Less than two years ago, Robert Wickens thought his open-wheel racing career was over.
It nearly was.
The talented Canadian earned the attention of Red Bull in 2006 when he was just 16-years-old. He was fast and Red Bull knew it; signing him to its junior driver program.
With the energy drink giant providing financial backing, Wickens went on to win the 2006 Formula BMW Americas championship following a third-place effort in 2005. He wrapped up the ’06 title with three wins and seven podiums.
The next few years would be a whirlwind of junior formula racing with the Toronto-native piling on seat time. He ran 12 North American races in the Atlantic Championship to start the ’07 season before placing his focus on the World Series by Renault in Europe. At season’s end, Wickens was classified third in the Atlantic Championship with one win and four podium finishes. During the off-season, he proudly flew the Canadian flag competing for Team Canada in the A1GP Series. He won there too, compiling one win, two pole positions, and four race podiums while simultaneously becoming the youngest driver to win an A1 event.
In 2008, he pulled double-duty in both the Formula 3 Euro Series and the World Series by Renault. It was an exhausting season in which he was likely overextended, although you’d never hear him admit it. Still, the seat time only helped further develop his already-salient race craft and he won races in both Series.
The next year, 2009, he graduated to the FIA Formula Two Championship where he finished runner-up logging five pole positions, six podiums, and two wins. Not only was he fast, he was consistent too. He topped his fellow Red Bull junior teammates but, strangely, was dropped from the program at season’s end.
It was devastating. At the time, it seemed his dream was done. Finished.
Yet, Wickens maintained his devout focus. Heading into the 2010 season, he inked a deal with the team Status Grand Prix to compete in the newly-formed and ultra-competitive GP3 Series. Once again he proved his mettle, finishing second overall in the drivers’ championship with three wins and seven podiums.
Do you recognize the trend?
This brings us to 2011. In June, Wickens, now 22, was signed as a Formula One reserve driver for Russian squad Marussia Virgin Racing. While it was big news, it was hardly surprising for anyone who followed his career. He had made it. Formula One was now a reality; even if it was just a testing/reserve driver role. But, for Wickens, a reserve role wasn’t enough. He wasn’t done and he hadn’t made it. Not yet.
This spring Wickens returned to Carlin Racing for another run at the World Series by Renault title. It was obvious from the start he wasn’t going to settle for anything but a championship. During the opening race, he started from pole and finished second, leaving little doubt about the reality of his championship hopes.
However, his Carlin teammate Jean-Eric Vergne, an extremely talented Frenchman and current Red Bull junior driver — was after the championship as well. And so were several other speedy drivers. In the end, though, it would come down to Wickens vs. Vergne. A battle which wasn’t decided until the final race.
Following the season finale at Cataluyna, Wickens would emerge as the champion edging Vergne, 21, by a mere nine points. It was an epic 17-race battle which ended, ironically, with both drivers failing to finish the final event. American Alexander Rossi was a major storyline this season too, finishing third overall while topping all rookies. Rossi, 20, rounded out his inaugural Formula Renault 3.5 season with two wins and six podiums.
When the final checkered flag waved, though, the 2011 World Series by Renault title belonged to Wickens who wrapped up the season with five wins, seven poles, and ten podiums.
Still, Wickens is left with that haunting feeling of the great unknown, a feeling far too common for up-and-coming junior formula race drivers. The championship title guarantees him a minimum of a half-day test in the Lotus Renault Formula One car during the rookie test at Abu Dhabi.
While the future is unknown, one thing is certain: Robert Wickens didn’t give up in 2009 and he has no plans to give up anytime soon.