Buoyed by his superb maiden podium finish in F1 in the curtain-raising 2011 Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne yesterday, Vitaly Petrov has asserted that he is now capable of leading Lotus Renault GP in the absence of injured team-mate Robert Kubica.

In fairness, all expectations ahead of the weekend were that it would most likely be Kubica's stand-in Nick Heidfeld who would extract the greater potential from the aggressive and innovative new R31, but despite matching Petrov throughout practice, the experienced German was subsequently nowhere near the pace in qualifying or the race, starting a lowly 18th and taking the chequered flag a distant and lapped 14th, later promoted to twelfth by the double Sauber disqualification.

The Russian, by stark contrast, lined up an excellent sixth on the starting grid - the best qualifying performance of his fledgling grand prix career, and with four of the five drivers ahead of him F1 World Champions - and he went on to make a demon getaway into fourth, before managing his tyres better than Red Bull Racing rival Mark Webber to vault into third.

Although - not unlike in Abu Dhabi at the end of 2010 - he had to deal with some late-race pressure from the Ferrari of Fernando Alonso, Petrov withstood it magnificently to claim his breakthrough rostrum at the highest level. Only his 20th grand prix start, it was, he reflected, quite a day.

"I am very happy," the 26-year-old confessed. "Winter testing was quite long. We spent quite a long time trying to understand the aerodynamics and a lot of things, and really when we came here we didn't know where we were, we didn't know how quick our car was, but it looks like we are quite strong.

"When we came here, we had some new parts; we had a new exhaust, and we didn't know how it would work - but all weekend was pretty good for us. From free practice our car looked very strong, and also qualifying was not too bad - it was difficult to fight with the guys in front, but sixth position was quite a good result. Qualifying is one story and racing is another, but I always believe, because anything can happen in a race.

"At the start I tried to attack Fernando, but then I saw Jenson [Button] was in front, so I just released the brake and tried to pass both of them - it was great! I then tried to push Mark Webber as hard as I could until he pitted. I just tried to push to the maximum with what I had on the tyres.

"We tried to pull away from Fernando, but during the middle of the race I didn't understand where I was and what I should do. My radio wasn't working very well, but I just tried to save the tyres and push as hard as I could. I think everything was good.

"I could control things and try to save the tyres, and Fernando was still quite far [behind]. [The pressure] was not so much, just on the last lap maybe, but he was still quite a way from me. Even if he wanted to attack me, he needed some time, but my tyres were in quite good shape, so I could get a good pull-away from the last corner.

"I used [the moveable rear wing] a few times. I was lapping some cars and Alonso was behind and it helped me to pull away from him a little bit, so as soon as I saw my blue light come on, I used it, I think two or three times. What happened here we will take and we can be quite happy - the team did everything perfectly and we must be proud about our place. I'm really proud of this team."

There can be little doubt, either, that Lotus Renault GP is proud of Petrov, the driver it had seriously evaluated letting go of late last year, off the back of a frustratingly scrappy and inconsistent rookie campaign in 2010, during which there were unquestionably moments of undisputed raw talent - but also rather too many off-track excursions and underperformances in qualifying for the team's liking.

Fast forward to F1 2011, and a corner has clearly been turned - and the driver dubbed the 'Vyborg Rocket' in reference to his home town is now confident that he is the man to step into Kubica's not inconsiderable shoes and lead the Enstone-based outfit forward.

"I don't think I need to answer anything," he replied, when asked in the post-race press conference whether he can now assume the Pole's mantle of team leader, before adding: "I think you can see and also...yes! We still need to continue to push the same way and work hard. In Malaysia we will have some new parts - so we will see."



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