The Renault F1 car that dazzled an FE driver turned team principal

At a time when Alpine considers the future of its driver academy, following its somewhat clumsy handling of Oscar Piastri and subsequent ill-feelings towards his McLaren-bound scarpering, it’s no coincidence that one of its former products is also looking a new job.

The Alpine Academy’s lineage goes back to Renault’s young driver programme, which brought Lucas di Grassi, Romain Grosjean and Nelson Piquet Jr to F1 in the late 2000s. It also provided support to Jerome D’Ambrosio, a former Venturi Formula E team manager, on his way to the top echelon of racing.

After impressing in a handful of practice starts for the inexperienced Virgin F1 team in 2010, ironically replacing the driver who would later drive at Venturi at di Grassi, D’Ambrosio was given the team’s go-ahead 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 replaced Grosjean in 2012 at the team, when the now Andretti IndyCar driver was penalized with a race for bowling in the first corner at Spa.

But D’Ambrosio doesn’t pick any of the cars he’s raced in F1 as his favourite. Instead, he offers the Renault R30 from the 2010 season as his most precious experience behind the wheel. The yellow and black machine looked glorious in its bumblebee livery and, according to the Bruxellois, was particularly useful on the track when he had the chance to put his gloves on it.

“I think it was the fastest Formula 1 car I’ve ever driven,” recalls D’Ambrosio. “My last grand prix at 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 the Abu Dhabi tests when I was a young driver, will stay with me as the most incredible feeling I’ve ever 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 is a) one he tested for just one day, and b) belonged to another team. Still, the R30 was an underrated machine, one that Kubica took to three podium finishes in 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 podium finishes in 2010. It’s worth remembering that Kubica came one step away from claiming pole for the Monaco Grand Prix, before that Mark Webber took her away. at the end of the session.

D'Ambrosio drove Virgin's VR-01 one day at the 2010 Abu Dhabi Young Drivers test and the R30 the next.  The difference, he says, was enormous.

D’Ambrosio drove Virgin’s VR-01 one day at the 2010 Abu Dhabi Young Drivers test and the R30 the next. The difference, he says, was enormous.

Photo By: Sutton Images

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D’Ambrosio got his hands on the R30 during the young drivers test after the Abu Dhabi final, driving the ‘fully CFD’ Virgin VR-01 on opening day before getting the best machinery for second.

“The first day was with the Virgin, the second with the Renault. That the Renault was a much faster car would be an understatement!”

But how much faster? In his time with Cosworth-powered Virgin at the Yas Marina circuit, D’Ambrosio posted a time of 1m43.518s, slightly quicker than Glock’s time since qualifying. In the R30 the following day, he posted a 1m38.802s. Night and day, to be sure, and just 0.7 seconds off Daniel Ricciardo’s starting time in the Red Bull RB6.

The R30 itself had been part of Renault’s comeback in form under new ownership of Genii Capital, which had bought a majority stake in the team in late 2009. The previous car, the R29, had been unsuccessful as the team had taken the lead. wrong way with the new aerodynamic regulations; the inwash front wing it initially came with had to be swapped out for an outwashing option, as the anvil-shaped nose looked particularly heavy compared to the considerably sleeker solutions on the rest of the grille.

“That car that we had in 2010, and in the Abu Dhabi tests when I was a young driver, will stay with me as the most incredible feeling I’ve ever felt in a race car, just in terms of sheer speed and everything. Jerome D’Ambrosio

So the 2010 machinery was a vast improvement and gave Kubica the wherewithal to frequently challenge the duo of Mercedes and Felipe Massa throughout the season. And, when D’Ambrosio was offered the opportunity to test the car in the post-November 2010 young driver test, it gave him the platform to secure Virgin’s second seat for December, having impressed in his quartet of FP1 sessions with the squad. According to news reports at the time, D’Ambrosio was considered with incumbent di Grassi and future Caterham F1 driver Giedo van der Garde for the unit.

A popular addition to the Virgin team, D’Ambrosio’s mechanics quickly earned him the nickname “Custard”, due to his nominative similarity to a British brand of dessert accessories. But despite the good pace, D’Ambrosio’s first proper test of F1 aboard the 2011 MVR-02 was not ambrosia; although the team had claimed some additional funding from Russian sports car manufacturer Marussia, it still persisted with its wind tunnel avoidance to save costs. Thus, the aerodynamics were underdeveloped, and he resigned himself to fighting with HRT against the wooden spoon, since the Spanish team had not progressed since 2010 due to lack of cash.

Though D’Ambrosio was able to show himself well against Glock, and his more experienced teammate’s 14-5 rating arrears less one-sided than it seemed, he couldn’t prevent Charles Pic from being announced as his replacement for 2012. Reported Before the final in Brazil, D’Ambrosio arguably made his drive of the year to beat Glock resoundingly. Autosport wrote of his last race in Brazil: “I finished the season well, beating and beating Glock knowing that Charles Pic will take his seat next season. His future seems uncertain, but his calm performance was a reminder that he has not been beside himself in his rookie year.”

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D'Ambrosio impressed Virgin enough for a 2011 race, but the MVR-02 lacked downforce

D’Ambrosio impressed Virgin enough for a 2011 race, but the MVR-02 lacked downforce

Photo by: Charles Coates/Motorsport Images

From then on, D’Ambrosio had one more F1 race: the 2012 Italian Grand Prix in place of Grosjean. With limited experience in the Lotus E20, he did well, but a small chance of scoring points was lost when a KERS failure put him at a disadvantage 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 when the all-electric championship began in earnest, and he remained with the team for 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 start is rarely the F1 race many aspire to, but D’Ambrosio has no regrets about his time at the top of racing. In fact, now that he has a taste for team leadership, he is very happy to leave driving behind.

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“I think I’m very lucky in that regret is something I don’t really feel,” says D’Ambrosio. “I never felt that in my career, in my life. I have had setbacks, things that have not lasted over time. But I never looked at them like they wish they had done it differently, because I’m very happy where I am. And all my successes and mistakes have led me to be where I am. I am happy where I am. So no, I don’t regret it.

“I am very proud and happy that I was able to experience that, there are some memories that I will never forget. Equally, I am extremely happy to have done what I did in Formula E, the few wins I have managed to achieve. These are memories and sensations that just stay with you. And yeah, sure, I don’t think he was the most successful driver.

“But driving in those 28 years as a racing driver allowed me to gain an understanding and experience that I can use on a daily basis in [managing a team], which I enjoy very much. And I don’t miss driving at all.”

D'Ambrosio says the R30 was the fastest F1 car he's driven

D’Ambrosio says the R30 was the fastest F1 car he’s driven

Photo By: Sutton Images

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