The noises coming out of Renault F1 to the effect that new-signing Vitaly Petrov has been recruited for his talent rather than for his money appear to be losing a little conviction, with claims that the young Russian star's personal sponsorship is perhaps not quite as generous as it at first seemed – and that as a result, his seat at the Enstone-based outfit is already in jeopardy.
Upon announcing the 2009 GP2 Series runner-up as former Canadian Grand Prix-winner Robert Kubica's team-mate in 2010 just over a week ago, Renault F1 team principal Eric Boullier was at pains to stress that the 25-year-old had impressed by virtue of his abilities behind the wheel rather than the size of his wallet, and his junior formulae credentials made that a more-than plausible argument.
It is widely-known that Petrov is set to contribute some €15 million – around seven per cent of the team's annual budget – during his maiden campaign of top flight competition, but reports now suggest that the first 50 per cent instalment of €7.5 million, due on 1 March, is funded by a St. Petersburg bank loan in his father's name and there is some doubt as to whether it will actually materialise or not.
To that end, it is believed that Renault has invited well-heeled Chinese test driver Ho-Pin Tung along to this week's Jerez test as a 'reserve', on standby in an ostensible effort to encourage Petrov to find the money in a hurry. Other possible candidates to replace the 'Vyborg Rocket' should it indeed come to that are 1997 F1 World Champion Jacques Villeneuve – who has made little secret of his desire to return to the grand prix grid this season, some three-and-a-half years on from walking away midway through 2006 – and ex BMW-Sauber test driver Christian Klien, who was close to deals at both Sauber and Renault for F1 2010 before losing out at the 'last moment' on both occasions to better-funded competitors, respectively Petrov and Pedro de la Rosa.
“At Renault, I was in the factory and looked at the car and the team,” Klien told laola1.at
, adding that he will not re-sign to race for Peugeot in the iconic round-the-clock Le Mans 24 Hours until there is no possible chance remaining of grabbing an F1 cockpit, given that the 2010 Canadian Grand Prix falls on the same weekend as the celebrated La Sarthe endurance classic. “They didn't decide on Vitaly Petrov until the morning of the launch.”
“The driver market hasn't been this active for years, so the chances are still good,” the 27-year-old Austrian added, speaking to daily newspaper Der Standard
. “We are in talks with teams who can offer a cockpit. With my overall package of speed and experience, I can offer good value to sponsors where others struggle to do this.
“No-one denies the fact that the 'economic factor' of a driver, in the current economic climate, can be a huge competitive advantage – and that's not meaning that Pedro de la Rosa and Vitaly Petrov, for example, aren't also excellent racers.
“With Renault, I was still on the shortlist until 24 hours before the decision. It really was a last-minute decision, and one that was obviously not easy for the team. Another year as a reserve driver would not be a catastrophe, [but] as long as there are cockpits available and until I no longer see a realistic chance, I will fight to take part in F1.”
Well aware that the possibilities still open to him now are 'limited', Klien would not discuss the sole available berths at USF1 and Campos Meta 1 'for the sake of the negotiations', whilst Villeneuve has similarly been linked with both of the troubled newcomers – which conversely are in all likelihood going to have little option but to sign up drivers who can bring a budget.
“I'm continuing to work hard to explain to teams why it is a good idea to put me in their car,” the 38-year-old French-Canadian told ruefrontenac.com
, “and frankly, I feel that the message is getting better and better. It is not always easy to be fighting against drivers who bring millions, but I am not afraid of a challenge.”