Friday favourite: The Renault F1 car that dazzled an FE racer-turned-team boss
After a miserable 2009 where it miscued the Formula 1 aerodynamic overhaul, got embroiled in crashgate, and lost its title sponsor, Renault's 2010 follow-up steadied the ship and brought the team back into podium contention. The yellow-and-black machine also dazzled a driver on the start of his F1 journey in an Abu Dhabi test...
At a time when Alpine considers the future of its driver academy, following its somewhat maladroit handling of Oscar Piastri and subsequent ill feelings towards his McLaren-bound scarpering, it’s coincidental that one of its former products is also hunting around for a new job.
The Alpine Academy lineage traces back to the Renault young driver programme, which brought through the likes of Lucas di Grassi, Romain Grosjean and Nelson Piquet Jr into F1 during the late 2000s. It also handed Jerome D’Ambrosio, formerly the Venturi Formula E team principal, support on his way to the top echelon of racing.
After impressing in a handful of practice outings for the inexperienced Virgin F1 team in 2010, ironically replacing the driver he would later manage at Venturi in di Grassi, D’Ambrosio got the nod at the team for 2011. There, he drove alongside Timo Glock for a sole season as a full-time driver, before joining Lotus as a reserve driver. It’s often forgotten that the Belgian later deputised for Grosjean in 2012 at the team, when the now-Andretti IndyCar driver was slapped with a one-race ban for playing skittles at Spa’s opening corner.
But D’Ambrosio picks neither of the cars he raced in F1 as his favourite. Instead, he offers the Renault R30 from the 2010 season as his most-treasured experience behind the wheel. The yellow-and-black machine looked glorious in its bumblebee livery and, according to the Bruxellois, was particularly handy on-track when he was afforded the chance to get his mitts on it.
“It was the fastest Formula 1 car I think I've driven,” D’Ambrosio remembers. “My last grand prix in Monza was also special with Lotus. But obviously it's Monza downforce, so it's a bit different. But that car that we had in 2010, and in Abu Dhabi testing as a young driver, it'll stick with me as the most incredible feeling I felt in a racing car - just in terms of pure speed and everything.
It’s probably symbolic of the Virgin/Marussia team’s time in F1 that D’Ambrosio’s favourite car is a) one that he tested for only one day, and b) belonged to another team. Still, the R30 was an underrated machine, one that Kubica took to three podiums in a competitive F1 season. The Pole was tasked with setting Renault back on course after a miserable 2009 both on- and off-track, scoring three podiums in 2010. Memorably, Kubica was within touching distance of claiming pole for the Monaco Grand Prix, before Mark Webber swiped it away at the session’s close.
D'Ambrosio drove Virgin's VR-01 one day at the 2010 Abu Dhabi young driver test, and the R30 the next. The difference, he says, was huge
Photo by: Sutton Images
D’Ambrosio got his hands on the R30 during the young driver test following the Abu Dhabi finale, driving the “all-CFD” Virgin VR-01 on the opening day before getting the better machinery for the second.
“The first day it was with the Virgin, the second was the Renault - that the Renault was a much faster car would be an understatement!”
But how much faster? In his time with the Cosworth-powered Virgin around the Yas Marina Circuit, D'Ambrosio posted a 1m43.518s - a shade faster than Glock’s time from qualifying. In the R30 on the day after, he set a 1m38.802s. Night and day, certainly, and only 0.7s away from Daniel Ricciardo’s headline time in the Red Bull RB6.
The R30 itself had been part of Renault’s uptick in form under new ownership from Genii Capital, which had bought a majority stake of the team at the end of 2009. The previous car, the R29, had not been successful as the team had taken the wrong path with the new aerodynamic regulations; the inwash front wing it initially came packaged with had to be changed for an outwashing option, as the anvil-like nose looked particularly lumbering compared the considerably more elegant solutions across the rest of the grid.
"That car that we had in 2010, and in Abu Dhabi testing as a young driver, it'll stick with me as the most incredible feeling I felt in a racing car - just in terms of pure speed and everything" Jerome D'Ambrosio
Thus, the 2010 machinery was a big improvement, and gave Kubica the wherewithal to frequently challenge the Mercedes duo and Felipe Massa through the season. And, when D’Ambrosio was offered the chance to try the car out in the post-2010 November young drivers’ test, it gave him the platform to secure the second Virgin seat by December – having also impressed in his quartet of FP1 sessions with the squad. According to news reports from the time, D’Ambrosio was considered with incumbent di Grassi and future Caterham F1 driver Giedo van der Garde for the drive.
A popular addition to the Virgin team, D'Ambrosio's mechanics quickly bestowed the nickname "Custard" upon him, due to his nominative similarity to a British brand of dessert accoutrement. But despite good pace, D’Ambrosio's first proper taste of F1 on board the 2011 MVR-02 was hardly of ambrosial zest; although the team had claimed some extra funding from Russian sportscar manufacturer Marussia, it was still persisting with its windtunnel evasion to save costs. Thus, the aerodynamics remained underdeveloped, and was resigned to battling with HRT against the wooden spoon, the Spanish team having made no progress from 2010 owing to its lack of cash.
Although D’Ambrosio was able to show up well against Glock, and the 14-5 arrears in qualifying to his more experience team-mate less one-sided than it looked, it could not prevent Charles Pic being announced as his replacement for 2012. Informed prior to the Brazil finale, D’Ambrosio arguably put in his drive of the year to beat Glock resoundingly. Autosport wrote of his final race in Brazil: “Finished the season well, outqualifying and outracing Glock in the knowledge that Charles Pic will be taking his seat next season. His future looks uncertain, but his unflustered performance was a reminder that he's not been out of his depth in his rookie year.”
D'Ambrosio impressed Virgin enough for a 2011 race drive, but the MVR-02 was lacking in downforce
Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images
D’Ambrosio had one more race in F1 thereafter: the 2012 Italian Grand Prix in Grosjean’s stead. With limited experience of the Lotus E20, he did well – but a slim chance for points went begging as a KERS failure put him on the back foot despite strong pace in the second half of the race. That was it for F1; D’Ambrosio then joined Dragon for the 2014-15 Formula E season as the all-electric championship began in earnest, and remained with the squad throughout the opening four seasons. He then joined Mahindra for the first two seasons with the Gen2 car, before calling time on his racing career for good.
One season and a one-off outing is seldom the F1 career many aspire to, but D’Ambrosio harbours no regrets over the time he had at the top table of racing. In fact, having now got the taste for team leadership, he’s very happy to leave the driving behind.
“I think I'm very lucky in the sense that regret is something that I don't really feel,” D’Ambrosio says. “I never felt that in my career, in my life. I've had setbacks, things that haven't lasted through time. But I never looked at them as wishing to have done it any differently, because I'm very happy where I am. And all my success and mistakes have led me to be where I am. I'm happy where I am. So no, no regrets.
“I am very proud and happy that I got to experience that, there's some memories that I will never forget. Equally, I'm extremely happy that I've done what I did in Formula E, the few victories that I've managed to achieve. These are memories and sensations that just stick with you. And yes, for sure, I don't think I was the most successful driver.
"But driving in those 28 years as a race driver allowed me to really get an understanding and experience that I can utilise on a daily basis in [managing a team], which I really enjoy. And I don't miss driving at all.”
D'Ambrosio says the R30 was the fastest F1 car he ever drove
Photo by: Sutton Images
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