The Renault F1 team has yet to decide what it is going to do about a second driver in 2011 and that means that there are a lot of elements included in the decision. If not, the decision would already have been made. Team Principal Eric Boullier is a racer and thus his choice will always be to get the best available driver. The question he needs to address is whether Petrov is that man. Vitaly had a pretty decent first year in Formula 1, apart from having had a few too many crashes. He scored the best result of all the new boys with fifth place in Hungary, but Kamui Kobayashi finished the year with more points. There is no doubt that Petrov will do a better job in 2011, because he has a lot more experience. The Russian is, I am told, not very good at communicating with his engineers, in part because of his character and in part because English is not his language of choice. He has also tended to let the pressure get to him on occasion and needs to be toughened up, although that will probably happen if he does get a second chance with the team.
Are there better choices for Boullier? Well, yes, he might be tempted to go for a good solid performer like Nick Heidfeld, who has shown himself to be quite capable of being Robert Kubica’s team-mate. Nick is quick, cheap and available and has a lot of experience. On paper he is probably a better choice than Vitaly.
However, life is never quite that simple. Petrov is a man who is clearly someone with potential as a driver, but he also has immense potential for marketing. Not just for the Renault team, not just for the sport as a whole, but also as a way for team owner Gérard Lopez and his partners to create business opportunities in Russia. Hiring Nick Heidfeld might excite a few folk in Mönchengladbach, but it is not going to land the team the big buck sponsors. This is not something that Boullier would decide. That is above his pay grade. He will say what it is best for the team on the ground. The board of directors will decide what is best for the team overall. The question is really one of who will be on the Renault F1 board and what do they want from F1. The Renault car company seems to be quite keen to extricate itself from the team and remain as an engine supplier only. This makes sense from a financial point of view. Renault won the World Championship with Red Bull Racing, so there really is no need for the Enstone gang. The goal was for the team to be properly funded by Lopez and his chums – and that did not happen in 2010. There is the possibility of a huge sponsorship deal from Group Lotus, to the rumoured tune of $100 million over five years, but if that was going to happen it would probably have happened by now – and Tony Fernandes would not have put in an entry as Team Lotus.
While that was a bit of a shock when the list first came out, it sort of makes sense now. If Group Lotus was willing to pay Fernandes around $60 million to give up on the Lotus name and start a new team, it makes more sense for him to sell them Team Lotus, rather than having them buy Renault and be stuck with the wrong car name. It would be smarter, perhaps, to sell Team Lotus to Group Lotus and then use the money to buy Lopez out of Renault F1… In that way people would get what they want.
So, I guess we need to wait a little longer to see what happens to Group Lotus before we will know the future of Vitaly Petrov…