The outcome of this weekend's fifth round of the Formula Renault 3.5 series at the Nurburgring will determine which driver will receive a prize Lotus Renault Formula 1 roadshow drive for leading the championship at the midway point.
At Monaco last month AUTOSPORT got up close with one man who is already participating in regular Friday Formula 1 practice runs, ISR's Daniel Ricciardo.
Renault had a big presence during the Monaco weekend last month. The company was keen to drum up its achievements in the Principality dating back to Francois Repusseau's 1925 Monte Carlo rally victory in a privately-entered Renault 40CV.
Following the GP2 race, Renault persuaded the Automobile Club de Monaco and Formula 1's powers to refrain from opening the circuit immediately to public traffic.
Taking advantage of having the circuit to themselves, a session of 'taxi' rides in Renault Sport Megane Trophy road cars was organised.
A similar event was held last year using GT drivers, but keen to promote Renault's F1 links, more suitable ambassadors were found/coerced this year.
Former Monaco Grand Prix winner Jarno Trulli was on hand with Team Lotus team-mate Heikki Kovalainen, while the other Lotus Renault was represented by third-drivers Bruno Senna and Romain Grosjean. AUTOSPORT was fortunate to land a ride with Toro Rosso third driver Daniel Ricciardo, perhaps the most high-profile competitor in the Formula Renault 3.5 Series.
The journey to the pitlane, where the line-up of Meganes was assembled, proved memorable in itself. After disposing of the hire car in a shopping centre underground car park situated behind the paddock at Fontvieille, yours truly was led by Renault-Sport's press officer Marie-Hélène De-Rabaudy and F1 legend Jean-Pierre Jarier through a labyrinth of passage ways and bridges to a spot in the harbour beside the Red Bull Energy Station.
Heading up the hill to Casino Square © LAT
Whilst F1 turned its back on Jarier in 1983, the 64-year-old only stopped racing in Porsches at Monaco relatively recently. "I am older than the team bosses and older than sponsors now, so nobody wants me," he joked. These days Jarier helps to organise tests for members of the public in an old Prost Formula 1 car at Magny-Cours, and was present at Pau a fortnight ago doing promotional work for Total.
"All the silly things former drivers do," the veteran of 134 GPs said modestly. The driving bug hasn't totally disappeared, though, and above a cacophony of GP2 engines Jarier spoke with satisfaction about a recent wheel-to-wheel dice with Timo Glock for victory in a Toyota Legends race at the Monterrey Historic meeting.
Keen not to squander our limited time, we move to a photographers' gantry overlooking the start-finish line and royal box while the GP2 race comes to a climax. As soon as the podium ceremony and Charles Pic's celebrations are over, we descend the temporary steps and cross onto the track.
After a brief spell of milling about as the drivers are photographed by Bernard Asset at the front of the grid, I become aware that I am in the company of several dignitaries, including French Minister of Industry Eric Besson and his glamorous wife. Well it is Monaco. The only other journalist that I can discern, from Nice-Matin, exchanges nods and similarly tries to look relaxed.
Ricciardo returns from having his picture taken in typically relaxed mood, but is slightly curious to see me: "Oh right, so how come you're doing this?"
It's a good point, and one that I check with Renault-Sport's Jean-Pascal Dauce after our run. The answer: "Well, we lend them our cars for this so we felt it right that we should invite one or two Renault-Sport guests." Merci Jean-Pascal.
In the car, as Ricciardo adjusts his seat and mirrors, I ask the Perth racer if he is familiar with the machine in which his is about to thread us between Armco at high-speed. "I have driven this car before - once," comes the response. And then with a trademark grin: "The last time was at the Nurburgring and I put it in the gravel. But don't worry."
I'm not. In the morning, Ricciardo claimed pole position for the weekend's Formula Renault 3.5 race and would go onto complete his second consecutive win at the track on Sunday. In many ways he is the ideal chauffer, as not once over the meeting can I recall him brushing the barriers, missing a chicane or looking anything other than unflappable.
