In the world of Motorsport, many young drivers with talent fall by the wayside as sponsorship and personal finance become bigger variables in a team’s decision to take a driver on. We spoke to Mercedes DTM Driver Robert Wickens about his own journey up the motorsport ladder.
Wickens finished the 2016 DTM season in 4th as the leading Mercedes driver, enjoying his best season in the series to date. Wickens comes from a single-seater background – A Formula Renault 3.5 champion with Carlin Motorsport and a former test driver for the Virgin Marussia Formula One team, the Canadian driver has taken the tested route from single seater to DTM.
Wickens firstly highlights the Motorsport bug that afflicts many drivers from a young age, citing that he’d always known that he wanted to be a professional racing driver.
“Apparently as a baby, when I was crying, my mom would put me in front of an F1 race and I would be hypnotised by the cars, I would stop crying stare at the screen. So it was meant to be.
I wanted to be a racing driver for as long as I can remember. As a kid, I wouldn’t play with action figures, always cars on a mat.
Also, my mom drove a school bus, so instead of hiring a babysitter, I would go along too. There was a kid on the bus who raced g0-karts, I remember him showing me pictures of the kart, and it made me want to try it out. At the age of five, I was given the choice to either play hockey or get a go-kart – I went for the go-kart. In my first season of karting, I won rookie of the year but then got my break and won the Championship in my second year. The kart team started sponsoring me when I was about nine.”
– Robert Wickens
The sponsorship aspect of motorsport is usually the make or break factor, especially in the junior ranks in which drivers and their families are expected to find sponsors and bring them onboard. If Wickens himself hadn’t found sponsorship as a young racer, it may have stalled his progress up the ladder like it does to so many aspiring drivers. We asked if he believed that race team’s should try harder to seek sponsorship for the individual driver, instead of the driver and usually their families having to find the budget themselves.
“I feel like every team pursues sponsorship, but not as heavily as the driver. I’ve been with teams who subsidise a lot of budget, but there’s a lot of pressure on a driver to bring a budget. There’s maybe 1-2% of drivers who can afford to bring the entire budget, but 100% teams should pursue sponsorship more. In my career, it was me and my family cold-calling companies.”
– Robert Wickens
Now, Wickens can look back on his career and see the fruition of the tireless efforts of himself and his family because the work that went on away from the track allowed him to get on with the important stuff on-track. The advice he offered for aspiring race drivers also highlights the fine line between making it and missing out.
“One thing I tell any young driver is – Always go with your gut. I did highly risky things but my gut was telling me to do it. Treat every race like it’s a big race because someone who can help you could be watching.
I got my big break in 2005. I blew my entire 2006 budget to go to the BMW finals in Bahrain – The Winner got an F1 test. My family were against me going given the risk, but I went with my gut. I qualified in pole but got disqualified, meaning I had to start at the back of the grid. I managed to get through the field and finish the race 3rd. Someone who could help me was watching that race and offered me a Red bull contract, which covered my budget for 5 years. Without that race I wouldn’t have progressed. If I hadn’t followed my gut, I may not have been seen by Red Bull.”
– Robert Wickens
This experience highlights the risk Wickens simply had to take and it paid off. After years of racing in various championships, his future was secured in one race because the right person was watching, such is the fragility between success and failure in Motorsport.