Lapping it up

DEAN McNULTY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:25 AM ET

The first time Robert Wickens got behind the wheel of a race car at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve he was three months removed from his 16th birthday.

It was 2005 and the ink on his brand new Ontario driver's licence wasn't even dry.

Yet there he was, entered in the Formula BMW race on the undercard of the Canadian Grand Prix weekend -- at the nation's most famous race track.

"It was the first Grand Prix I had ever been to," the Toronto native said Friday in the opulent surroundings of the F-1 Marussia Virgin racing team's hospitality suite.

Wide-eyed as he was at just being part of an F-1 weekend back then, Wickens was determined to show he had the right stuff to make a mark in the world of motorsports.

It was a two-race deal where the BMW series ran two rounds, one on the Saturday and the other on the Sunday prior to the Grand Prix.

"I had one engineer and a couple of team guys," Wickens said. "In the first race I was really nervous. My whole family was there.

"I ended up with a podium finish (third) on the Saturday. And the next day I got my first professional race win."

He said he remembers every moment of that race.

"On that Sunday I actually started the race ninth on the grid so I had a long way to go to get to the front," Wickens said.

"So that made the win even more fantastic.

"On the next to final lap I passed both the first-place and second-place cars in the hair pin to take the lead.

"I ended up pulling away and winning the race by 10 seconds."

The result surprised even Wickens, who hadn't had a top three finish to that point in the 2005 season.

"In the first four races that year I had three fourth-place finishes," he said. "I was always just on the edge of being in contention for a win.

"I never expected that to happen at Montreal."

The unexpected win, however, propelled Wickens into the consciousness of racing's big boys who watched his progress with interest in Montreal on that fateful day.

For Wickens it was a thrill beyond even his 16-year-old imagination. He admits he got a bit carried away.

"I stood on the top step of the podium and there was this huge crowd down on the track in front of me," he said. "I thought 'wow this is the greatest moment of my life.'

"A few minutes later it hit me that those thousands of people were not there for me, they were just waiting for the start of the Grand Prix."

Six years later Wickens is back at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, this time as part of an F-1 team as a reserve driver for the Marussia Virgin squad.

That essentially means he takes part in all of the race preparations the team's two regulars drivers -- Timo Glock and Jerome D'Ambrosio -- go through. If something happens to either driver, Wickens would step in to the car for Sunday's race.

It is highly unlikely he will get behind the wheel of that car this weekend, but it is the next step for the now 22-year-old.

As excited as he was seven seasons ago, Wickens, if possible, is more excited about his move to F -1, even if it is as a reserve driver.

"In my first race meeting with the team I walked in and there were 16 engineers sitting there waiting for me," he said. "That is a long way from the one I had the last time I was here."

Wickens said he wants to use this weekend to watch and learn what goes into getting a driver ready to race in an F-1 event.

The thought of "what if " however does cross his mind.

"I would never wish ill for my teammates," he said. "But I admit to thinking about me being behind the wheel and what kind of times (speed) I could get out of the car if I were driving instead of them."

His time will come. Wickens has served his apprenticeship and his promotion to the Marussia Virgin team is his graduation certificate.

dean.mcnulty@sunmedia.ca @dmcnulty12

blogs.canoe.ca/thedeanofspeed


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