Vitaly Petrov has hit out against the continuing accusations that he is in F1 purely by dint of his ability to bring funding and attract sponsorship, rubbishing claims that he is a 'pay-driver' and insisting that 'there are a lot of lies written about me'.
Having clung onto his Lotus Renault GP seat for a second consecutive campaign largely on the basis of his inspired Abu Dhabi performance in November – albeit not a drive that endeared him any to double world champion Fernando Alonso – Petrov justified his employers' faith in him with interest with a brilliant charge to the bottom step of the rostrum in last month's F1 2011 curtain-raising Australian Grand Prix.
What's more, the Melbourne result was achieved entirely on merit, with no drivers ahead of him dropping out of the race – and even more significantly, it was one that made history in confirming Petrov as the first Russian ever to ascend an F1 podium. It was a seminal moment for a man clearly intent on trailblazing a path for his country in the sport and opening up the floodgates.
“I had a lot of 'phone calls and text messages from everybody I know saying 'congratulations',” the 26-year-old told British newspaper The Independent
. “I'd forgotten how many people had my 'phone number! I felt really good after the race. It was great to be standing on the podium in front of my team, especially knowing what we had all been through over the winter with some very difficult moments.
“Before we went to Australia, I had a feeling we could get a good result. Testing tells you very little, but we kept improving and bringing new parts to the car. Then, in Melbourne, the car was perfect for the whole weekend and it went better session-after-session.”
Petrov's interest in all things high-octane was sparked as a child, when at the age of just five, he used to change gear in his father's road car, and subsequently went on to participate in motocross and some rallies in a Subaru.
“[The motocross] was very good physically,” he explained, “because you need to be very strong and that was a good experience for me. I did lots of different sports – judo, football, tennis. When I was young, my father was always putting me into groups to learn different sports. That was good for my reactions.
“I liked to drive in the snow, so when it snowed I would go out and drive on frozen lakes. You can do whatever you want. You feel how the car is sliding and where it is getting grip. Maybe that is why I am not bad in the wet. What I have to do now is improve in the dry, feel the car in more conditions and understand how it all works.”
During his formative career, Petrov went on to compete in the Lada Cup in his homeland, before branching out into Europe in Formula Renault and the Euroseries 3000 – and then graduating to F1's feeder series, GP2. Although he triumphed four times and finished as runner-up in the 2009 title chase, still he is dogged by whispers that he is in the top flight based upon the size of his wallet, rather than the depth of his talent.
“I am never thinking about this,” urged the man dubbed the 'Vyborg Rocket' in reference to his hometown. “If someone says this, I say, 'Shut up – I don't want to listen to this!' There are a lot of lies written about me. I never read them.
“I know what I am doing and I know that it was difficult for people to believe in me, but my team believed. I don't want people to think that we are here just because of money. My father wanted to blow all the money the family has and the business, but after a few races in F1 you can see that I am not here just because of money.”