Russia now has a Formula 1 driver for the first time thanks to Vitaly Petrov's deal with Renault. His arrival in the field opens up a potentially huge new market for the sport, and means the 25-year-old GP2 runner-up will have the eyes of a nation on him.
Shortly after being announced as a Renault driver during the team's 2010 launch, Petrov talked to the media - including AUTOSPORT - about his hopes for the season, his feelings on Russia and sponsorship, and his unusual path from Lada racing to the grand prix grid.
Q. How do you feel about being an F1 driver at last?
Vitaly Petrov: You see my face? I'm really happy. It's brilliant. This is what I've waited a long time for. Two or three days ago we decided to be in Formula 1 with Renault, so I'm happy.
Q. Is it a burden representing a whole country?
VP: Now there's a big explosion in Russia with all the TV and newspapers. They'll be calling me but I'll try to switch off the phone and concentrate on working with the team because Formula 1 is something new for me, but I hope it will be good.
Q. When did you sign the contract?
VP: This morning.
Q. Do you think your F1 drive could help bring a grand prix to Russia?
VP: This is what I tried to do a long time ago, so when I was driving in GP2 I always tried to get the TV and newspapers to say 'come on, we're Russia, we're a big country, we must have a Formula 1 grand prix. It has to be'. So now I'm here maybe they'll wake up and try to do something.
Q. Lots of rookies had more testing in the past, will it be difficult for you?
VP: Of course, but let's wait for the second or third test. Then I can tell you what's going on. I've talked with the engineers already so first I need to do some laps to have a feeling for this car and then we'll see. I'll try my best. The first target will be to finish races and then score points for the team.
Q. Do you expect to be in the car tomorrow?
VP: Not tomorrow morning, I think Tuesday or Wednesday.
Q. What experience from GP2 can you bring to F1?
VP: Everything. It doesn't matter if you do karting, GP2 or Formula 1. You can always take information with you. I never did karting, I never did some small formulas, so to an extent I jumped straight into Formula 3000 and GP2. So I don't have as much information as drivers like [Robert] Kubica, [Michael] Schumacher or a lot of them. They started their careers quite young, and I started just eight or nine years ago.
Q. Is the team's target for you to just finish and score points, or is that your target?
VP: It's first of all mine and the team's, because I know the team has prepared well for this season with the new car. For me it's very, very important to learn with them and this car, and explain what's going on with this car so we can improve. First of all I need some laps to understand how to drive this car.
Q. Your GP2 team-mate last year Romain Grosjean jumped into F1 and struggled a lot. Does that worry you?
VP: For me it was maybe a bit of a mistake [for Grosjean] to finish GP2 in the middle and go to Formula 1 because first of all he didn't have tests. Other drivers had already done some races, so it was difficult for him to be at the top. But now I think I have time to learn a little bit and then we will see.
Q. What was your first car?
VP: A Lada. When I was five years old. I was already driving without my father. I wasn't thinking about Formula 1 then. I didn't know who Schumacher or anyone was. Then I found out and was quite interested, and then I started to really work. It's special to be in Formula 1.
Q. Do you get lots of jokes about Ladas and Russians?
VP: I don't know.
Q. Did you have talks with other teams?
VP: Yes. We spoke with quite a lot of the teams. Renault was the best solution, so we decided to be here.
Q. Can you explain why?
VP: No, ask my manager.
Q. How long's the contract?
VP: One plus two years [option].
Q. Are you pleased to have an experienced team-mate like Kubica?
VP: Yes of course. When I came to GP2 I had Giorgio Pantano and I learned from him and understood how he was driving. It will be the same here.
Q. Was there no way to go karting in Russia or did you have no interest?
VP: I was already maybe 15 years old so it was already a bit late. But in Russia we don't have so much in my town and there was absolutely no karting or other motorsport so it was difficult for me. I did some touring cars and then I went to Europe straightaway.
Q. Will you be mentally prepared for the pressure of being the first Russian F1 driver?
VP: I've already done some Formula 1 training programmes so I know what I need to expect - some computer tests, some physical tests and a lot of things. I went to Australia and Austria to train in mountains. Little by little I prepared for Formula 1.
