On Friday afternoon, fresh from the announcement that he had would be replacing Jarno Trulli in Caterham’s line-up for the new season, Vitaly Petrov took time out to speak to JA on F1 about his new deal and his aims for 2012.
The Russian explains why he thinks he’s joined a team that’s going places and why it’s about time that people stopped labelling him as purely a pay driver.
First of all, congratulations on the Caterham drive. It must be a relief to finally have your future sorted and be definitely on the grid for 2012?
“Thank you very much. Of course, it was [a] hard winter but then finally we did this.”
There had obviously been some speculation for a while that you might join Caterham, so how did the deal and your talks with Tony Fernandes and his partners come about?
“It was a very good chat with them but we needed to sort out some different details. But then finally we did this deal and we came together.”
Is it just a one-year contract?
I can’t comment on this at the moment, need to wait.”
What have been your first impressions of Caterham so far? You’ve been at the factory today for a seat-fitting…
“I think they did a big improvement the last two years so now they have a new car, new factory from this summer, so they are moving on the right direction.
“I think this was the main target for them and also you can see these people want to achieve at least something in Formula 1, not to be just one of the teams. They want to achieve good results in the next years so this is why it’s quite interesting to work with them.”
How did the seat-fitting go?
“Actually we still continue to do this, we’ve still not finished it. But I hope to get it fixed very well.”
You missed the first pre-season test at Jerez, so you’ll only have four days or so in the car before the first race. Will that be enough to get up to speed with the new car and systems and everything?
“Yeah, the systems are absolutely the same, it’s just new steering wheel, new car, new people and it will be a bit more difficult to adjust to be part of this team.
“But now all looks very well and I don’t see there are any problems because the first test anyway it was just checking some controls, but now it will be proper testing in Barcelona.”
You’re obviously replacing a very experienced driver in Jarno Trulli, how do you feel about replacing him and stepping into his shoes?
“To be honest, I’d prefer to not talk about another driver and about Jarno because it’s not good [to do so]. It’s not good for me, it’s not good for them and you never know what they want to hear from you or things like this. I think other people can talk about this, but not me. My job is driving.”
One driver who you are going to get to know very well is Heikki Kovalainen. How well do you know him already and are you looking forward to working with him?
“He lives not far from where I live in Russia – our countries are very close to each other – so I don’t see any problems to work with him. I hope we will work together quite well.”
As you mentioned, Caterham is targeting a good step forward this year and to get onto the back of the midfield and score its points in F1. How confident are you having spoken to people like Tony and the technical team that that’s going to be possible?
“This team has not stayed in one level, in one place, they’re always moving forward. They always try to bring some more people, they bring new parts to the car, they buy a new factory, they buy the KERS [system] – they knew that [the car with] KERS is five tenths quicker than without KERS.
“They want to not be just part of Formula 1, but they want to achieve some results in future. This is why I’m quite happy with what they are doing and together if they will continue the same way, in this team [I see] quite a big future.”
So do you see it, as Heikki has done over the last couple of years, somewhere where you can stay and grow with the team?
“Yeah, of course together we can push the team to be more professional. Heikki has already done this, but I’ll try to help to do the same.”
You’re going to be entering your third season of Formula 1 so what are the areas that you’re still looking to improve as a driver?
“I think you can improve everything little by little. These kinds of things, it will never be perfect, so you need to be always working on something – on speed of reaction, on stability, on everything. Even to talk to the press you need some time to understand what you must say or what you must do.”
Since you were first confirmed as a Renault driver in 2010, people have perhaps unfairly continued to label you as a pay driver. Does that remain a source of annoyance for you and if so do you feel you still need to prove to people you deserve a place in F1?
“You know in 2010, I was in need really to show people I came here not for just pay [reasons]. But I showed a few good races in 2010, but it looked like it was not enough for them. But then I think in 2011 they are not allowed to talk anymore about this because the pay driver cannot achieve their first podium and then to finish so many times on the points.
“I think this is not right to talk about [these] things. Also [to] be quicker than Nick [Heidfeld] and be quicker than Bruno [Senna] and other drivers. So I think we need to forget about [suggestions that] we came just for pay. I know the money everywhere is questioned, not just for us even for Trulli, who’s also an experienced guy, and then Heidfeld is also an experienced guy, but he’s not quick enough or things like this.
“But I think after [my performances in] 2011 I must say I’m not a pay driver here [in F1].”
2011 of course started really well with your first podium finish, as you mention, and some other good results and then Renault’s development sort of went off the boil a bit and it was a difficult end to the year. Did you learn a lot last year through the highs and lows?
“Of course 2010 and 2011 you cannot forget because I learned so much, it was completely different cars, it was KERS, it was different tyres, it was a different system in the car with which I was working.
“I learnt really from them and without them it would be very difficult for me to be here now in Caterham. So now I have quite a good [level of] experience from the last two years.”
Were you disappointed though with the way your Renault career finished or are you just looking to draw a line under that now and move on to 2012?
“Like I said already before, I don’t want to even talk about things [in the past] anymore because what is done is done. My life is not stopping, my life is moving. I’m happy and I’d love stay in Caterham and I’m glad they believe I can be a good driver here. It’s a pity Lotus doesn’t understand this and decided to take other drivers, but I just want to continue my work.”
How have Russia and your fans back home reacted to the Caterham news?
“Yeah, it’s still big news there. A lot of phone calls, a lot of messages, I’m reading a lot of press about this. I know it’s already [on] some TV shows… so quite interesting and Formula 1 is getting bigger and bigger.”
Just looking at the season as a whole coming up, Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull rather walked away with it last year, but do you think because the regulations are relatively stable the field can close up?
“We will see but it still looks like Red Bull are the strongest team, but didn’t open [the car’s] full potential [at Jerez]. And the rest of the teams I don’t want to comment because you never know, it just was the first test and I was not there so for me it’s even more difficult to speak about this. So we are just waiting for the first race and then we will know.”
And just finally, what do you feel would be a good target to set for your first year at Caterham?
“I can’t tell you at the moment because I have zero laps on this car. So we need some time to understand how our car is quick or not. I think we need to just focus on our job; we don’t need to put a target to be at the end of the year in the top 10 or things like this because it is very, very difficult.
“I think we need to just have a clear understanding of what we are doing, what we can do and we need just time and to work very hard to achieve this.”