes DTM driver.
“I only have good things to say about Red Bull,” he tells me ahead of a race in his old sponsor’s back yard. “If they hadn’t picked me up I wouldn’t have got past my first year in Formula BMW. I’d have gone to university and had a normal-person life.”
Red Bull came knocking at the end of that first year, and after US title glory and a season in Champ Car Atlantic, Marko called him to Europe. He was 17.
“Yes, I was living in an apartment on my own, but I was in a village with one bar, so you couldn’t get into too much trouble!” he says. “I didn’t have a car, but I had a Vespa and I was at the Red Bull training centre twice a day. That was all I did. They weren’t the best years of my life, but it was something I had to do.
“I replaced Sebastian Vettel in Renault 3.5 for the last two races of 2007 as he was already with Toro Rosso. That was my first time racing in Europe, then the next year they had me do both the Formula 3 Euroseries and Renault 3.5. And during the off-season I was doing A1GP for Team Canada. That season was insane – I did 45 races. I probably bit off more than I could chew, with 14 consecutive weekends on the road, but I won in all three cars.”
A1GP, the short-lived ‘World Cup of Motorsport’, is a happy memory. “That’s still the highlight of my life so far,” he says. “Eighteen years old, travelling the world, moving from two mechanics and an engineer to a team of 15 people on my car, with global TV and parties… It opened my eyes.”
It wasn’t all ‘live the dream’. “Red Bull funded my motor sport, but I still had to pay for my travel and accommodation and I had little money to get to races,” he says. “I’d either travel with the team or take a train for 16 hours because it was cheaper than flying. Not easy times.”
Typically, when the end came it was brutal. “Yes, I got released for not winning a championship. I finished second in Formula 2 and they said ‘you didn’t win, get out of here’. A bit harsh! But F2 did open doors.” The bounce-back included success in GP3, then a championship earned with Carlin in Renault 3.5. That was sweet.
But he holds no grudges against Marko. “As brutal as he was, he had my best intentions in mind,” says Robert. “He was cut-throat, but if he said something was going to happen, it would – and no news was good news!
“Mentally, I’m way stronger because of Red Bull. When you get a call from your boss saying ‘if you don’t win this race, you’re done’ 10 minutes before you are due to drive, it toughens you up!”
During 2011 he touched the hem of Formula 1 as a reserve at Marussia. He was hot property – but now he faced a crossroads.
“For 2012 I had the offer of Marussia reserve as well as GP2,” he says. “On the other side I had a multi-year contract with Mercedes for DTM. It was the more concrete plan, because in F1 these days you have to bring money. GP2 can be up and down, too. So I took the chance with Mercedes. I have no regrets.”
A victory in three of his four seasons is his DTM return to date, and following the Red Bull Ring, where he was punted off by a seemingly under-orders Audi, he was sixth in the points, third of the eight Mercs. Consistency is his problem, as it is for most in the talent-packed ‘showbiz’ DTM world. “I’ve proven I’m a winner,” he says, “but until I win a championship I won’t be satisfied.”