x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Abu Dhabi provided Renault's Vitaly Petrov with platform

With a podium in Australia following the impressive drive in the UAE capital, it seems Renault's faith in the Russian shows signs of paying off.

Vitaly Petrov held off Ferrari's Fernando Alonso in the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix last year to deny the Spaniard his third championship title. The Russian's performance that day helped secure him a new two-year contract with Renault.
Vitaly Petrov held off Ferrari's Fernando Alonso in the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix last year to deny the Spaniard his third championship title. The Russian's performance that day helped secure him a new two-year contract with Renault.

It may have been processional, but it produced a paroxysm of pique.

As the climactic Abu Dhabi Grand Prix drew towards its anti-climactic end last November, Vitaly Petrov, Renault's resident Russian, stubbornly refused to let Ferrari's Fernando Alonso pass.

In doing so, a rookie competing for little more than pride and a few extra points prevented a two-time world champion from accomplishing his season-long ambition of a third drivers' title.

Alonso, no stranger to tetchiness and tantrums, was so infuriated with Petrov that following the chequered flag, the Spaniard shook his fist at his tormentor and cursed inaudibly from beneath his helmet.

Petrov, who stands over six feet and cites boxers Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson as his heroes, is one of the most daunting figures in the Formula One paddock.

It is perhaps little surprise Alonso has "not spoken a word" to him since the incident five months ago.

The Russian, however, will not be offering any olive branches.

"I don't need to speak to him and I don't need to try to speak to him," the Petrov, 26, told The National. "If he wants to talk, he can come to me, but I don't think we need to speak."

Alonso's frustration at Yas Marina Circuit was in direct contrast to the pleasure Petrov would eventually procure from his performance in the UAE.

Following a debut season that saw him fail to finish more than a quarter of the 19 grands prix, there were question marks surrounding his seat: Adrian Sutil, Nick Heidfeld and Kimi Raikkonen were all rumoured to be interested in joining the Enstone-based outfit.

However, despite Petrov finishing the season 109 points behind teammate Robert Kubica, his composure and controlled aggression in the UAE capital to hold off the notoriously aggressive Alonso did not go unnoticed. Renault persevered and offered him a new two-year contract.

"Of course, you have a Plan B, but you always focus on Plan A," Petrov said.

"Last season, there was a lot of blah, blah, blah in the press, and I felt pressure, for sure. I had been involved in a lot of crashes and had not shown my full potential, so there was a long and in-depth discussion during the winter. Abu Dhabi, it proved, was a good help for me to continue in Formula One, as it allowed me to show what I can do."

Petrov's determination to stay with Renault saw him reluctantly leave his hometown of Vyborg in Russia and relocate to Oxfordshire, England.

According to Eric Boullier, the Renault team principal, it was this statement of intent, rather than the race at Yas Marina Circuit, that was key to Petrov securing his seat for 2011.

"Obviously the race in Abu Dhabi helped, but it was not the only reason," Boullier said of his decision to provide Petrov a new contract.

"On a couple of occasions throughout the season Vitaly went faster than Robert - he had very strong weekends in Budapest and Abu Dhabi - but he also showed commitment.

"By moving to England to be next to the team, he clearly committed to what we wanted to do and at the same time we made some adjustments to the team to help him understand better what we wanted and what we expected of him."

This week is the first time Petrov has returned to Vyborg since his emigration. He was not expecting much to have changed since his departure and was looking forward to seeing old friends and family.

"Vyborg is a very small town; everybody knows each other," Petrov said from the sidelines of the Chinese Grand Prix last weekend.

"There is nothing special there, but it is home. I like it because it is not a big city. There is no traffic. You never have to waste time in traffic."

Alonso would like it.

Located in northwestern Russia, close to the Gulf of Finland, it was in Vyborg (pronounced Vee-boorg) where Petrov's father, Alexander, first helped him develop his driving skills - after unsuccessful dalliances with boxing, karate and football - and it was in Vyborg where he competed in his first rallies after being taught how to drive by a personal instructor.

