Vitaly Petrov has been confirmed as the second driver at Lotus Renault for the next two season. There had been some speculation that Petrov would be dropped from the team in favor of a more experienced pilot, such as Kimi Raikonnen (who will instead continue his rally driving venture, it seems), or Nick Heidfeld, who has lost his temporary seat at Sauber.
Petrov’s performance during 2010 was anything but consistent, and his main benefits to the team seem to have been (a) attracting the sponsorship of Russian car manufacturer Lada, and (b) making number one driver Robert Kubica look good. But while Petrov might have lured money to the team, this might have been offset by what he cost the team in terms of missed championship points. Championship points for team constructors, as everyone knows, are translated into hard cash at the end of each season, and what Petrov contributed to the team in this respect was rather paltry, compared to what his team mate Kubica was able to rack up.
Unfortunately, in modern day Formula 1, drivers are given precious little time to prove themselves. The stakes are high, and a rookie is expected to shine quickly. Stellar examples of the hit-the-ground-running model include Michael Schumacher, who made team mate and triple-champ Nelson Piquet Sr look ill during the partial season when those two were paired at Benetton; and Lewis Hamilton, who was able to put pressure on double-champ Fernando Alonso during the single year that those two drivers shared berths at McLaren.
But Schumi and Hamilton are exceptional drivers, and most pilots need a certain amount of time to ascend their learning curves. Second or third tier teams might feel they have the luxury of patience, since they’re not contending for poles, podiums or wins anyway, but a team like Renault, which during 2010 competed for “best of the rest” honors, might well be in more of a hurry.
And where does that leave Vitaly Petrov? Many thought he would be axed at the end of this season. He hit the tire barriers so often in 2010, one might have thought he was trying to knock down the Berlin Wall all over again. He managed to turn in a few redeeming drives, but they were remarkable mostly for being a counterpoint to Petrov’s other race performances.
So why has he been retained? Formula 1 has been moving eastward for the past 10 or 15 years, and we now know that a Russian Grand Prix is in the works. A Russian GP is apt to attract a few rubles from new Russian sponsors. As Renault has sold their stake in the Renault team to Team Lotus, they will likely be on the lookout for new sponsors to help fill the gap left by the manufacturer. Opening up the Russian pipeline would seem to be an obvious strategy here.
That said, one shouldn’t be too cynical about Renault’s choice. While it’s clear that their logic might be pecuniary, or at the very least representative of an inclination to stick with the devil they know, one must also recognize that most F1 rookies need a bit of time to display their capabilities, especially when paired with drivers who are far more experienced.
Witness Nico Hulkenberg’s performance in relation to Rubens Barrichello’s this year. The Hulk really didn’t begin to show what he was capable of until the final third of the season. Williams, suffering perennial financial woes these days, chose to replace the German with a pay-to-play Venezuelan driver. While Renault might have shopped for a replacement for Petrov in the same manner, they’ve chosen to give the Russian a chance. Let’s hope he makes the most of it.