Few people in Formula One expected Vitaly Petrov to be retained by the Renault team for 2011. Vastly out performed by Robert Kubica, error prone and overly scrutinised many people blamed the young Russian for Renault’s failure to clinch fourth position in the 2010 constructor’s championship. Team principle Eric Boullier conceded that keeping Petrov was a massive gamble.
It is surprising that Petrov has penned a two-year contract with the Lotus Renault team given that they continue to doubt his credentials. When the 26-year-old Russian qualified in sixth position for the 2011 season opener, team boss Eric Boullier was asked how well Kubica would have done instead.
The Frenchman replied, “I don’t want to guess, as I don’t want to be more frustrated.” This is a clear example of disrespect towards the Russian from the media, and a lack of faith being displayed by his team. A podium finish later, it’s time Renault backed Petrov out right.
Although Petrov’s maiden season may have been marginally below par it needs to go on record that his Polish team mate put the Renault in positions it had no right to be in. Kubica comprehensively outperformed the car; an achievement that granted Vitaly no favours.
Petrov scored more points than any other rookie driver in the 2010 Formula One season, with the exception of Kamui Kobayashi who had two races experience heading into the season. The 27 points he amassed was five greater than Hulkenberg’s tally and a personal best race finish of fifth was superior to any other rookie, including Kobayashi.
He outperformed Vitantonio Liuzzi and Pedro De La Rosa, two drivers who arguably should have finished above him given the performances of their team mates. Although it is reasonable to compare Petrov to his team mate, surely it is only fair to look at his achievements in context with other drivers with the same amount of experience?
Despite such efforts however it should go on record that Kubica outperformed him by more than 100 points—achieving three podiums and a total of seven top-five finishes compared to Petrov’s one. A comprehensive thrashing by anyone’s standards, granted, but the Russians season from the German Grand Prix onwards is enough to justify his position in the Renault team.
Following his 10th placed finish at Hockenheim the Russian’s season was, on the whole, satisfactory. A hat trick of top-10 finishes at Germany, Hungary and Belgium provided a glimpse of his ability but the avoidable accident he caused at Japan and retirement in Korea, following an embarrassing crash, highlighted his inexperience.
It was never a lack of ability that hindered Petrov, more a lack of experience; both accidents in Asia occurred in difficult race conditions, situations he should be able to handle this year.
Petrov needed to show that he had the head and race craft to cope with the pressures of Formula One and he did so in style at the season finale in Abu Dhabi. The Russian put in a resilient drive to keep Alonso behind him for much of the race, thus costing the Spaniard a third world championship.
There are very few other drivers that are worthy of his race seat who are not in a team that is at least of equal repute before the season began. Hulkenberg is an obvious example of a driver unfortunate not to land a race seat but at Force India he will learn a lot as a test driver.
Adrian Sutil has shown that he is worthy of driving for a top team but why would he go to Lotus Renault and play second fiddle to Kubica when he can drive for Force India, a team that is making all the right developments, and have the car modeled to his driving style?
Heikki Kovalainen is certainly of a higher quality than his Team Lotus car and has connections with the Renault team but he opted to sign a contract with the team long before Petrov’s future was decided.
Of all the driver’s available to them Petrov was the best choice, and his performance in Australia has shown this. Prior to the start of the season he has taken great measures to acclimatise himself with the team, thus forming a good working relationship with many of his colleagues. Eric Boullier commented after the Australian Grand Prix.
"We spent a lot of time discussing with him and putting in place an environment to help him understand the English culture, let's say, and the culture of Formula One," Boullier said.
"We also had to help him improve his communication around his car, to find a way for him to deliver the message about improving his speed, but also for him to understand what the team were expecting.
"We had a commitment from him that he would make the move to get closer to what we were expecting, including the most physical in moving to England.”
Despite such praise however it seems unlikely that Lotus Renault will make him official team leader, not yet anyway.
"You can't give the title of team leader to a young guy who has only had one year in Formula One, and who started without having done a single mile," Boullier added.
"But if he takes this position then I'm happy, and if he keeps repeating the performances we saw on Sunday, to be honest I'll be more than happy."
Boullier’s conservative words show that Renault still do not have complete confidence in his ability. Indeed Boullier commented, "It was not an easy decision (to keep him) because I would have had no excuses if he had failed for a second year.”
The fact that he has done more to integrate himself with the team should create a more harmonious relationship in the garage. A more harmonious relationship will help Vitaly focus solely on his performance.
Petrov’s composed drive at Melbourne is certainly progress and without the pressure of having to match Kubica’s high standards this season he will be able to develop at his own place. In Nick Heidfeld he has an experienced team mate who will likely be a more potent force than he was at the opener, but will not outperform him in the way same way Kubica did last year.
The experience of Heidfeld may result in some knowledge rubbing off onto Petrov, which will in turn improve his race craft considerably. Furthermore, there is less of a gap in quality between the two drivers meaning the team will get a more accurate reading on how good Petrov truly is.
Now is the time for Petrov to shine, he is starting on a clean sheet. If the season opener is anything to go by, he looks set to continue his improvement and lead Renault to a considerable constructor’s championship position.