After winning "some little rallies" locally, Petrov began racing Lada touring cars on ice in St Petersburg and, in 2002, won the Lada Cup Russia with a race record that read: Five races, five pole positions, five triumphs.

Spectators bestowed upon him the sobriquet "The Vyborg Rocket".

"I think the ice rallies have helped me in Formula One because, driving on such a surface, you are better prepared and know how it feels when the car starts sliding and moving," said Petrov, who is one of the few drivers in the F1 fraternity not to have started their career in karting.

"If some experienced guys like [Michael] Schumacher and Alonso say karting is a big help, then I think it is. But because I never did it, it's hard to see how it's affected me."

The absence of karting was, said Petrov, due to a lack of interest in motorsports in his home country.

However, with the Renault driver becoming the first Russian to race in Formula One and the country now having its own team in the form of Marussia Virgin Racing, enthusiasm is growing.

Russian-speaking journalists now saunter around the paddock each weekend and with three years to go before the Russian Grand Prix in Sochi is scheduled to join the calendar, there is ample time for interest to continue to blossom.

"Boxing and ice hockey are popular sports there, but racing is not big. We do not have so much racing there. Before, we had some tracks, but they closed, so now we don't have any.

"But they are starting to build some. People in Russia are starting to watch Formula One because I am here and we have a Russian team and we will have a grand prix, so it is becoming more popular and definitely moving in the right direction."

The fact that several Russian companies - including Lada and Sibur Petrochems - have provided financial sponsorship for Renault, has no doubt helped Petrov remain in the sport, but Boullier was concerned by his rookie's inability to remain focused throughout an entire race.

"It was not an easy decision, because I would have had no excuses if he had failed for a second year," Boullier said. "So I talked with him a lot, to understand what was wrong and why he was making all these mistakes."

Little more than a month before the new season was due to start in Melbourne, Boullier's plans were thrown into disarray.

His lead driver, Kubica, was involved in a near-fatal crash during a rally in Italy and, following partial amputation of his forearm as well as compound fractures of an elbow, shoulder and leg, his future in the sport was in serious doubt.

Petrov was in Vyborg at the time of the accident, but immediately flew with the team to see the Polish driver.

"I did not know if it was serious or not," Petrov said. "But every hour we were getting more information. When I saw him, it was not really nice; you do not know what to say at this particular moment."

While Kubica began lengthy rehabilitation, Renault temporarily signed veteran driver Nick Heidfeld.

But Petrov's presence in the Renault garage was to initially prove even more important.

At the season-opening Australian Grand Prix, Boullier's decision to retain the Russian was vindicated: Petrov held off Alonso again in his 20th race, this time to finish third, his best result and his first podium. The smiling driver dedicated the triumph to the team and announced he was going to sleep with the trophy.

"It was a special day and we made no mistakes all weekend so we were all very, very happy," he said. "I was really pleased to be on the podium, but I flew to England the next morning so there was no crazy celebration."

At the following race in Malaysia, Petrov was brought back down to earth with a bump.

Having run wide at a corner, he attempted to quickly return to the track, but hit a drainage gully launching his car into the air and breaking the steering column on landing.

"It did not hurt so much," he said after being forced to retire. Heidfeld finished third.

Last week in Shanghai, Petrov suffered technical issues during qualifying, resulting in him starting the race in 10th position. He fought consistently and maintained his focus to eventually finish ninth, three places ahead of his teammate.

"What is good is that I now know the tracks and know how the sport works," Petrov said. "If we have a problem, I know were to go and what to do. I can help develop the car more.

With 16 races remaining, the situation could change drastically, but for now Petrov's road to redemption appears to be on track.

"With this season starting as it has," he said. "I think now the team can be sure they did not make a bad decision."

 

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae