As Formula 1 winds down its 2011 season to the three final flyaway rounds, and with both the drivers' and constructors' titles already clinched, the focus is shifting somewhat to who might be moving around or up to the championship come 2012.
One such contender is Canadian youngster Robert Wickens, the 22-year-old Marussia Virgin Racing reserve driver whose four-year stint in Europe after moving from North America ended with his most successful season in 2011. Wickens took home the Formula Renault 3.5 World Series championship, one of the most coveted titles in European junior formulas.
Wickens drove for Carlin Motorsport and edged teammate Jean-Eric Vergne by nine points after nine race weekends and 17 races (all except Monaco are doubleheader rounds). It was an intense battle between the two, each of whom won five rounds and pushed each other throughout the year, as Wickens told RACER.
“The perfect competitor had to be my teammate, Jean-Eric Vergne,” Wickens says. “He was a very good teammate to have, very strong, and he made my life both very easy and very difficult at times!”
Vergne has Red Bull support aiding his track to F1 – three free practice 1 outings in the final four races for Scuderia Toro Rosso bears that out. Because of the Frenchman's innate speed, Wickens had to dig deeper at each round.
“You always had good data because he was quick all the time,” Wickens explains. “When a teammate is always quicker than you, it's almost better than a teammate who's always slower.
“You have to treat your teammate different than a normal driver. At the end of the day, it was more productive I had a teammate as quick as he is. It brought up both of our games. For instance, there were some qualifying laps I did where I wouldn't have been expected to do the times I did.”
Asked to expand on his best weekend, without hesitation, Wickens said everything went perfectly at Silverstone. Wickens posted the only doubleheader sweep of the year by any driver, and the maximum 50 points to Vergne's 12 was the biggest results gap between them on any weekend in the season.
The field he beat this year was fairly deep, Vergne joined by Australian ace Daniel Ricciardo (LEFT) – who split his 3.5 duties with his promotion to HRT in F1 – and American hopeful Alexander Rossi (PODIUM, RIGHT) all in the top five. Others who have been linked to F1 testing roles within the last few years – Fairuz Fauzy, Jan Charouz and Adam Carroll among them – made starts in the championship this season.
It's been a long road for him to get here. A Formula BMW USA championship in 2006, then 17, was followed by a year with some success but shy of the title in the Atlantic Championship. Wickens moved to Europe and ran in 3.5 in 2008, with constant speed but a propensity for getting involved in accidents. He ran in Formula 2 in 2009 and GP3 in 2010, finishing runner-up in both championships.
Through those years, Wickens has developed in several ways. He describes his evolution from his first year learning the European ropes in full to this stage in his career.
“My first year in Europe, speed was never a problem, but I think I lacked a bit of maturity,” he says. “To this day, I still don't know what was causing it. I think in the first eight races I had one win and seven retirements! I didn't know if it was me or just poor luck. There was one time at Spa where I got T-boned and didn't even make it out of the first corner! It was weird because I was the only driver that year to qualify in the top five for every race, and I put together a fast season but the results never came. It finally clicked toward the end of the year with four podiums. It was too little too late, and I ended up 12th overall.
“I enjoyed myself in GP3 largely because of the team I was associated with. We worked together previously in A1GP with Team Canada! It was a bit like a reunion. Everything at Carlin at 3.5 this year was just amazing. Carlin was a bit strange; we had the smallest number of people as a team at the circuit. We put together a phenomenal season despite such limited manpower, I think we had only eight full-time people in the team.”
Returning to 3.5 this year was largely a financial decision, but as Wickens explains, he wasn't alone in his assessment of the series to run in 2011.
“The only reason I did 3.5 this year was for pure cost reasons,” he says. “GP2 is over 2 million Euros ($2.8m) to do. But you can do a year of World Series for under a million; you can't really compare the two. A lot of drivers had the same mentality. I have no regrets going where I went.”
Now it's about where he's going. As part of the bonus for winning the 3.5 title, Wickens will have a day's running in the Nov. 15-17 Abu Dhabi young driver test with Lotus Renault GP. As he has backing from Marussia, he's also likely to get a day with Marussia Virgin F1 in the test.
As ever, funding will have to occupy a decent portion of Wickens' already packed talent briefcase if he is to make the jump to F1. The testing, though, can only help.
“I think winning the 3.5 championship put my name on the map,” he says. “You now have to show what you're really made of. You only get one chance for a first impression in F1, and you go over your comfort level and push as hard as you can every lap.
“F1 is my goal for 2012,” he declares. “I feel I've done enough this year to prove myself and prove I'm ready – or at least ready for the chance to give it a shot. I will work to raise as much as I can. The goal is to secure a race seat and start my career in F1.”
If Wickens debuts in F1, he'll be the first Canadian driver in the series since Jacques Villeneuve and BMW Sauber parted ways midway through 2006. At the moment, Wickens is the only North American with a valid superlicense.
“You generally think of it as an honor,” he says. “It's sometimes more difficult for North Americans to make a career there. But it's a privilege to be representing Canada and North America as a whole and work to get an F1 race seat for next year.”