Sidepodcast - All for F1 and F1 for all

107 Per Cent
Ryan Gault

Ryan is one of those people who follow every sport going, from football to speedway and golf to ice hockey. He has followed Formula 1 for as long as he can remember, which just so happens to be the 2001 US Grand Prix, Mika Häkkinen's last ever win. Since then he has followed the tribulations of the greatest Swiss team since he heard about Grasshoppers Zürich, Sauber. Currently studying Journalism at the University of Huddersfield, while also attempting to write about TV and Eurovision.

Bouncing back from a broken heart - A fortunate D'Ambrosio's progression from the back of the field is unusual


Jérôme puts a few miles on the E20
Credit: Andrew Ferraro/LAT

There was only one logical option for Lotus when deciding who would replace the banned Romain Grosjean at Monza, Jérôme D’Ambrosio. Gone are the days when the team would instantly forget five test drivers in favour of an outsider, and instead D’Ambrosio gets one race to show off his talents in a very capable car.

It is a massive difference, of course, in replacing Grosjean for one race than Robert Kubica for an entire season. Back at the start of 2011 they needed a strong, reliable driver who knew how to drive an F1 car and how to drive it quick. A like for like replacement for Kubica. Arguably there wasn’t a better candidate available at such short notice than Nick Heidfeld, who had partnered the Pole for 3 and a half seasons at BMW Sauber just a few years earlier. Heidfeld had, despite never winning the race that Kubica managed to, matched his team mate for a lot of the time.

Compared to the other options available to Renault, it was a no-brainer, Bruno Senna only had experience in an HRT, Romain Grosjean was at the time still trying to prove himself again in GP2 after his humbling experience at the team replacing Nelson Piquet, and Jan Charouz, Fairuz Fauzy and Ho-Pin Tung who were arguably no more than either pay drivers or an attempt by the team to raise awareness of Renault in their respective countries.

Outperformed and outqualified

I still fail to understand the reasons behind Heidfeld’s dismissal, in all its ungracious manner it occurred. Éric Boullier cited “I would not say that Heidfeld hasn't got qualities - he unfortunately couldn't develop them, mainly because he's been outperformed and outqualified by Vitaly Petrov and that didn't help him develop these qualities.” Sure Heidfeld was vastly outqualifed by Petrov (8-3), but he was ahead of him where it mattered, the races (6-5 and 34 points to Petrov’s 32).

It wasn’t a dominant lead, and his leadership quality was called into question, but bringing in Bruno Senna to replace him was an odd move. Here was a driver with less experience and less proven ability to help the team towards the end of the season. The Renault towards the back end of the season was poor however, and Senna only got into the points on one occasion (notably at Monza), which in hindsight questions the reasons again why Heidfeld received the boot.

There’s a peculiar similarity in both D’Ambrosio and Senna’s rise up the grid, notably both drivers had been forced out of their seats at Virgin and HRT respectively. D’Ambrosio, despite a strong season, was replaced by Charles Pic in 2012, while Narain Karthikeyan and Vitantonio Liuzzi were preferred to Senna for 2011.

The unsurprising option

Both drivers found solace in the welcoming arms of Éric Boullier, who hired them as one of the teams reserve drivers. D’Ambrosio is perhaps the unsurprising option of the two, yes he is a good driver who couldn’t fully show his potential in a Virgin, but also because Boullier is his personal manager. The combination of the two would have helped him get his break into Renault as a test driver for the 2010 season, in Éric Boullier’s first year in charge at the team. D’Ambrosio and Boullier had previously spent two years together at the GP2 outfit DAMS, so certainly the contacts between the two have remained strong since 2007.

Jérôme D’Ambrosio chats to Éric Boullier at this year's car launch
Jérôme D’Ambrosio chats to Éric Boullier at this year's car launchCredit: LAT Photographic

Clearly Boullier sees potential in D’Ambrosio, and the one race platform will see if his faith in the driver can be returned. But it is far from an easy ask for the Belgian. He did drive the E20 at Mugello, but his test session was punctuated by frequent red flags and rain, making it difficult to tell how much he actually achieved in his 40 laps. His main focal point is the close bond he currently shares at the team, and being at all the briefings at the end of qualifying and races would help his understanding of how the car works, and at least develop an understanding of how to drive it to his potential.

