Bruno Senna took part in a conference call with media this afternoon, answering questions about his move to Williams.
Among the eye catching notes to arise from it were that he first had contact with the team about a 2012 drive at the Japanese Grand Prix, that he and senior Williams engineers believe that they will be solidly in the top ten in qualifying and the races this year and that his grand parents – Ayrton’s mother and father – were ‘ecstatic’ about the news.
It’s very clear that tomorrow morning’s headlines will be all about the death of Ayrton Senna in a Williams Renault and how his nephew is reviving memories of that ill-fated partnership 18 years ago. It’s a persuasive and emotive story-line, especially since the Senna legend has been rekindled with the success of the film about him. Memories of Senna tend to be of him winning in a McLaren and fighting Alain Prost, the Williams chapter was very short and brutal. It’s a memory many F1 fans wish to let drift from their consciousness.
It’s a storyline which, as Senna himself admits, creates its own pressures on him.
These will not be so much in terms of burden of expectation, because expectations are not all that high based on his season and a half in F1 to date. However he knows he will face the Ayrton in a Williams question at every new venue his visits from local media and it will sit with him as an ever present. But Bruno is used to dealing with the subject of his uncle and has managed to carry it off with an easy grace. Time will tell how wearing it might get.
But Senna has fought for a long time for the chance to have a proper F1 drive, one which involves pre-season testing and the right kind of preparation for a full season of racing. And few would argue that he doesn’t deserve it. He brings plenty of Brazilian sponsorship money, as the team and he acknowledge, from telecoms company Embratel and oil company OGX, which made him more attractive.
But interestingly Williams also put forward its senior operations engineer Mark Gillan today, to explain that the team had been through a thorough evaluation process involving assessing speed, tyre management, technical feedback and many other parameters and that Bruno came out ahead of other contenders.
This is important messaging; to play down the suggestions that he has won this drive due to the significant sponsorship backing. The message is that he won the drive on merit, the sponsorship is a bonus.
The team went through a similar process last year with Pastor Maldonado, who arrived with significant backing from Venezuelan oil company PDVSA. He had a more difficult sell as the team chose him over the clearly very talented Nico Hulkenberg.
He didn’t have a fantastic first season, but was able to show his speed by regularly outqualifying Rubens Barrichello. Both drivers are something of an unknown quantity in F1 terms so it will be hard to make an evaluation of their performance relative to each other.
Incidentally, Barrichello tweeted his congratulations to Senna when the news was announced,
“Twitter friends..I won’t be driving the Williams car this year.I wish my friend @BSenna all the best..the future is wide open.”
The external evaluation of Senna will begin in Jerez in a few weeks time when he drives the new car for the first time and then through the race weekends. There are grounds for arguing that without proper preparation with Lotus and with a very poor car with HRT, it has not been possible to give him a fair assessment. This is his chance to establish himself as a Grand Prix driver. He has good backing, so as long as he gets results he can go on to have a decent career in F1.
And Gillan argues that there is evidence that he’s improving all the time, which is very important for an F1 driver.
Gillan said that the team had put Senna through a very thorough evaluation process before making the decision.
“We had an extensive driver evaluation process with a handful of drivers,” he said, without wishing to elaborate on who they were. “We picked the final decision based on a number of factors; the raw pace, consistency, tyre management, technical feedback, mental capacity and most important the impact that a new driver could have on the team.
Bruno has had not a lot of experience in single seater racing but has shown real improvement and a lot of talent. We’re looking forward to working with him this year after what was a relatively poor year for us last year.”
Gillan was asked about Adrian Sutil, “I don’t want to talk about individual drivers,” he said, “But Adrian was part of our plans. Based on everything that was on the table Bruno was the best choice.”
Gillan said that Williams is going through a process of wholesale change with a new technical team, new drivers, new engine. He admitted that the lack of experience of Senna, Maldonado and test driver Valterri Bottas was an talking point, but saw it as an opportunity rather than a problem.
Gillan said that the new car is on schedule and looking good, “Performance trends look very encouraging.”
Williams ended the season as the slowest of the established teams. They suffered from not being able to make the most of the exhaust blown diffusers, as this was not something Cosworth was able to push hard on. With EBDs banned this year, this is one performance differentiator Williams will not be disadvantaged by.
“It (the new car) will be quite a significant improvement in performance, but that’s our goal and I’m reasonably confident that we can achieve that goal,” he said.