Alesi: Sponsor swung it for Grosjean
While Bruno Senna and Vitaly Petrov try to secure their F1 futures, veteran Jean Alesi understands Lotus Renault's position in replacing them.
Former Benetton-Renault F1 pilot Jean Alesi has admitted that he can understand sponsors favouring Romain Grosjean's return to the top flight, even though the two drivers he replaced supposedly came with backing of their own.
GP2 Series champion Grosjean was confirmed late last week as the second driver at Benetton successor Lotus Renault GP for 2012, and Alesi underlined the support his countryman had received from existing team supporter TOTAL in grabbing the seat ahead of either Vitaly Petrov or Bruno Senna. Kimi Raikkonen, the 2007 world champion, had previously been announced as the team's first signing.
"Grosjean is a beginner and he had a chance a few years ago, but France needs a French driver and I know he will have the support of TOTAL, so why not?" Alesi, an ambassador for the Enstone team, told the Norwich Advertiser newspaper.
"TOTAL is delighted to give a young talented French driver the opportunity to fulfil his dream by becoming an F1 driver with the Lotus Renault GP team," Jacques-Emmanuel Saulnier, senior vice-president of corporate communications for the oil giant, confirmed, "An overall mission of our company, as is LRGP's, is to support young talented people and encourage them along the path to excellence and performance.
"The involvement of our group in the highest category of motor sport alongside Romain Grosjean, with whom we've formed a relationship based on trust over more than six years, goes far beyond the purely communications aspect. It shows our determination to develop the performance of our fuels and lubricants with the aim of achieving optimal energetic efficiency to help our clients reduce and improve consumption. F1 must embrace the perspective of clean technology and permanent evolution, and go back to its roots by becoming a laboratory for innovation once again."
Despite understanding the motivation behind TOTAL's backing, Alesi was not entirely without sympathy for the 2011 incumbents displaced by Gravity-managed Grosjean.
"What Bruno did this year was great, especially as he started in the middle of the season," he said of Senna, who replaced Nick Heidfeld - himself a substitute for the injured Robert Kubica - ahead of the Belgian GP in August, "He had to jump in the car straight away [but] he has been quick. The performance of the car was sometimes good, sometimes not, but he managed to do his job in the best way. So it's a shame - but Total did push very much for a French driver and they pay more..."
Both Senna and Petrov have claimed that they are now exploring other options to remain in F1 next season, although there are few vacancies of note remaining. With just three weeks remaining to the New Year, the top five teams from 2011 have now filled both seats, with last season's number six, Force India, set to choose two drivers from three within the next few days. Sauber and Marussia Virgin have also confirmed their 2012 line-ups, while Caterham (nee Team Lotus) appears full, despite some uncertainty of the definition of Jarno Trulli's new contract. That leaves one seat at Williams, two at Toro Rosso and one at HRT so far unconfirmed, although it is unlikely that STR will look beyond its existing talent roster, leaving two realistic openings for a group that extends beyond just the two Renault rejects.
"I'm still working on next season, but I think it's looking much better than last season at this same time, so let's hope we can have good news," Senna revealed, before admitting that his brief spell at Enstone meant a lot, "It's difficult to say what's going to happen, but I'll always have Lotus in my heart.
"It has been pretty amazing to be honest, just to get a real chance in F1. These guys gave me that chance to be in a much better position than I was at this time last year. They gave me a great chance to prove what I can do and, on quite a few occasions, I have been very competitive, so it's good to know that, in a competitive car, I can turn it out in F1. I'm looking forward to next year."
The Brazilian could form another emotional bond should he get the chance to join Williams, where his famous uncle had his career ended in tragedy, but appears behind Adrian Sutil on the waiting list to partner Pastor Maldonado. A return to HRT, where he began his F1 adventure, would be thought unlikely.
Petrov, meanwhile, also expects to remain in F1, with manager Oksana Kosachenko revealing that the Russian will be helped by his erstwhile employer, with whom he had a year of his contract to run.
"I stress that we have an excellent relationship with the Lotus Renault team and, together with them, we have now come up with another programme for Vitaly, which we'll announce before the New Year," Kosachenko told the Ria Novosti news agency, "It's not the end of Petrov's career, but his transition into a new phase."
While Kosachenko has confirmed talks with two unnamed F1 teams, the strongest paddock rumour links Petrov with Marussia for 2012, purely on the basis of their common nationality. Should the Russian wind up joining the backmarker, it would likely be in place of veteran Timo Glock, who only confirmed a 'multi-year' extension to his deal with the team at the German Grand Prix in July. GP2 racewinner Charles Pic was announced as Marussia's second driver for 2012 shortly after the completion of the Brazilian GP, the Frenchman replacing Jerome d'Ambrosio, who could now link up with Lotus Renault as a potential reserve driver.