F1 » Vitaly Petrov
In the same way that Lewis Hamilton became the first black driver in F1 history, Vitaly Petrov made his own little piece of history as the first Russian to compete in the top flight when he joined the Renault team for 2010.
Unlike Hamilton - and the majority of the current F1 grid, the 'Vyborg Rocket' did not start his career in karts, jumping straight into the rallysprint and ice racing that his home town, on the border with Finland, provided instead. After a couple of seasons learning the ropes, he began to show flashes of potential, claiming the Russian Rallysprint crown in 2001.
His next move was into full-time circuit racing but, with Russia not being renowned as a hot-bed of single-seater classes, Petrov had to cut his teeth in the likes of the Russian Lada and VW Polo Cups, winning the former with a 100 per cent success rate in 2002, before sampling the rudimentary Formula Russia open-wheel championship.
Having sampled single-seater racing, and again shown an aptitude for competition, the teenager was soon looking to broaden his horizons and, for 2003 combined forays into the Italian and European Formula Renault series with an assault on the Russian Sports Car Championship, where he wound up taking second overall. He also won a race in the UK FRenault Winter Series, finishing fourth in the final standings.
However, unable to muster the backing needed to finally break free from Russia and start climbing the recognised racing ladder, Petrov found himself contesting another season in the Russian Sports Car series in 2005, mixing that with Russian F1600. It was now that his talent began to flourish, as he claimed both titles, winning ten races in the Lada-based series and another five in F1600.
He now knew that he had
to break out and make his mark in Europe if he was to make anything of his ability and, for 2006, he landed a deal to race in Euroseries 3000 with Vincenzo Sospiri's Euronova concern. It was while he was enjoying relative success in the most powerful category he has sampled that a part-time campaign in the fledgling GP2 Series came about with DPR, replacing Olivier Pla for the last three rounds. Not distracted by his latest berth, the Russian finished third overall in Euroseries 3000 after taking with five wins, with a similar result in the parallel Italian national competition.
The following season, he committed himself to GP2, keen to bring himself to the attention of the F1 bosses under whose noses the feeder series raced. Signing with the emerging Campos Racing squad, Petrov flourished, taking his first win on the team's home turf in Valencia. However, it was still very much a learning year, and his five point-scoring races only added up to 13th in the standings.
With further experience under his belt after a GP2 Asia Series campaign with Campos that yielded another win and third place overall, the Russian picked up the pace in 2008, but still only managed one win - again in Valencia - and seventh in the championship as a whole.
The continuity provided by staying with the same team - albeit now renamed Barwa International Addax - and further success in GP2 Asia, allowed Petrov to really stake his claim as a frontrunner in 2009. Although he could not prevent Nico Hulkenberg from taking the title, the Russian proved to be his young rival's biggest challenge, taking two wins - at Istanbul and, once again, on the Valencia street course - and a host of podium finishes en route
to runner-up spot.
While others had come and gone, mainly as monied individuals paying to test a grand prix machine, Petrov's record in the junior ranks had long marked him out as a real
contender for the top flight. Of course, having the backing of companies in a country desperate to cash in on F1 helped, and the only real surprise was that it took so long for Petrov to make the breakthrough. Having been connected to various teams in preceding 'silly seasons', he became a serious contender for an F1 seat in the winter of 2009-10, with potential berths at Sauber, Renault and the nascent Campos Meta team on offer. Despite admitting that he was close to remaining with the team that had brought him to the fringe of F1 over the previous three years, Petrov ultimately plumped for the established, if troubled, Renault, in a decision apparently made on the morning of the team's launch.
The deal paired Petrov - who insists that he was not bringing as much sponsorship as may have been imagined - with F1 racewinner Robert Kubica, who had been charged with returning the regie
to something approaching its former glory. That could have been a blessing in disguise for the Russian, who could not have been expected to match the Pole, but still faced pressure to perform, especially with equally capable drivers waiting in the wings.
Three retirements in the opening three races did not bode well, and Petrov's maiden campaign was littered with mistakes, but they generally came in practice and qualifying, allowing him to put in several notable recovery drives. His best result was fifth in Hungary, but the sixth he took in the season finale at Yas Marina probably cemented his drive for 2011 as he kept title contender Fernando Alonso at bay for two-thirds of the race.
Despite both Timo Glock and Adrian Sutil being mentioned in connection with the second Renault seat in 2011, Petrov was reconfirmed shortly before Christmas, and would have lined up in black-and-gold alongside Kubica following Group Lotus' buy-in to the Enstone team, had the Pole not suffered his rally accident before the first race.
Partnering Kubica in a Lotus-backed line-up would, in itself, have brought enough pressure and left no place for Petrov to hide, but the Pole's absence thrust greater onus on the second-year driver, even though he was initially paired with the experienced replacement Nick Heidfeld. A podium apiece in the first two races suggested good things for the season but, as the rest of the field got up to speed, the R31's radical exhaust proved unpredictable and often left both drivers off the pace.
Petrov would not better fifth in the remaining races - and that in the chaotic Canadian GP - leaving him just one place and three points ahead of Heidfeld in the overall standings. The German, however, only contested the first two-thirds of the season, before being replaced by Bruno Senna.
Having had the measure of Heidfeld in qualifying, Petrov shared the honours over the remaining eight races with his new team-mate, casting doubt on his chances of remaining at Enstone in 2012.
As it happened, neither he or Senna was retained and, with just weeks to go before the new campaign, the Russian was still without a drive, despite having been mentioned in connection with the vacancies at both Williams and HRT, as well as the seats occupied by Jarno Trulli and Timo Glock at Caterham and Marussia respectively.
Just days before the second test in Barcelona, it was announced that Petrov would indeed be replacing the Italian in Tony Fernandes' 2012 line-up, with the Caterham team boss admitting that the move provided 'fresh impetus across the whole team... with a realistic eye on the global economic market'.
It says a lot for Caterham's disappointing season that perhaps the most notable moment for Petrov came just a few laps from the end of the Brazilian Grand Prix, when he muscled past Marussia’s Charles Pic to grab eleventh place on the road and tenth in the constructors’ championship, ensuring another useful payday for the Leafield team. Prior to that, his best finish had been 13th in Valencia, as the Russian generally played second fiddle to team-mate Heikki Kovalainen.
The Interlagos result accorded Petrov a higher position in the standings, but it remains unclear whether he will return in 2013, amid doubts over the strength of his backing from Russia and a driver market containing several high-profile alternatives.