Renault F1 has finally confirmed the identity of Robert Kubica's team-mate in 2010 at the launch of their new challenger at the Circuit Ricardo Tormo in Valencia today (Sunday) – and in Vitaly Petrov, they have taken a punt on a man who has yet to get behind the wheel of a grand prix car at all.
A number of drivers had been linked with the Enstone-based outfit, now under new ownership following the French manufacturer's sale of a majority 75 per cent share in it to Luxembourg investment firm Genii Capital late last year, a move that ostensibly secured the team's immediate future on the grid. Alongside Petrov, 2009 Renault ace Romain Grosjean, Gravity Sport Management members Jacques Villeneuve, Jérôme d'Ambrosio and Ho-Pin Tung and experienced and jobless BMW-Sauber refugee Nick Heidfeld were all believed to have been under consideration.
It was the Russian who ultimately got the nod, however, to become the first of his countrymen ever to successfully graduate to the top flight – and it is understood that he is bringing with him to Renault as much as €15 million in backing. That will help to fill the hole left in the squad's budget by the withdrawal last year of key sponsors ING and Mutua Madrileña, the latter in response to the 'Singapore-gate' race-fixing scandal that very nearly saw Renault expelled from F1 altogether and caused the company to seriously re-examine its ongoing commitment to the sport, coming as the controversy did amidst its worst campaign since returning as a constructor in its own right in 2002, with just a sole podium finish to brighten the score sheet.
“This is a great opportunity for me,” enthused the new signing, “and I'm really looking forward to working with the team this season. I've always dreamed of racing in Formula 1, so to make my debut with a top team like Renault is very exciting. The first race is just over a month away, so I will make sure I spend as much time as possible with the team over the next few weeks so that I am fully-prepared in time for Bahrain.”
Petrov will sample his new car in Valencia on Monday, and in repeatedly singing his praises in recent days, team principal Eric Boullier made it clear that it was not the 25-year-old's money that was most likely to earn him the seat.
“This is a very special day for Vitaly,” the Frenchman acknowledged, “and we welcome him into the team. As a rookie, we recognise that Vitaly will have a lot to learn this season, but his performances in GP2 last year were outstanding and confirmed that he is ready to make the step up to Formula 1. With Robert alongside him, Vitaly has the perfect role model to learn from, and I'm confident he will deliver on the promise he has shown throughout his career.”
Indeed, the man dubbed the 'Vyborg Rocket' – in reference to his hometown close to the Finnish border – made early waves on the domestic scene before progressing to the feeder GP2 Series in 2006 and going on to develop into a leading contender, finishing as runner-up to new Williams F1 recruit Nico Hülkenberg with Barwa Addax in 2009. Ironically, he will replace his former GP2 team-mate at Renault, in stepping into the cockpit occupied by Grosjean over the second half of last season.
The last Russian to drive an F1 car was Roman Rusinov, who tested for Midland at Jerez in early 2006; the first was Sergei Zlobin at Minardi in 2002. In officially joining the fray, Petrov will be breaking new ground for his country, and his recruitment will undoubtedly be a significant boost for Russia's hopes of staging its own grand prix in the near future. Renault also owns a stake in Russia's largest car maker AvtoVAZ, which makes Ladas.
Petrov's confirmation means there are now only two berths remaining available in F1 2010, at troubled newcomers USF1 and Campos Meta 1 respectively – and it also means there will be at least six 'rookies' in the field next year, with Hülkenberg at Williams, Bruno Senna at Campos, José María López at USF1, Lucas Di Grassi at Virgin Racing and Kamui Kobayashi at Sauber.