Q. What motivated you to start racing?
VP: I was always asking my father. He got tired and he brought back a car for me, and then I started to learn it and jump by jump we went to Formula Renault, then Formula 3000, then GP2.
Q. Was F1 always the goal?
VP: Before when I didn't know about Formula 1 the goal was rallying. But then my manager said you can go to rallying when you're 30, 40 or 50 years old, but not now. I liked rallying very much. But first I want to concentrate on Formula 1 and then we'll see what happens.
There's no motorsport in Russia, it's zero, nobody knows about Formula 1. There were no sponsors, nobody was helping from Russia and my father was always putting money into me.
Q. People have talked a lot about the sponsors you can now bring, do you feel you have to answer your critics on the circuit and prove you're worth it?
VP: In 2008 I could say I was not ready for Formula 1, because my father sometimes asked 'are you ready for Formula 1?' and I said 'no, not yet. Really I need time to understand'. From 2008 to 2009 I was in the workshop every day with my GP2 team Campos/Addax, and then we started to work, work, work and learn, learn, learn. I started to understand the engineers and how they changed the set-up. Then we started to discuss a lot of things. In 2009 when we started racing it really changed a lot and then I was with the car and my engineers a lot.
Q. Your father sounds very influential, does he have a motorsport background?
VP: Not really. He did some things in Russia.
Q. Does he still support you financially?
VP: Yes. He has given me the money to be here.
Q. Do you think other Russian businesses will now invest in you?
VP: They must now, they must wake up because we came here without any sponsors, without any help to be in Formula 1 - with just my father, my manager and my father's friends. Nobody else. Now they will see us in Formula 1 and that will change something.
Q. You started quite late but made big jumps in your career. Will you make a big jump this season?
VP: Every year when you change, you make a jump. You always improve. It's like you wake up today, you wake up tomorrow and already you know something more. From 2007 to 2009 I learned a lot. Now Formula 1 will help me to learn more. I think we will be fine.
Q. Is your father here today?
Q. Will he come to the races?
VP: I hope so, of course he must!
Q. How close were you to signing for Campos?
VP: I was very close to Campos and to other teams, but the best solution was Renault and I'm very happy I'm here.
Q. By Formula 1 standards you're a pretty big guy, do you fit in the car?
VP: It's pretty small, eh? GP2 is bigger! When I came to Formula 1, I said 'oh s***, this is going to be a problem.' But it's fine.
Q. Have you had your seat fitting yet?
VP: Yes, but we need to continue today or tomorrow.
Q. Has the team told you what results it expects?
VP: When we first spoke they asked not about the money but about being in Formula 1 because they saw our races in 2009 in GP2 and they expected that I must be in the points in the middle of this season.
Q. How do you feel about racing against Schumacher?
VP: I'm really happy he's coming back because when I started to follow Formula 1, it was my dream to be in a race with him. So now I have the chance and I'll try to do my best.
Q. Will you respect him or fight him?
VP: Of course fight with him. When you're on the track if you're friends or it's your father or mother, it doesn't matter. You must fight. But fight carefully, not like crazy. It's racing, it's like when you fight in the boxing ring with your friends, you'll hit him. It's boxing.
Q. Who were your racing heroes when you were growing up?
VP: In Formula 1 it was Schumacher.
Q. Why Schumacher?
VP: When I started to follow Formula 1 it was him who was doing a really good job. It doesn't matter if you liked Ferrari, he was the fastest in the world and he won [the championship] seven times. This is why he was the best.
Q. Can you learn from him?
VP: I've had a lot of videos and now I have a million videos from different races - not of him, Renault gave me different things of all the different races. Now I really need more time.
Q. How much simulator time will you have?
VP: I have just one [session] but after Bahrain I will have quite a lot because I need to learn some more circuits still.
Q. Is it good that you're starting at a track you know?
VP: The key is testing first, but it doesn't matter really. We have time, we have three hours [of practice]. It's never enough - when I first came to this track [Valencia] in 2007, then when I came back in 2008 it was completely different. You always find different tricks. When you come back to the same track, it's always changed, it's never the same.