It would be foolish to suggest D’Ambrosio will have the race of his life and trump Grosjean at his first attempt. He hasn’t driven a car in anger since last November, and his role will be no doubt to support Kimi Räikkönen and aim to deliver on the promised pace that he can find in the car. However this is an ideal opportunity to, and apologies for using a football cliché, put himself in the shop window for next season. Unless something strange happens, Lotus will be retaining the Räikkönen-Grosjean partnership, and D’Ambrosio needs to prove that he is capable of driving in a decent car.

Only five points behind

Proving himself may not be enough of course, he doesn’t have all that much money to fight for a spot (or at least one where he’s competing with Charles Pic), and with Jaime Alugersuari, Sébastien Buemi hoping to get back into the sport, Timo Glock and Heikki Kovalainen potentially hoping for an upgrade, and a number of GP2 drivers looking for a promotion, it’s going to be a long, difficult and uncertain couple of months for a number of drivers.

But hope is still there for the Belgian, and while his route to the midfield may be slightly untypical from the back (usually the backmarkers end up with promising drivers brought in by the big teams (a route followed by Fernando Alonso at Minardi for example), drivers hoping for a last resort to stay in Formula 1 (Jos Verstappen at Minardi, Takuma Sato at Super Aguri), or pay drivers (Narain Karthikeyan)), and if Bruno Senna can get a seat at Williams after his spell at HRT and an average one at Renault, there is no reason an arguably stronger driver in D’Ambrosio won’t be able to.

Senna made the most of his stand-in role
Senna made the most of his stand-in roleCredit: Glenn Dunbar/LAT

It’s interesting to look at the careers of those who have started towards the back of the grid and where they progressed to. Obviously for Fernando Alonso and Mark Webber, who drove for Minardi in 2001 and 2002, it was hugely beneficial to get used to the sport and the changes from the lower formulae to the hard graft that Formula 1 requires. Recently it has been a tactic that Red Bull protégée Daniel Ricciardo used with HRT, and getting a race seat at Toro Rosso this season was ultimately no surprise. He’s done a fine job too, arguably being the better of the two drivers at the team despite being outscored on the standings.

Bruno Senna hasn’t done too bad for himself either, securing a full time role at Williams, and certainly bringing a level head to proceedings in comparison to Maldonado. He hasn’t got the speed the Venezuelan has, but he does have the consistency and the ability to get the car to the finish. Considering Maldonado has won a race, Senna is only five points behind his team mate and has finished in the points six times compared to the two times Maldonado has.

Ultimately he has proven himself to be the more useful driver at Williams this season, but when your team mate has a win and you don’t, it is hard not to worry about the threat from the promising reserve driver Valtteri Bottas. And if he does lose his seat at Williams, it is hard to see who would want to take him; depending on how much the name brings in the money of course, but all he has offered at Williams is consistency against crash-happiness, not the speed that would impress anywhere else.

Fuji canoe slalom

But success from the back doesn’t happen all that often. In fact, you have to consider prior to Ricciardo and Senna, the next big name to come through the backmarkers was Adrian Sutil, and that was through the progression of Force India rather than moving through the field. He scored Spyker’s only point in their sole F1 season at the 2007 Fuji canoe slalom, and then helped Force India establish themselves in the midfield before he got a bit stupid in a Chinese nightclub.

And prior to that it is hard to find any decent success stories, Alonso and Webber were secured Minardi contracts by Flavio Briatore, and Luca Badoer only got the Ferrari seat in 2009 down to his loyalty for the team. Marc Gené and Pedro de la Rosa have proved themselves as good, solid test drivers with the top teams after their spells at Arrows and Minardi at the turn of the millennium, even coming in when their teams need them to replace injured, or sacked, drivers.

Jérôme D’Ambrosio is fortunate to be in the position he is in, he proved himself to be competitive against Timo Glock, an established midfield driver, at Virgin last season. Now he can go ahead and show the midfield if he is worth their time and investment for 2013, he just needs to make sure he isn’t overwhelmed and drives like he did for the most part of 2011. And maybe some praying wouldn’t go far either.