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The Globe and Mail

Wickens the first Canadian F1 hopeful since Jacques Villeneuve

There just might be a homegrown Formula One driver at this year's Canadian Grand Prix weekend. but before fans get too excited, it would only be as a reserve and test role, and not in the race.

And that's if it happens at all.

But if the F1 rumour mill is to be believed, Guelph, Ont.'s, Robert Wickens would be an official reserve and test driver for the Marussia Virgin Racing by the time the series hits Montreal for the grand prix in June.

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And that would mean the young driver may see some action in Montreal during Friday practice, since F1 teams are allowed to let their reserve and test drivers use those track sessions to gain experience.

The 22-year-old has the backing of Russian supercar maker Marussia Motors for his Formula Renault 3.5 Series season, something that may be at the centre of the continued talk about his joining the team in an official capacity. The connection with the big team is as clear as Wickens' driving suit and car in the Formula Renault series, which are exact replicas of the Virgin F1 team's livery.

Combine that with the fact that the spot as a reserve and test driver opened after the third race of the 2011 season in China, when the short-term contract with the driver in the seat, Sakon Yamamoto, expired following the chequered flag in Shanghai and there's reason to think that something might develop soon for the Canadian prospect.

In a perfect world for Canadian racing fans, a deal could be in place as soon as the next F1 race in Turkey, where the series stops May 8. That would also give Wickens 16 chances to get behind the wheel at a grand prix on a Friday, although Canadians would be most interested in seeing him hit the pavement at the 13-turn, 4.361 kilometre Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal on June 10, two days before the F1 race. The last Canadian in F1 was 1997 world champion Jacques Villeneuve, who ran his final race in the series in mid-2006.

Unfortunately, the Virgin team's car came late and its drivers need as much track time in the early going as possible, so the outfit would likely have to weigh that against the benefits of the publicity generated by Wickens getting behind the wheel in Montreal. So, Wickens and Canadian fans may have to wait for a later race. If things do not pan out at all when it comes to Friday driving, he would also be eligible for the rookie test following the season ending Brazilian Grand Prix at the end of November.

Nevertheless, a move to a reserve and test role would be thought to be a precursor to a full race drive in 2012, although there are never any guarantees in F1. The one thing it seems Wickens doesn't have to worry about this time is money, as Marussia is already in his camp.

Fans might recall that the young driver was runner-up in the new Formula Two Series in 2009 but lacked the financial backing could not secure a ride in F1 despite earning a Federation International de l'Automobile superlicence needed to compete in the pinnacle of motorsport. He was the only North American to have a superlicence at the time.

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While money has been an issue since Wickens lost his Red Bull backing at the end of 2008, talent has never been a problem. Wickens won the 2006 Formula BMW USA championship before heading to the Champ Car Atlantic Series where he finished third overall in his rookie season. From there, he went to Canada's A1GP entry and single-handedly pulled the struggling team up to score a win and four podiums. After his vice-championship in F2, he also was runner-up in the new GP3 Series last year despite racing with a team that admits it was not up to speed at the beginning of the season.

But none of that matters now as Wickens needs first to impress Marussia's brass in Formula Renault to put the possibility of an F1 seat within reach. It is thought that a top-3 result in the series would go a long way to securing a shot at an F1 seat, but obviously winning the title would be the best way to go about it.

Another key to Wickens making the move to F1 is Marussia becoming a majority shareholder in Virgin Racing team, which many expect to happen by the beginning of the 2012 F1 season. The Russian car company entered F1 as a sponsor of the Virgin Racing team last season and bought a stake in the team. It is thought they will take over as the majority stakeholder in November.

As he makes his case in Formula Renault, Wickens will have one of the best teams in his corner after signing with Carlin Motorsport, which won the title last year with Russia driver Mikhail Aleshin. Carlin also has five British Formula Three championships to its credit.

The good news is that Wickens started the season strong with a pole and two top five finishes in the first Formula Renault weekend in Spain. He is second overall in points with 28, 15 behind U.S driver Alexander Rossi. The 17-race season resumes with the next two rounds at the Spa-Francorchamps circuit.

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Motorsports columnist

There's an old saying about timing being everything in racing and Jeff Pappone's career as a motorsport correspondent shows that it also applies to journalists covering the sport too. More

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