For much of the last five years, Robert Wickens of Guelph and Toronto has been Canada’s next best Formula One hope. He’s turned heads every time he’s been in a car and on a track.
This year, he won the European-based World Series by Renault after finishing second the two previous seasons in GP3 and Formula 2. At Abu Dhabi two weeks ago, he drove a Marussia-Virgin F1 car in first practice on the Friday of the Grand Prix meeting, becoming the first Canadian to participate at that level since Jacques Villeneuve.
There then followed several days of Young Driver testing, in which he was very competitive when at the wheel of a quality car (third fastest on the first day when driving a Renault, for instance) but well down the pecking order (second last, in fact) when saddled with the Marussia.
Wickens is 22, lightning fast, good-looking and media-trained to a fault — everything you would want in a young tiger of a driver.
But he’s not on the F1 radar in Europe. He was mentioned almost in passing in dispatches from the Abu Dhabi test. The guy he beat for the Renault championship, Jean-Eric Vergne of France, got most of the ink and is currently the media favourite for an F1 seat in 2012 at Scuderia Toro Rosso.
Yes, Wickens could drive for Marussia-Virgin in F1 in 2012, but only if he’s able to bring between 3.5 and 5 million Euros to the table and, although there are people beating the bushes in Canada on his behalf, it doesn’t look likely.
And any hopes he might have harboured for a seat with one of the more competitive Grand Prix teams pretty much went out the window on Wednesday this week when Robert Kubica announced that he won’t drive for Renault in 2012 and all the stories then mentioned three or four drivers in line for his seat and not one of them was Robert Wickens (who’d done a pretty good job in that car at the Abu Dhabi test, remember).
Now, Vancouver businessman Teddy Yip Jr. has been a big backer of Wickens' for a number of years, so the driver could take whatever support he has and do yet another season in yet another F1 feeder series (he hasn’t raced in GP2 as yet) but what would that prove? If finishing first once and second twice in three major European series to date isn’t good enough, one more isn’t going to do much for him.
And, yes, there is the slight possibility that he could drive for Marussia-Virgin next season without having to bring money but, again, what would that prove? Trundling around at the back of the pack, seven or eight seconds off the pace, could do more harm to his reputation than good, I would suggest.
So, if you’re Robert Wickens and your dream is a competitive ride in Formula One, what do you do?
I say he puts whatever financial support he has today in a briefcase, and he gets on a plane and flies to the United States of America, and he knocks on the door of one Michael Andretti, who happens to have a pretty good seat available in his pretty good IZOD IndyCar Series racing team.
He hands the team owner the briefcase and he flashes that million-dollar smile of his and he says: “Hi, Mr. Andretti. I’m your new GoDaddy boy.”
And if Michael Andrett is smart – and I think he is – he hires the young Canadian on the spot because he's the complete package: he's got talent, good looks, some money and he's media savvy.
If Wickens then goes out and wins the the IndyCar championship, I guarantee that the top teams in Formula One would take notice. Even if he doesn't win the title, but he's winning races and/or fighting for wins, his name will be in headlines.
Robert Wickens will get more attention, and find it more satisfying being a celebrity front-line Indy car racer in North America, than he ever will being a "maybe" or a "might-have-been" overseas.
Don't believe me? Two words: