Russia's new icon is fast making his mark on the field

Petrov's podium in Melbourne could be hint of things to come, writes David Tremayne

Saturday 09 April 2011 00:00

A year ago his battle here in Kuala Lumpar against Lewis Hamilton first drew international attention.

Then his smooth season-ending defence of sixth place against an angry Fernando Alonso in Abu Dhabi made a few more people sit up and pay attention. And after a strong and mature drive into third place in the opening race in Melbourne a fortnight ago made him the first Russian ever to stand on a Formula One podium, and suggested he could be Renault's de facto team leader in the enforced absence of Robert Kubica, it's hardly surprising that Vitaly Petrov's mobile is now ringing non-stop.

"I've had a lot of phone calls and text messages from everybody I know saying 'congratulations'," he says, laughing. "I'd forgotten how many people had my phone number!"

He made a strong start to what was only his 20th race, pushing past Jenson Button and Alonso at the start and then maintaining his pace throughout to take that historic podium, seemingly with ease.

"I felt really good after the race," he admits. "It was great to be standing on the podium in front of my team, especially knowing what we have all been through over the winter with some very difficult moments.

"Before we went to Australia I had a feeling that we could get a good result. Testing tells you very little, but we kept improving and bringing new parts to the car. Then, in Melbourne the car was perfect for the whole weekend and it went better session after session. I believe we can do the same in the next few races."

Petrov is not your typical Formula One driver. Which is hardly surprising given Russia's lack of pedigree in the top echelon. He is trailblazing for his country in the same way Emerson Fittipaldi did for Brazil more than 40 years ago.

He doesn't have the pretty boy looks of some of his contemporaries. There's an almost Munster-esque mien from certain angles, and he speaks English like a James Bond villain, chopping his words gutturally. But he's refreshingly non-pc and he says what he thinks without worrying about pr gloss. And...he's quick. He's not Kubica but it's worth noting that he was only five seconds adrift of the speedy Pole in Abu Dhabi last year.

When he was only five he would jump off his dad's lap to change gear as Petrov Snr drove on Russia's streets, then jump back up to see where they were going. Later he started rallying with a Subaru. "I liked to drive in the snow and so when it snowed I would go out and drive on frozen lakes. You can do whatever you want. You feel how the car is sliding and where it is getting grip. Maybe that is why I am not bad in the wet. What I have to do now is improve in the dry, feel the car in more conditions and understand how it all works."

He did some motocross, too, and reckons that also helped. "That was very good physically because you need to be very strong and that was a good experience for me. I did lots of different sports: judo, football, tennis. When I was young my father was always putting me into groups to learn different sports. That was good for my reactions."

A maximum points score in the Lada Cup when he was 18 propelled him into Formula Renault in Europe in 2003, at the same time as a guy called Hamilton was doing the British series. He says that experience was "terrible" but he made an impression towards the end of the season when he appeared in the final round of the Euro 3000 Championship on the streets of Cagliari, in Sardinia. Euronova team owner and former racer Vincenzo Sospiri recognised a "special talent" when he saw one and took him under his wing. Eddie Jordan began taking note, too. After racing in Euro 3000 in 2006 with Euronova and finishing third overall, he graduated to the GP2 feeder series one step down the ladder from F1, scoring his first win in Valencia in 2007. Money was never an issue, but he bristles at suggestions he had it easy because of that.

"I am never thinking about this," he says. "If someone says this, I say 'Shut up! I don't want to listen to this'. There is a lot of lies written about me. I never read it. I know what I am doing and I know that it was difficult for people to believe in me, but my team believed. I don't want people to think that we are here just because of money. My father wanted to blow all the money the family has and the business, but after a few races in F1 you can see that I am not here just because of money."

Petrov's resolve was tested when his Renault broke a front suspension upright in yesterday's first practice session here in Sepang and pitched him off the road, but that sort of thing is all in a day's work for drivers at this level and he finished the day 13th after losing too much track time. One gets the impression he'll make that time up over the coming years.

Malaysia Practice Times

Malaysian Grand Prix, Kuala Lumpur

Leading final positions after second practice:

1 Mark Webber (Aus) Red Bull-Renault 1min 36.876sec,

2 Jenson Button (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 1:36.881,

3 Lewis Hamilton (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 1:37.010,

4 Sebastian Vettel (Ger) Red Bull-Renault 1:37.090,

5 Michael Schumacher (Ger) Mercedes GP 1:38.088,

6 Felipe Massa (Br) Ferrari 1:38.089,

7 Nico Rosberg (Ger) Mercedes GP 1:38.565,

8 Nick Heidfeld (Ger) Renault 1:38.570,

9 Fernando Alonso (Sp) Ferrari 1:38.583,

10 Jaime Alguersuari (Sp) Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1:38.846,

11 Pastor Maldonado (Ven) Williams-Cosworth 1:38.968, 12 Rubens Barrichello (Br) Williams-Cosworth 1:39.187, 13 Vitaly Petrov (Rus) Renault 1:39.267, 14 Kamui Kobayashi (Japan) Sauber 1:39.398, 15 Sergio Perez (Mex) Sauber 1:39.603, 16 Paul Di Resta (GB) Force India-Mercedes 1:39.625, 17 Adrian Sutil (Ger) Force India-Mercedes 1:39.809, 18 Sebastien Buemi (Swit) Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1:40.115, 19 Timo Glock (Ger) Virgin-Cosworth 1:40.866, 20 Jarno Trulli (It) Lotus-Renault 1:41.890, 21 Narain Karthikeyan (India) Hispania-Cosworth 1:43.197, 22 Vitantonio Liuzzi (It) Hispania-Cosworth 1:43.991, 23 Heikki Kovalainen (Fin) Lotus-Renault 1:44.886, 24 Jerome d'Ambrosio (Bel) Virgin-Cosworth no time

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