Mercedes-Benz have confirmed that Roberto Merhi and Robert Wickens will join their DTM driver lineup for this season, forming a new Junior Team with fellow young driver Christian Vietoris. The trio will be mentored by Michael Schumacher, who benefited from a similar scheme himself before racing in Formula 1.
Wickens and Merhi won the Formula Renault 3.5 and Formula 3 Euro Series titles respectively last year, but a lack of budget required to progress further up the single-seater ladder meant that both had been highly rumoured to be making the switch to the DTM with Mercedes.
All three drivers have been placed with different outfits within the Mercedes setup. Having made his DTM debut last year with Persson Motorsport, 23-year-old Vietoris steps up to the crack HWA team. There he will drive the Mercedes-Benz Bank-liveried car vacated after Bruno Spengler's defection to series newcomers BMW, and joins Gary Paffett, Jamie Green and Ralf Schumacher at the leading team.
Germany's Vietoris was runner-up in the 2009 Formula 3 Euro Series with Mercedes-Benz power, before making the step up to GP2. After finishing ninth in the standings in 2010 with one win at Monza, he continued in the championship alongside his rookie DTM campaign last year. He came seventh in the final standings, taking race wins at Spa and again at Monza at the tail end of the season. In the DTM he finished 14th in the final standings, with a season highlight of fifth at Oschersleben.
“I feel very much at home in the Mercedes-Benz family and in this particular race environment, so I am all the more delighted to be one of the three drivers in the new Mercedes-Benz Junior Team,” said Vietoris. “I hope to establish a long-term relationship with Mercedes-Benz in the world's most popular touring car series, and I'm aiming to make a persuasive case for myself out on the track.”
Merhi replaces Vietoris in a Junge Sterne-liveried car for Persson, where the 20-year-old Spaniard will be teammate to Susie Wolff. He has been supported by Mercedes since 2008, and raced for the marque in Formula 3 for the past three years. That culminated in a dominant season last year, where he won both the Euro Series and FIA International Trophy titles.
“It's a dream come true for me to have been promoted to the Mercedes-Benz DTM Junior Team,” said Merhi. “Having a Mercedes-Benz Junior Team in the DTM is a fabulous idea, and it's the perfect way for me to advance my career. Without this talent development scheme which Mercedes-Benz have been running successfully for so many years, I wouldn't be where I am now.”
Canadian Wickens, 22, joins the Mucke Motorsport team, partnering David Coulthard. He will drive the stern-backed car, which was driven by Renger van der Zande last year. Van der Zande and Maro Engel have been left out of Mercedes' lineup this year.
Wickens has had an impressive rise through the ranks, finishing runner-up in the FIA Formula Two Championship and GP3 Series in 2009 and 2010 respectively before going one better in Formula Renault 3.5 last year.
“The DTM is a fantastic series – you're competing against top-notch drivers,” he said. “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.”
Mercedes-Benz and their trio of young drivers will hope that the new Junior Team setup will repeat the success of the three-pointed-star's programme from 1990 and 1991. Schumacher, together with Karl Wendlinger and Heinz-Harald Frentzen, drove a Sauber Mercedes in the Sports Prototype Championship. All three went on to race in Formula 1.
“I remember clearly the early stages of my career, and what I gained from my time in the Mercedes-Benz Junior Team – both on and off the track,” said current Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 driver Schumacher. “It taught me the best way of working with the engineers and helped me build a professional relationship to the media.
“I’m excited to see how Christian, Roberto and Robert develop – they’re certainly going to have a great time – and I enjoyed meeting them in Barcelona to offer a few tips from my own experience. Mercedes-Benz places great importance on developing the next generation of drivers – and there are plenty of examples who demonstrate this. Being selected as a member of the Mercedes-Benz Junior Team is really something to be proud of. I will be following the performances of the DTM juniors closely and wish them lots of success.”
Vice-President Mercedes-Benz Motorsport Norbert Haug added: “Here at Mercedes-Benz, we have a tradition of nurturing promising young drivers and talent-spotting the stars of tomorrow that goes back almost as far as the earliest Mercedes-built racing cars.
“In 2012, we are sending three highly gifted twenty-somethings into the fray as our DTM Junior Team: Roberto Merhi, the reigning Formula 3 Euro Series champion; Christian Vietoris, a GP2 champion who already has experience of DTM racing; and Robert Wickens who won the Renault World Series.
“All three of them are keen to seize this wonderful opportunity. And they have excellent role models in Michael Schumacher, Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Karl Wendlinger, the successful trio who made up the Mercedes Junior Team in the late eighties and early nineties, and who have still not finished making motor racing history. Roberto, Christian and Robert have a lot to learn, but that will not be a problem, as they are all three avid learners.”