Robert Wickens, the talented young racing driver from Guelph and Toronto who finished second in the FIA European Formula 2 series last season – only to see his sponsor, Red Bull, terminate his contract at the end of the year – has his fingers crossed that he’ll have a deal in place for 2010 before the end of the month.
And that deal could even see him driving for a brand new Canadian team in the soon-to-be-launched GP3 European series.
"I’ve been in talks with a lot of teams for 2010," Wickens said during a chat we had at last weekend’s Canadian Motorsports Expo. "I should have some news by the end of the month or early February about what I will be doing.
"There are several possibilities. First, I’d like to stay in Europe. I’m still only 20 and to go to Formula One you have to be in Europe. Ideally, I’d like to get a reserve driver role with an F1 team – to focus on GP3 or GP2 (both series are on the undercard at European F1 races) and be in the reserve role with your foot in the door and see what surfaces from that."
Wickens, who started his climb up the international racing ladder in 2006 when he won the Formula BMW-USA championship (he went on to race in the Champ Car Atlantic Series in North America before moving to Europe to compete in the World Series by Renault in ‘08 and F2 last year), is at a distinct disadvantage, however, in that his options are severely limited.
By the time Red Bull released him from their employment, all of the good race seats for the 2010 season had been filled.
"The thing about GP3 is that it is brand new and people (other drivers) are skeptical about jumping in. GP3 had to sign an agreement (with the FIA) that each team will have three cars on the grid, so they have to fill all three cars or else face a financial penalty for each car each team is short. So that option looks pretty good."
Wickens says that as long as he’s not racing in F1, he wants to keep his career path open.
"I want to drive as often as I can in the 2010 season. Hopefully, there will be one primary championship I’m participating in. But it’s one of my goals to do the Toronto Grand Prix (the Honda Indy Toronto) with Indy Lights."
He admits being heartbroken when he got the news that his career with Red Bull was over
"But it was a business decision by Red Bull; they just told me that I didn’t fit into the business plan for 2010."
Having said that, Wickens said Red Bull likes to keep its drivers on their toes.
"Every year, Red Bull would say, ‘You have to win the championship, you have to win the championship.’ So in my first year on the Junior Team in 2006, they told me I had to win the championship to continue and I did. I wasn’t sure if it was a bluff or if he (ex-F1 driver Helmut Marko, who runs Red Bull’s racing program) meant it.
"Then, the last few years, he wasn’t saying anything. He’d tell me one weekend that I have to win so I would somehow go and win. When I started the F2 series at the beginning of 2009, he told me I had to win the title to continue. I finished second. But I thought he would take into consideration I had seven mechanical retirements out of 16 rounds. The fact that I then finished second in the championship, in my opinion, was a pretty decent accomplishment.
"I’m sorry I was released, just for the financial security. But now there’s 22 cars I can drive for in Formula One instead of just four (the Red Bull and Red Bull-sponsored Toro Rosso teams). So it definitely opens up new doors."
Wickens says he harbours no ill feelings toward Red Bull and, in fact, is grateful for what they did for him.
"If it wasn’t for them picking me up at the end of 2005, I would have been back in go-karting in 2006. Considering I have made it as far as I have, I owe a lot to Red Bull for what they did for me.
"I thought Dr. Marko and I had a very good relationship. Any time I was in Austria, I could jump on a train and go down to his office and go out for lunch or go out for dinner and just sit and chat. He was very nice to me.
"But in the end, it came down to how you performed. It was a great program. The whole staff in the racing department were phenominal; they were so helpful. However, they say that when one door closes another one opens, so I’m confident my career will lead to better things."