At a time when Alpine considers the future of his drivers academy, following his somewhat clumsy handling of Oscar Piastri and the ensuing bad feelings towards his McLaren-linked scarpering, it’s a coincidence that one of his former products is also looking for a new job.
The lineage of the Alpine Academy can be traced back to the Renault program for young drivers, which brought figures such as Lucas de Grassi, Romain Grosjean and Nelson Piquet Jr in F1 in the late 2000s. He also supported former Venturi Formula E team principal Jerome D’Ambrosio on his journey to the top echelon of racing.
After impressing on a few 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 was given the team nod for 2011 There he drove alongside Timo Glock for a single season as a full-time driver, before joining Lotus as a reserve driver. It is often forgotten that the Belgian then replaced Grosjean in the team in 2012, when now Andretti IndyCar driver was slapped with a one-race ban for bowling in the first corner of Spa.
But D’Ambrosio does not choose any of the cars he has driven in F1 as his favourite. Instead, he offers the Renault R30 from the 2010 season as his most valuable driving experience. The yellow and black machine looked glorious in its bumblebee livery and, according to the Brussels man, was particularly practical on the track when he had the chance to put his mitts on it.
“It was the fastest Formula 1 car I have ever driven,” D’Ambrosio recalled. “My last Grand Prix at Monza was also special with Lotus. But obviously it’s Monza backing, so it’s a bit different. But this car that we had in 2010, and at Abu Dhabi testing as a young driver, will stick with me as the most incredible feeling I’ve had in a race car – just in terms of sheer speed and everything.
It’s probably symbolic of the Virgin/Marussia team’s time in F1 that D’Ambrosio’s favorite car was a) the one he only tested for one day, and b) belonged to another team. . Still, the R30 was an underrated machine, one that Kubica took to three podiums during a competitive F1 season. The Pole was tasked with getting Renault back on track after a miserable 2009 both on and off the track, scoring three podiums in 2010. Memorably, Kubica came close to claiming pole for the Monaco Grand Prix , before Mark Webber swept it away at the end of the session.
D’Ambrosio drove Virgin’s VR-01 one day at the Abu Dhabi Young Drivers Test in 2010, and the R30 the next. The difference, he said, was huge
Photo by: Sutton Images
D’Ambrosio got his hands on the R30 during the young drivers’ test after the Abu Dhabi final, driving the “all CFD” Virgin VR-01 on opening day before securing the best machines for the second.
“Day one was with the Virgin, day two 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 at the Yas Marina circuit, D’Ambrosio posted a 1m43.518s – a shade faster than Glock’s time since qualifying. In the R30 the next day he set a 1m38.802s. Night and day, of course, and only 0.7s from Daniel Ricardoheadlining time in the Red Bull RB6.
The R30 itself had been part of Renault’s rise under new ownership by Genii Capital, which bought a majority stake in the team at the end of 2009. The previous car, the R29, had not been successful as the he team had taken the wrong path with the new aero regulations; the inwash front wing it was originally packaged with had to be replaced with a wash option, as the anvil-shaped nose seemed particularly heavy compared to the considerably sleeker solutions in the rest of the grille.
“That car we had in 2010, and in Abu Dhabi testing as a young driver, that will stick with me as the most incredible feeling I’ve had in a race car – just in terms of sheer speed. and all” Jerome D’Ambrosio
So the 2010 machines were a big improvement and gave Kubica the wherewithal to frequently challenge the mercedes duet and Philippe Massa through the season. And, when D’Ambrosio was offered the chance to try the car in the post-November 2010 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 reports at the time, D’Ambrosio was being considered with incumbent di Grassi and future Caterham F1 driver Giedo van der Garde for the reader.
A popular addition to the Virgin team, D’Ambrosio’s mechanics soon gave him the nickname “Custard”, due to his similarity in name to a British brand of dessert accessories. But despite a good pace, D’Ambrosio’s first good taste of F1 aboard the 2011 MVR-02 was not of ambrosial zest; although the team sought additional funding from Russian sports car manufacturer Marussia, they still persisted in their avoidance of the wind tunnel to cut costs. Thus, the aerodynamics remained underdeveloped, and resigned themselves to struggling with HRT against the wooden spoon, the Spanish team having made no progress from 2010 due to lack of cash.
Although D’Ambrosio was able to perform well against Glock, and the 14-5 backlog in qualifying to his more experienced teammate less one-sided than it looked, that couldn’t stop Charles Peak being announced as his replacement for 2012. Briefed ahead of the Brazil final, D’Ambrosio arguably put in his workout of the year to resoundingly beat Glock. Autosport wrote of its last race in Brazil: “I finished the season well, overqualifying and beating Glock knowing that Charles Pic will take his place next season. His future looks uncertain, but his flawless performance is a reminder that he hasn’t been out of depth in his rookie year.
D’Ambrosio impressed Virgin enough for a run in 2011, but the MVR-02 lacked downforce
Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport pictures
D’Ambrosio had another F1 race afterwards: the 2012 Italian Grand Prix in place of Grosjean. With limited Lotus E20 experience he did well – but a slim chance of points was begging as a KERS failure put him on his feet despite a 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 got underway in earnest and remained with the team through the first four seasons. He then joined Mahindra for the first two seasons with the Gen2 car, before ending his racing career for good.
A single season and outing is rarely the F1 career many aspire to, but D’Ambrosio doesn’t regret his time at the top of the race. Indeed, now having a taste for team leadership, he is very happy to leave driving behind him.
“I think I’m very lucky in the sense that regret is something I don’t really feel,” D’Ambrosio says. “I’ve never felt that in my career, in my life. I’ve had setbacks, things that didn’t last. But I never saw them as wishing I had done things differently, because I’m very happy where I am. And all my successes and my mistakes have brought me to where I am. I’m happy where I am. So no, no regrets.
“I am very proud and happy to have been able to experience this, there are memories that I will never forget. Likewise, I am extremely happy to have done what I did in Formula E, the few victories that I managed to win. These are memories and feelings that stay with you. And yes, of course, I don’t think I was the most successful driver.
“But driving in those 28 years as a racing driver has given me an understanding and experience that I can use on a day-to-day basis. [managing a team], which I really appreciate. And I don’t miss driving at all.
D’Ambrosio says the R30 was the fastest F1 car he’s ever driven
Photo by: Sutton Images
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