Canada’s Robert Wickens was happy, yet somewhat subdued Sunday, hours after wrapping up his first European formula car championship, the World Series by Renault.
"Happy, yes. But it’s just another step in the process," said Wickens, of Guelph and Toronto, about his quest to become the fifth full-time Canadian Formula One driver after George Eaton, Gilles Villeneuve, Allan Berg and Jacques Villeneuve.
"It’s my best result to date," acknowledged the 22-year-old Marussia-Virgin F1 Team reserve driver, who last won a championship five years ago when he captured the Formula BMW-USA series title.
"But it doesn’t guarantee me anything. It doesn’t 100 per cent give me a ride for 2012."
Wickens, who talked to me from his Barcelona hotel room between runs to the shower and telephone calls from his parents, went into the final two-race weekend of the Formula Renault 3.5 Series leading his Carlin Motorsports teammate Jean Eric Vergne of France by two points.
The championship would come down to a fight between the two of them, as all of the other two dozen-plus competitors had been eliminated.
Wickens, who finished second two years ago in the European Formula 2 Championship and second again last year in GP3, stormed to pole position for the first race Saturday and then won in dominant fashion, going away.
Although Vergne finished second, Wickens’s lead was up to nine points.
For Sunday’s race, Wickens started second and Vergne went off fifth but he was so determined to catch the Canadian at lights out that he misjudged his braking point for the first corner, went sliding through the grass and crashed into the Canadian’s car, leaving it undriveable.
Several other cars were involved and although Vergne was able to keep going, his steering had been damaged and he also eventually wound up in a gravel trap, his race, season and championship hopes finis.
With both championship contenders out of the race, Wickens’s nine-point lead held up and he was declared 2011 champion.
"Well, it’s not the way I wanted to seal the championship but I’m happy to be champion," Wickens said in a press release. "I’ve been fast here all weekend. I think yesterday’s (Saturday’s) race pace demonstrated that. It’s obviously a shame we didn’t have the opportunity to demonstrate that in today’s race but it really does come down to the whole season and overall it’s been a good year."
And that it has been. The Canadian won five races, was on the podium 10 times and snatched seven poles – an excellent, consistent season.
But he admitted that his heart was in his mouth when he was knocked out of the last race of the season on the first lap.
"I thought, ‘This can’t be true, this can’t be happening,’ " he said over the phone, minutes before heading downstairs in the hotel for the season-ending banquet and trophy presentation.
"The year had gone so well (after the disappointment of the last two years) and yet here I was in danger of losing it. But it turned out okay because the guy who ran into me (Vergne) was out of the race too, so things worked out."
Wickens, as a reward for winning the title, will get a test in the Renault Formula One car after the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix at the Yas Marina circuit next month. He’ll be there, of course, because as Virgin’s reserve driver, he has to be on hand at all Grands Prix and available in case he’s called upon to race.
"Yes, I’ll have my helmet with me," he said. "I’m a racing driver, and it goes where I go."
Wickens said he hadn’t had time to think about what he might do in 2012. "I have to digest this (his championship) and then go from there. For the rest of this year, I’ll be at all the Grands Prix, so we’ll see."
Always the diplomat, which is the way of the world in big-league auto racing these days, Wickens was full of praise for his team, Carlin, and for his teammate.
"It’s a shame the season had to end the way it did for myself and JEV," he said. "We raced each other hard and fair all year, which was great, so it’s a pity that we ended the season with contact at the first corner. The contact could have been avoided and it’s a shame that it wasn’t.
"The team were flawless all year. We’ve had great team chemistry, the team operates very professionally. Everything they do is first class. It’s the reason I wanted to be with them at the start of the season and I’ve been given no reason to regret that decision.
"It was great having Jean Eric as a teammate. He pushed me all year and I think I did the same to him, which is why it came down to the two of us for the championship.
"At the end of the day, I’m just happy I’m champion. A big thanks to the team and (sponsor) Marussia for making this possible."