So far, 2011 has been a pretty good season for Formula One’s apprentice drivers. Paul di Resta has impressed at Force India, Sergio Pérez has looked the part at Sauber and after a series of good qualifying sessions even Pastor Maldonado, who was much maligned at the start of the year, has got people talking about Rubens Barrichello retiring. Currently listed just behind Maldonado in the standings, however, is Jérôme d’Ambrosio, the Marussia Virgin driver having patiently gone about his business at the back of the grid. It has been a performance that is probably best described as circumspect rather than spectacular but it has done the job. As he heads into his home Grand Prix, what does the future hold for the Belgian?
Arriving in Formula One with an understated CV, many expected little of d’Ambrosio. Then again, the same is true of Kamui Kobayashi, F1’s stand-out rookie of last year and d’Ambrosio’s GP2 team mate for two seasons, In fact, the Belgian came out on top in both those years, all be it losing out in the Asia series. However, 11th and 9th overall in the GP2 standings, followed up by 12th last year, wouldn’t normally make F1 teams sit up and pay attention and yet Renault duly signed him on as a test driver. What that means at a team with so many reserves but which then goes and finds someone else as soon its first choice driver is injured is open to debate but it led to a race seat at Virgin, replacing Lucas di Grassi. The feeling, though, was that plenty of sponsorship money had lubricated the deal.
Faced with the uncompetitive MVR-02, the key to d’Ambrosio’s position in the standings – ahead of both his team mate and the consistently high-qualifying Heikki Kovalainen, has been consistent finishing. He’s only failed to finish one race this year – the electronics, and not d’Ambrosio, at fault in Malaysia – and that has allowed him to capitilise when others ahead of him have failed. This mature approach has fitted well with Virgin’s current ambitions – the team learning from last year that simply being faster than HRT doesn’t mean you will beat them. That clearly hasn’t been lost on Virgin, even if they are taking their time to choose who will partner Timo Glock, the German having just signed a two-year contract extension.
For everyone else, however, it is easy to miss the maturity behind his driving. Only stories about his sponsor’s cheque “getting lost in the post” have thrust d’Ambrosio into the headlines this year (and not the first time a driver’s sponsors have been slow to pay Virgin.) Even missing the 107% qualifying mark in Canada passed without a hitch – the stewards give him the benefit of the doubt after he switched to the spare tub during the day – and culminated in his best finish of the year.
The one embarrassing exception in d’Ambrosio’s cool-headed season happened in the last race where he span in the Hungaroring’s pitlane. “I lost a lot of time with the pit-stops and I also had a tough moment when I spun in the box when I came in,” explained a sheepish d’Ambrosio, “although thankfully the car didn’t hit anyone.” To be fair, he’s in good company when it comes to pit lane errors, not naming any names at McLaren, so perhaps it’s a positive sign. However, it’s the sort of error that sticks in the mind and can prove costly to a budding career – his predecessor at Virgin certainly did himself no favours by crashing out of the Japanese Grand Prix before he’d even reached the grid! Just two races before that, John Booth had insisted the team wanted to maintain their line-up.
The problem is that d’Ambrosio’s workmanlike approach is easily missed in a season were the other newcomers on the grid have managed to make an impact. Not getting noticed for the lack of rookie errors can be as bad as being noticed making them. The driver who has been nicknamed ‘Custard’ by his mechanics is probably doing everything asked of him by his team, and perhaps Virgin will reward him with a contract extension, but will others? There have been rumours that that has been the case but if he’s to grab this opportunity, he needs to find something extra in the remaining races and start competing with Glock and the Lotuses for pace, and not just laps completed. He may be hindered by one of the slowest cars on the grid but that never got in the way of the likes of Fernando Alonso.
A safe pair of hands is perfect for Virgin’s plans at the moment but it won’t fit in with their future ambitions. And where better to shine than in front of his home crowd? Perhaps, then, Belgium may have somebody to cheer on.
Credit: Marussia Virgin Racing