Kamui Kobayashi was the stand-out rookie of 2010. But you might not have seen it coming based on his GP2 form: 23 points from 40 races.
Now his former team mate Jerome d’Ambrosio is set to make his Formula 1 debut . Can he emulate Kobayashi by securing his future in Formula 1?
F1 Fanatic spoke exclusively to the Virgin driver in Valencia.
The first thing to know about Jerome d’Ambrosio is he likes a laugh. At the launch of the MVR-02 today he joked that he didn’t really like new team mate Timo Glock, but was pretending to in order to gain the benefit of Glock’s experience.
And when I said to him in Valencia that it must be exciting for him to be taking his first steps as an F1 driver, he looked at me and deadpanned: “No, it wasn’t.”
Then he breaks into a smile. “No, of course, it was a very special day. I have been driving a racing car before but obviously yesterday was special because I was driving with in mind the preparation for my first Grand Prix.
“So the atmosphere was different. Of course, I’m here as a Grand Prix driver and it’s great, I couldn’t be more happy.”
D’Ambrosio describes his arrival in F1 as taking the “normal route” – until the money ran out:
“Everything went pretty smoothly for me until Formula Renault two-litre. I won my first year in Renault 1.6 then I finished best rookie in the French championship in 2004, in Renault two-litre.
“But then I had a big issue with the budget and things like that and I had to move around a little bit. It was not easy. I bounced back in Formula Master which put me back on the right way.”
The short-lived series wound up in 2009 after producing just three champions, the first of which was d’Ambrosio.
“After Formula Master it’s been as I see that year was everything for me. I had very low budget and I was pushed to win it and win it big time. So I did it and it allowed me to go and meet Gravity.”
Gravity Sports Management, which boasts such talent as Romain Grosjean, helped d’Ambrosio in more ways than one:
“I was taken into the Gravity programme at that moment and I’m really lucky to be in a structure like that.
“It’s probably one if, if not the best the management structures around. They have quite a lot of drivers. It is not only sponsorship – people think that that’s it but it goes much further than that, it’s education as a driver, physical training, the way you handle yourself in everyday life.
“It’s not just like ‘here you go, you are a Gravity driver, we’ll sponsor you and let’s go racing. It’s the build-up of the driver, the construction. I’d say as much as the financial side it’s the way they allow you to grow as a driver, as a person and this is why, in the end, I was ready when the chance came.”
But his chance did not come with a quiet run at an F1 test away from the cameras. His first laps in a Formula 1 car came with Virgin during practice for the Singapore Grand Prix last year – on a track he’d never driven on before, in wet conditions, at night:
“It’s tough, you get your first chance in an F1 car at Singapore in the rain – a street circuit, and it’s dark. And then you have to perform.
“And in the end with all the tools that Gravity has given me through the last three years I was able to do something good.”
The team were impressed with the quality of technical feedback from the driver whom the mechanics had already dubbed ‘Custard’.
More followed with subsequent tests in Japan, Korea and Brazil. That secured his promotion to the race team in 2011 in place of Lucas di Grassi.
As the new car was only launched today, d’Ambrosio drove last year’s car in Valencia:
“The positive point about that is you can make a clear comparison with last year’s tyres because the car is the same. It was good for me to get a first feel of what the tyre was like, so I think it was pretty positive for me yesterday. We went through our programme it was more
“We had a smooth day, not many problems, nothing big, just getting back into it and getting as much info as we can on the tyres, this was the big objective.”
His objective for the season is simple: keep Glock in sight and secure his place in the top flight of motor sport:
“We want to make a big step forward. You have no certain answer until you hit the track in Bahrain and you know, plus or minus, where you are.
“Of course we’re going to get an idea of where we are in Barcelona and Jerez, but it always takes a while.
“Timo is highly rated in the paddock, he’s a great driver, a very complete driver. So I need to be as close as possible to him as quickly as possible and just try to learn a lot and get the best result for the season.
“For me the main important thing for this season is that it will be a good season if it allows me to continue in Formula 1.”
D’Ambrosio’s arrival also means that, for the first time since 1993, Belgian fans will have a home driver to cheer on at Spa. D’Ambrosio says he faced scepticism from people who thought a Belgian would not make it in Formula 1:
“In Belgium, we don’t have big companies. The market of Belgium is different from, maybe, China.
“So people in Belgium, since I started, always thought that being a Belgian meant I wasn’t going to make it in Formula 1 because you need to be in a big market.
“I never wanted to believe this. And in the end I think it’s mentality, I just thought ‘if you’re good enough, you can make it, no matter where you’re from, because they need good drivers.’
“If you’re good, if you’re dedicated, you will get a chance. I had my chance, I think I took it last year and they gave me the opportunity to be a Grand Prix driver and it’s something great. I have to take it as well. It’s an opportunity, it’s more than an achievement at the moment it’s a great opportunity that I need to use.
“I think that if you put yourself limits, if you believe you’re not going to make something, or it’s impossible, you’re not going to make it. You’re going to convince yourself it’s impossible. I never want to fall into that.
“It’s great for Belgium and the feedback has been amazing. Since I signed there has been an interest that I could never tell you was going to happen.”
Images © Virgin Racing, F1 Fanatic, Virgin Racing