The Renault F1 Team is set to unveil Vitaly Petrov as their number two driver for the 2010 Formula 1 season, after the Russian today concluded a deal in which he will bring an estimated €10 million to the squad.
Sources close to the team have told me that Petrov, who finished runner up in the 2009 GP2 Series to fellow 2010 F1 graduate Nico Hulkenberg, had a seat fitting yesterday (Friday) at Enstone, and put pen to paper to ink the deal which will see him become the first Russian F1 race driver in history, this afternoon (Saturday.)
As such, I would expect him to be officially announced as a Renault driver and Robert Kubica’s team-mate at the launch of Renault’s new yellow and black car, the R30, at Valencia tomorrow. Doing the deal early is good news from the perspective of both the team and driver, as it will allow the rookie some much needed testing mileage.
The Vyborg Rocket, as he is known in Russia, (because he comes from Vyborg and is pretty quick) or Alex from “A Clockwork Orange” as he is called by others (because he looks like Alex from “A Clockwork Orange), began his racing career in 2001 in the Lada Cup championship in his homeland before making the switch to European-based single seaters in 2003 when he took part in the Formula Renault UK Winter Cup. He continued in various Formula Renault championship in 2003 and 2004 for EuroNova Racing before returning to Russia for a bit more Lada action in 2005.
Come 2006, Petrov was back in Europe and back with EuroNova, winning a race in the Euro3000 championship before making a mid-season switch to complete the 2006 GP2 season with DPR, making his debut in the F1 feeder category at Hockenheim.
For 2007 he linked up with Campos Racing in GP2, partnering Giorgio Pantano and the duo helped turn the back-of-the-field team into a regular points scorer and, by season’s end, race winner. Petrov took his first GP2 win at the season finale in Valencia.
In 2008 Petrov stuck with Campos but struggled to find form. Many suggested he had only shone the season before due to Pantano’s input at the team, and it took the mid-season arrival of Lucas di Grassi to turn the team’s fortunes around. Petrov again won in Valencia, this time at the new street track, but although only taking part in half of the season it was di Grassi who finished the season as the best placed Campos driver.
Last season, Petrov was again racing for Campos, this time as the re-named Barwa Addax team following the squad’s purchase by Alejandro Agag as Adrian Campos went off in search of his F1 team dream. The Russian was teamed with championship favourite Romain Grosjean, and the duo appeared evenly matched in the opening rounds. When Grosjean was promoted to a full-time f1 race seat at mid-season, Petrov became the team’s main challenger and duly took the fight to Nico Hulkenberg at ART. Although Hulkenberg was quite clearly in a class of his own, Petrov had some impressive races, once again looking majestic in Valencia.
It does seem interesting that in his last three seasons in GP2, Petrov has been teamed with three drivers who were not considered good enough for Renault, but who all beat him in equal machinery. Pantano tested for Renault in its former incarnation as Benetton but was never given the shot at a race seat, di Grassi was a long suffering RDD reserve but never afforded the opportunity with the big boys and was passed over for both Piquet and Grosjean, and finally the aforementioned Grosjean, who was collateral damage in Renault’s disastrous 2009.
What, then, stands Petrov out? Well, there are probably about 10 million very good reasons why Renault should have picked Petrov. I have heard that his sign on fee was in the region of $15 million, which equates to around £8 million or €10 million. He has long been backed by the Russian government, and stories over the last few weeks also linked Gazprom (a one-time Minardi sponsor) with Petrov’s push for an F1 seat, alongside some other pretty heavy-weight Russian companies.
But I don’t think this is all about cash, although I’m sure it can’t have hindered his chances. Petrov is quick. Whether he’s super quick I’m yet to really figure out, but I know for sure he’s not Hulkenberg quick. As such I doubt very much that he will set the world on fire. Then again, I didn’t think Kobayashi looked much cop in GP2, and look how exciting he was in his first F1 races! Make no mistake, however. Petrov is no idiot. He’s not some Take Inoue who is going to tool around half a week off the pace and crash into the safety car. He’s a racer, and a hard one at that.
Petrov does represent one of the largest nations on earth, and with Bernie known to be keen on a Russian Grand Prix, Vitaly’s move into F1 won’t harm things on that front.
He’s also a really good guy. His English was pretty stunted for his first few years in GP2, but over the last season he really came out of himself. He has a wicked sense of humour and if he’s allowed space to flourish, he’ll be a great addition to the F1 field.