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New Cars First F1 drive in Abu Dhabi a thrill for Canadian Robert Wickens

Robert Wickens of Canada drives during practice for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix for Marussia Virgin Racing at the Yas Marina Circuit on November 11, 2011 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Canadian driver Robert Wickens tried to treat his first official Formula One drive like any other. He went though all his normal preparations, not changing a thing with his routine as he prepared to take the Marussia Virgin out in the first Friday practice session for Sunday's Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

Then it hit him.

"I am not going to lie: When I first sat in the car and got strapped in, the team put the television screen down on my car and I saw my name on the F1 timing screen, I just kind of thought 'This is pretty cool'," said Wickens who is a reserve driver for the Marussia Virgin team.

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"After the installation laps, for whatever reason I was sixth and it was really great to see my name up there. Then the TV cameras were on me for a little bit because they were showing all the new drivers for this practice. Little things like that made me realize: 'Holy crap, this is really happening.'"

"But as soon as I got into the starting procedures, I wasn't even nervous; the team did a great job making me feel comfortable."

After 23 laps in the Marussia Virgin, Wickens ended his first official F1 experience in 23rd overall, ahead of only one car that did not make it out of the garage. Then again, last is not an unfamiliar spot for the MVR-02, which usually fights with the HRT team to see who won't be at the bottom of the time sheets in sessions.

In the end, the 22-year-old Canadian was 0.527 slower than Marussia Virgin race driver Timo Glock, who has four F1 seasons under his belt since taking the 2007 GP2 title. Wickens' best time of one minute 48.551 seconds came on his final lap. His appearance was the first in F1 by a Canadian since Jacques Villeneuve raced for Sauber-BMW in the 2006 German Grand Prix.

"I guess to end only half a second off is pretty decent considering that Timo is a good driver with lots of experience," Wickens said.

"Unfortunately, I made a small mistake and got some wheel spin over an exit curb and ended up losing three-tenths [of a second] It's a bit frustrating since I could have been only two-tenths off but still it's a good accomplishment for a first time driving an F1 car around a circuit."

Although Friday's practice session at the Yas Marina Circuit marked Wickens' maiden excursion in an F1 car in race trim, he was behind the wheel of the Marussia Virgin car for a straight line test in September and drove some demonstration laps in a Renault F1 car in Hungary as a reward for leading the World Series by Renault at the halfway point of the season.

Neither Wickens nor Glock did any low fuel runs in the session and both stayed on the "prime" Pirelli tire which has harder and slower rubber than the "option" version. Most of the work Wickens did was on car balance and baseline tests.

"I definitely left the run wanting more – it happened so quickly," he said.

"It's one of those things but I am sure my time will come and I just have to keep chipping away at it and hopefully things will happen."

So, it's no surprise that Wickens also can't wait to get back into an F1 car on Tuesday in Abu Dhabi for the F1 Young Drivers' Test where he will drive the Renault for a day before switching back into the Marussia Virgin on Thursday.

The goal in the Marussia Virgin is a modest target of finishing the day ahead of Team Lotus-Renault, which should not to be confused with the Renault he will drive on Tuesday.

The track should be quick for the test as the drivers take advantage of the added grip from the rubber laid down by the F1 cars in Sunday's Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. To get an idea of how much the added rubber helps, Red Bull prospect Daniel Ricciardo put up a fastest lap at last year's young driver test on the Yas Marina Circuit that was almost 1.3 seconds quicker than world champion Sebastian Vettel could manage on his pole position run for the 2010 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in the same car.

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Wickens earned the one-day run in the Renault as a bonus for winning the World Series by Renault 3.5 title this year. He will also be setting the bar a bit higher when he's behind the wheel of the Renault on Tuesday, since he will be in a car that has consistently finished in the top half of the timesheets this season, rather than near the bottom.

"I am targeting a top-3," he said.

"I'm going to try to get ahead of either a McLaren or Ferrari and I think that will show well for me. And, any seat time I can get is fantastic, so I am looking forward to driving with Marussia Virgin again on Thursday."

Race for the Cup

The NASCAR Chase for the Cup comes down to a winner-take-all showdown in Miami this weekend after points leader Carl Edwards and challenger Tony Stewart stayed glued to each other in the season's penultimate race on Sunday in Phoenix.

Edwards was second in the Kobalt Tools 500 with Stewart nipping at his heels in third, a result which left the pair separated by a measly three points going into the finale at Miami-Homestead speedway on Sunday.

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Essentially, the 2011 NASCAR crown goes to the driver who finishes ahead of the other, as no other Chase contender can overtake the pair of front runners in the final race. Drivers get 47 points for a win and second-placed man Stewart is 48 up on Kevin Harvick in third.

One thing is also certain: reigning five-time champion Jimmie Johnson will not make it six consecutive titles. With one to go, Johnson is fifth, 68 points back.

For more from Jeff Pappone, go to facebook.com/jeffpappone (No login required!)

Twitter: @jpappone

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