A 'proud' Gérard Lopez has paid glowing tribute to Lotus Renault GP and Vitaly Petrov in particular off the back of the young Russian's superb maiden podium finish in the F1 2011 curtain-raising Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne just over a week ago, enthusing about his driver having 'beaten the Ferraris and a Red Bull fair-and-square' and vowing that his form was not 'a one-off'.
The new Lotus Renault GP R31 had shown promising pace during pre-season testing, and that was confirmed by Petrov's excellent effort in qualifying to seal sixth spot on the starting grid around the streets of Albert Park – having lapped an outstanding third-quickest in Q1.
The 26-year-old then went on to convert that into a rostrum finish come race day, making an excellent start, vaulting past Red Bull Racing rival Mark Webber during the opening round of pit-stops and going on to evoke memories of the 2010 finale by flawlessly withstanding the pressure from a closing Fernando Alonso in the latter stages of the grand prix. If Abu Dhabi was a breakthrough, then Australia was a masterclass.
“It was a first-class drive,” reflected team owner Lopez, whose sole regret was that he 'wasn't there to enjoy the result'. “Vitaly did not make a single mistake all weekend-long, which was his priority this season. His podium was not the result of unusual circumstances – he beat the Ferraris and a Red Bull fair-and-square. Nick [Heidfeld – team-mate] was unlucky; his car was quite badly-damaged after the first lap, but he's strong.
“We managed a podium [in Melbourne] last year, but this result was much stronger – Vitaly earned his podium by right, and our car looked even better on race pace than it had shown in qualifying. A good performance from the race team backed up Vitaly's efforts; the crew delivered clean stops, and the strategy calls allowed us to sneak past Webber and hold our noses ahead of Alonso. I'm proud of our guys.”
After Petrov's future hung precariously in the balance for some time following the end of the 2010 campaign, the GP2 Series graduate's performance Down Under fully vindicated the continued faith that Lopez and Lotus Renault GP team principal Eric Boullier have invested in him. Now, the Genii Capital entrepreneur hopes the Albert Park result – and those that he believes will follow – might open the floodgates to further Russian interest in F1.
“Well, we proved them wrong, didn't we?” he responded, when it was put to him that many initially doubted whether the 'Vyborg Rocket' had done enough to justify a stay-of-execution at the Enstone-based outfit this year. “As a country, Russia has been very strong in every sport from an international point-of-view – football, athletics... The only piece missing until now was a competitive racing driver. With Vitaly, Russia now has a fantastic ambassador and we are proud to have supported him.
“Genii Capital and Mangrove Capital Partners have been close to Russia for a long time now. When Vitaly arrived in F1, we had to face two important tasks. The first one was to make him an accomplished driver in the space of a few months – and with no testing allowed and the pressure you have to face when racing at the highest level, his progress has been impressive.
“Secondly, we had to 'educate' Russia to F1. There's been a lot of explaining to do, a sport culture to explain. I'm happy to say that both these processes were successful. Very few people knew what the sport was all about when Vitaly arrived on the grid. Last season, TV figures in Russia already doubled within eight months. This is more than encouraging.
“As you know, quite a few Russian companies are strong partners of Lotus Renault GP this year. They seem to enjoy what our platform offers and the visibility they get. I'm sure that Vitaly's showing in Melbourne will attract even more partners, especially as his performance did not look like a one-off. I'm definitely optimistic.”