Former Benetton-Renault F1 pilot Jean Alesi has admitted that he can understand sponsors favouring Romain Grosjean's return to the top flight, even though the two drivers he replaced supposedly came with backing of their own.
GP2 Series champion Grosjean was confirmed late last week as the second driver at Benetton successor Lotus Renault GP for 2012, and Alesi underlined the support his countryman had received from existing team supporter TOTAL in grabbing the seat ahead of either Vitaly Petrov or Bruno Senna. Kimi Raikkonen, the 2007 world champion, had previously been announced as the team's first signing.
“Grosjean is a beginner and he had a chance a few years ago, but France needs a French driver and I know he will have the support of TOTAL, so why not?” Alesi, an ambassador for the Enstone team, told the Norwich Advertiser newspaper.
“TOTAL is delighted to give a young talented French driver the opportunity to fulfil his dream by becoming an F1 driver with the Lotus Renault GP team," Jacques-Emmanuel Saulnier, senior vice-president of corporate communications for the oil giant, confirmed, "An overall mission of our company, as is LRGP's, is to support young talented people and encourage them along the path to excellence and performance.
"The involvement of our group in the highest category of motor sport alongside Romain Grosjean, with whom we've formed a relationship based on trust over more than six years, goes far beyond the purely communications aspect. It shows our determination to develop the performance of our fuels and lubricants with the aim of achieving optimal energetic efficiency to help our clients reduce and improve consumption. F1 must embrace the perspective of clean technology and permanent evolution, and go back to its roots by becoming a laboratory for innovation once again.”
Despite understanding the motivation behind TOTAL's backing, Alesi was not entirely without sympathy for the 2011 incumbents displaced by Gravity-managed Grosjean.
“What Bruno did this year was great, especially as he started in the middle of the season," he said of Senna, who replaced Nick Heidfeld - himself a substitute for the injured Robert Kubica - ahead of the Belgian GP in August, "He had to jump in the car straight away [but] he has been quick. The performance of the car was sometimes good, sometimes not, but he managed to do his job in the best way. So it's a shame – but Total did push very much for a French driver and they pay more...”
Both Senna and Petrov have claimed that they are now exploring other options to remain in F1 next season, although there are few vacancies of note remaining. With just three weeks remaining to the New Year, the top five teams from 2011 have now filled both seats, with last season's number six, Force India, set to choose two drivers from three within the next few days. Sauber and Marussia Virgin have also confirmed their 2012 line-ups, while Caterham (nee Team Lotus) appears full, despite some uncertainty of the definition of Jarno Trulli's new contract. That leaves one seat at Williams, two at Toro Rosso and one at HRT so far unconfirmed, although it is unlikely that STR will look beyond its existing talent roster, leaving two realistic openings for a group that extends beyond just the two Renault rejects.
"I'm still working on next season, but I think it's looking much better than last season at this same time, so let's hope we can have good news," Senna revealed, before admitting that his brief spell at Enstone meant a lot, "It's difficult to say what's going to happen, but I'll always have Lotus in my heart.