Vitaly Petrov had his career saved by Caterham, after he lost his drive at Renault (this year’s Lotus). Two seasons with Renault had yielded mixed results, and by the end the Russian had not quite proven himself at the top level. Now a race driver with Caterham, he has another chance to show what he can do.
2011 started well for Petrov, with a podium in Australia. The Renault R31 had a strong start to the season and Petrov duly capitalised. As the season progressed and the car fell off the pace, however, there were no particular shows of brilliance from the Russian driver. Perhaps he was a little out of his depth in a team that was still reeling from losing lead driver Robert Kubica to injury. Petrov had two team-mates at Renault last season, neither of whom provided a good basis for comparison. Nick Heidfeld drove for the first half of 2011, but did not deliver the results the team was looking for and was replaced by the relatively inexperienced Bruno Senna.
Caterham provides a different challenge for Petrov. New team-mate Heikki Kovalainen has been with the team since it entered Formula One in 2010. As such, he has had a lot of time to get to know the team and how it works. Kovalainen has been the benchmark in the team, consistently outpacing team-mate Jarno Trulli. In Kovalainen, Petrov now has a strong team-mate. He will certainly be measured against Kovalainen.
The great drivers often show themselves in under-performing cars. Schumacher at Ferrari in 1996, Senna at McLaren in 1993 and Alonso at Ferrari in 2011 are all good examples of how to out-drive the car. In 2011, Petrov had a solid midfield car. In 2012, the same might not be true. While the relative pace of the cars is largely unknown at this stage, it can be safely assumed that Caterham willl not be fighting for podiums at the beginning of the season. So Petrov has a chance to show what he can do in a car that is perhaps not quite as quick as what he is used to.
Petrov has been labeled a “pay-driver” because he brings with him extensive sponsorship. It’s not a tag that any driver wants, and he will be keen to shed it in 2012. Some decent results and, perhaps more importantly, consistency could help him to establish himself firmly as a quality driver. In Melbourne in a week’s time, the challenge begins.