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Canada's F1 hope may need deep pockets to realize dream Add to ...

By finishing second over all in the revived Formula Two Series, Toronto's Robert Wickens has punched his ticket to Formula One.

The performance netted Wickens the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) super-licence he needs to fulfill his dream of racing in the pinnacle of motorsport.

Not surprisingly, the talented driver who is Canada's best F1 hope has already had some informal talks with some teams about a grand prix drive next year.

"I haven't been approached officially, but I have spoken off the record with a few F1 teams," the Toronto driver said.

"I will be the only North American in 2010 to hold a valid FIA super-licence, which could pay dividends. But we will have to wait and see."

Unfortunately, Wickens' dream may become a nightmare unless Corporate Canada steps up. Rumours persist that Wickens will lose his Red Bull backing at the end of the year, something that would stall the young Canadian's career in the pits. If Red Bull drops Wickens, it would be a bit of a puzzling decision since the 20-year-old ended the F2 season as their top-ranked driver in the series.

The 2006 Formula BMW USA champion took a pair of poles in the final two rounds last weekend at the Circuit de Catalunya in Barcelona, Spain, but ran into mechanical difficulties in the first race and retired after only four laps. He rebounded in the second race to take third, which delivered the FIA super-licence that went to the top three F2 points finishers over all. F2 runs two rounds per race weekend.

"Going into the race, I knew that basically as long as I was ahead of [third-place overall finisher Mikhail]Aleshin I had second, so once I got through the first lap safe and sound I just started being consistent and mistake-free," Wickens said. "It was a pretty conservative race from my part and I was happy to get second."

Wickens Formula Two season began on a high note, with a perfect weekend in Valencia where he took poles and victories in both races of the series' inaugural weekend.

"It was almost a bad thing that my season started as well as it did, because for the rest of the year I was always disappointed if I didn't match it," he said.

"It really couldn't have gone any better but from there we went into a string of just not getting everything together, bad luck in qualifying, and cars not finishing races or even sessions really."

While he had another six top-five finishes in the next 12 races, Wickens' lack of personal funding also began to help his well-heeled rivals catch up.

The cars in F2 were strictly controlled during the season to ensure they are as equal as possible, but many drivers hired personal engineers to help them find more speed. For example, series champion Andy Soucek hired an entire team of engineers to help him set up his car. The 24-year-old Spaniard raced in the Formula One feeder GP2 Series for the past two years before moving down to F2 in 2009.

The low point of the season came in Britain, where Wickens' de facto teammate Henry Surtees died when an errant tire from a crash struck his helmet.

"It definitely hit close to home. I've been lucky in my life to still have all my grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles, so I hadn't experienced a death before," Wickens said.

"It was hard to take in. I put two Hs on my air intake for the remainder of the year to remember him. People may not have noticed it, I knew it was there and that was good enough for me."

With the F2 season behind him and a super-licence in his pocket, Wickens is a good candidate for GP2 or F1. But he will need to find someone with a very happy wallet should the Red Bull rumours turn out to be true.

While the drivers at the front of the F1 grid earn millions of dollars, others dig into their own pockets to secure their spot in the series.

A quick look at the F1 driver payroll shows that four racers - Kazuki Nakajima of Williams, Renault's Romain Grosjean and the pair of Force India drivers, Adrian Sutil and Vitantonio Liuzzi - did not earn a cent.

That of course probably means the four drivers or a sponsor paid the team for their seat. And Wickens' best shot is probably with one of the four new outfits -Campos, Lotus, Manor and Team US - that will all be looking for drivers with flush backers.

"Basically, if you can't bring any money to the table, you can't get in with one of the new teams and, with the current economy, you aren't going to get a reserve role with any of the other teams," Wickens said.

"I have always said my whole life since I was 10 years old that I just want a career in motorsports. I mean the goal is still F1 and my dream is F1, but in the end, I would rather pay my bills racing than being in an office from 9 to 5."

globedrive@globeandmail.com

 

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