As had been rumoured in recent days, Jérôme D'Ambrosio has been signed up by F1 2010 newcomer Virgin Racing to drive in Friday practice for four of the last five grands prix of the campaign in Singapore this weekend and then Japan, Korea and Brazil, as well as the special young driver test in Abu Dhabi following the season finale.
D'Ambrosio is currently a Renault F1 reserve driver, having been a member of the Régie's
driver development scheme (RDD) as long as six years ago, being dropped at the end of 2004 before subsequently being re-recruited and now competing for the Renault-affiliated DAMS outfit in the GP2 Series, his fourth campaign in the F1 feeder category.
Ironically, the driver he will replace in the cockpit of the Cosworth-powered VR-01 is rookie Lucas Di Grassi, who partnered him on the RDD programme back in 2004 – and the news represents a blow for the under-pressure Brazilian, who needs to learn all of the remaining circuits for the first time. Whilst Virgin has a firm contract in-place with Timo Glock for 2011 and 2012, Di Grassi's retention is subject to an option.
The Richard Branson-spearheaded outfit is keen to evaluate its new signing with a view to a potential race seat next season, and the deal also demonstrates the growing influence in the top flight of Gravity Sports Management – of which D'Ambrosio is a member, and a company that comes under the umbrella of of new Renault owners Genii Capital. Earlier this year, 2009 FIA Formula Two Champion Andy Soucek parted company with Virgin due to a lack of testing opportunities.
“My ultimate goal has always been to race in F1, and I am delighted to get a step closer,” enthused 25-year-old D'Ambrosio, who will become the first Belgian to drive on a grand prix weekend since Bas Leinders at Minardi back in 2004. “I wish to thank Virgin Racing and Gravity Sport Management for their confidence. I won't disappoint them.
“This drive is a fantastic opportunity and I am looking forward to helping the team in every way I can, as well as gaining experience on four of the most demanding tracks of the F1 calendar. Looking at the 2011 season, this will be very useful. Also, I will be very proud to wear the Belgian colours on my helmet during these official practice sessions, as it means a lot to me.”
“We are very pleased to welcome Jérôme to Virgin Racing, and we look forward to providing him with the opportunity to drive the VR-01 during the first free practice session of the next four race weekends,” added Virgin Racing CEO Graeme Lowdon. “He will also take part in our young driver test in Abu Dhabi at the end of the season. We have a contract with Timo Glock for another two years, and an option on the services of Lucas Di Grassi for next year.
“Both drivers have done an outstanding job for us in our debut season. We are always looking to progress new racing talent, and the team out of which Virgin Racing was born has a long history of this. Jérôme is a real racer and very deserving of this opportunity. We are looking forward to evaluating his performance with effect from next weekend's Singapore Grand Prix. With both Jérôme and Luiz [Razia – existing reserve driver] supporting the team, we have two drivers with enormous future potential.”