Setting off up the hill to Massenet, I receive the courtesy of being asked how fast we should go. I volunteer "Quick, but nothing too outrageous." As we have no three-point harness or crash helmets, I don't want to be the catalyst for ruling the ISR driver out of the imminent race.
Ricciardo's instinct is immediately to overtake the car in front, which after some uncertainty we identity as 2004 Monaco winner Trulli. We squeeze by on the inside to the left-hander, but in fairness to the Team Lotus man, he has one hand on the wheel and the other gesticulating to a passenger.
The entry into Casino from the shade of the Hotel de Paris is surprisingly tight, but the Megane is composed over the notorious bump on the exit. Accelerating into Mirabeau I comment that it's the place where front-row starter Brendon Hartley was making several opportune moves in last year's Formula Renault 3.5 race.
"Yeah, I'll have to watch for him," Ricciardo acknowledges, but in the event it's Carlin's Robert Wickens who provides his closest challenger. Crossed-hands on the wheel at the Loews Hairpin, and more smiles, and then it's back on the power towards Portier. Had we turned left before the bridge it would take us on the route used by the Formula Renault 3.5 teams' vans to journey between the Formula 1 pitlane and FR3.5 paddock.
The vans are filled mainly with tyres, but personnel, jacks and spares are also crammed in. Thanks to the generosity of Fortec I am able to hitch a lift and cover qualifying from the pitlane. Pierre Moncheur of Comtec prevents me from being left stranded by squeezing me into the Norfolk team's van for the return leg.
Our man Millsy's view of the tunnel © LAT
Back to the lap, and by the time we reach the tunnel I'm aware of how busy Ricciardo has been, even at these reduced speeds. Contrary to comments I've heard from other drivers, Ricciardo dismisses the idea that adjusting to the bright light on the exit of the tunnel poses a problem, or for that matter jumping between a Toro Rosso F1 car and FR3.5 Dallara during Friday's practice.
"I haven't really had any problems," said Ricciardo. "Going into the F1 the other day was really good. I needed a bit more time, but towards the end of the session I set a good time. Coming back to this is not a problem at all."
Tabac is the stand-out corner. The Megane Sport offers serious grip and I decide to forego taking any pictures and just soak up the remainder of the experience. We're not hanging around through the entry to the Swimming Pool either, and the lap is completed with some precision driving through the Rascase and the final corner, Anthony Nogues.
Emerging from the car to a stench of brakes, I count my fortune that I was one of the first guests out while the car was fresh. Both driver and Megane Renault Sport have been equally impressive. I say my thanks and wait for the remaining guests to complete their laps.
I don't see Daniel again until Sunday's podium press conference. How were those Megane brakes getting on at the end, any left? "No, actually they were on fire..."
The weekend still had one final, extraordinary, turn of event in store. A rather rushed announcement from the captain on my BA flight out of Nice warned the passengers of delay due to a technical fault, and that we would have to return to the stands.
In between using the opportunity to get started on my magazine race report, I struck up conversation with my neighbour, former club sportscar racer Jeremy Hoyland.
The hold-up turned into a cancellation and, along with GP2 racer Sam Bird and Superleague man Duncan Tappy, we filed off the plane back to the baggage hall and then onto the BA ticket desk.
After a two-hour wait, Jeremy and I were three off the back of the queue and the news appeared grim. Word had filtered through that there could be no seats available on any flights until Tuesday. Sensationally, help was on hand in the form of successful businessman Peter Kelly who together with his wife Sharon had been engaged in a warm and lengthy chat with Jeremy in the queue. Not content to wait and miss a family gathering, the Kellys discreetly hired a seven-seater private jet. Would we like to come along?
Thanks to this amazing generosity, and to Jeremy's friend for picking us up and making a diversion from Luton to Teddington at 3 o'clock in the morning, I made it back to the office for AUTOSPORT's magazine press day.
"That was cosmic!" said Jeremy. Quite. If only I had tried my luck in the Casino...
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