As Alpine grapples with the future of its racing school, following the somewhat clumsy management of Oscar Piastri and the resulting animosity over his move to McLaren, it is a coincidence that one of its old products is also looking for a new job.
The Alpine Academy’s lineage goes back to Renault’s young driver programme, where drivers such as Lucas di Grassi, Romain Grosjean and Nelson Piquet Jr entered F1 in the late 2000s. Support Jerome D’Ambrosio, former Venturi Formula E Team Principal, on his way to the top tier of racing.
After impressing in a handful of test sessions for the inexperienced Virgin F1 team in 2010, ironically replacing the driver he would later manage at Venturi in the form of di Grassi, D’Ambrosio was selected by the team for 2011. He drove in addition, together with 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 the now IndyCar driver Andretti was ruled out of a bowling run in the first corner of Spa.
But D’Ambrosio doesn’t pick any of the cars he’s driven in F1 as his favourite. Instead, he presents the Renault R30 from the 2010 season as his most valuable driving experience. The yellow and black machine looked fantastic in its hoppiness and, according to the Brussels man, was particularly handy on the track when he had the chance to control it.
“It was the fastest Formula 1 car I think I’ve driven,” recalls D’Ambrosio. “My last Grand Prix at Monza was also special with Lotus. But it’s obviously Monza’s prop, so it’s a little different. But this car we had in 2010, and in the Abu Dhabi test as a young driver, will go down in my memory as the most incredible feeling I’ve had in a racing car – just in terms of sheer speed and all.
The fact that D’Ambrosio’s favorite car is a) a car he’s only tested for one day and b) a car from another team is probably symbolic of the Virgin/Marussia team of yesteryear in F1. Still, the R30 was an underrated machine, one that Kubica carried to three podium finishes in a competitive F1 season. Tasked with getting Renault back on track after an abysmal 2009, both on and off the track, the Pole secured three podiums in the 2010 Prix de Monaco before Mark Webber stole it from him at the end of the session.
D’Ambrosio was able to familiarize himself with the R30 during the young driver test which followed the final in Abu Dhabi. He drove the ‘all-CFD’ Virgin VR-01 on day one before securing the top machine on day two.
“The first day was with Virgin, the second with Renault – that the Renault was a much faster car would be an understatement! »
But how much faster? During his stint with the Cosworth-powered Virgin at the Yas Marina circuit, D’Ambrosio posted a time of 1m43.518s – slightly faster than Glock’s time in qualifying. The next day, in the R30, he set a time of 1m38.802s. Night and day, indeed, and just 0.7 seconds off Daniel Ricciardo’s best time in the Red Bull RB6.
The R30 itself was part of Renault’s improved form under new ownership by Genii Capital, who bought a majority stake in the team in late 2009. The previous car, the R29, had no success as the team had gone the wrong way with the new aviation regulations; the inwash front spoiler it was originally packaged with had to be changed to an outwash option, as the anvil-shaped nose seemed particularly heavy compared to the much slimmer solutions in the rest of the grille.
“The car we had in 2010 and at the Abu Dhabi test as a young driver will go down in my memory as the most incredible feeling I’ve had in a racing car – just in terms of sheer speed. and all of that”. Jerome D’Ambrosio
So the 2010 machine was a big improvement and gave Kubica the means to challenge the Mercedes duo and Felipe Massa often throughout the season. And when D’Ambrosio had the chance to test the car at the Young Drivers Test in November 2010, he was able to secure the second seat in the Virgin in December – having also impressed in his four FP1 sessions with the team. According to press reports at the time, D’Ambrosio was being considered alongside incumbent di Grassi and future Caterham F1 driver Giedo van der Garde for the wheel.
A popular addition to the Virgin team, mechanics at D’Ambrosio soon nicknamed him ‘Custard’ due to his nominal resemblance to a British dessert topping brand. However, despite a good pace, D’Ambrosio’s first F1 experience aboard the 2011 MVR-02 was not the most pleasant. Although the team requested additional funding from Russian sports car manufacturer Marussia, they continued to avoid wind tunnels to reduce costs. So the aerodynamics remained underdeveloped and they resigned themselves to fighting with HRT against the wooden spoon, where the Spanish team had not progressed since 2010 due to their lack of cash.
Although D’Ambrosio was able to perform well against Glock and the qualifying deficit of 14-5 over his more experienced team-mate was less one-sided than it appeared, it could not prevent Charles Pic from being announced as his replacement for 2012. Shortly before the Brazilian final, D’Ambrosio had arguably the best ride of the year, beating Glock in resounding fashion. Autosport wrote of his final race in Brazil: “He finished the season well, outclassing and overtaking Glock, knowing that Charles Pic will take his place next season. His future looks uncertain, but his unforgettable performance served as a reminder that he is not was overtaken by events in his rookie year. »
D’Ambrosio competed in another F1 race subsequently: the 2012 Italian Grand Prix in place of Grosjean. With limited Lotus E20 experience, he performed well – but a slim chance of scoring was gone when a KERS failure sidelined him despite a high pace in the second half of the race. It’s over for F1; D’Ambrosio then joined Dragon for the 2014–15 Formula E season, when the all-electric championship began in earnest, and 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 outing is rarely the F1 career many aspire to, but D’Ambrosio has no regrets about his time at the top of the competition. In fact, having now enjoyed managing a team, he is very happy to get behind the wheel.
“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 had setbacks, things that didn’t last. But I’ve never looked at them as wishing I had done things differently, because I’m very happy where I am. And all my successes and mistakes have led me to be 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 wins that I managed to achieve. It is memories and sensations that stick with you. And yes, for sure, I don’t think I was the most successful driver.
“However, driving for 28 years as a racing driver has given me an understanding and experience that I can use in the motorsport field on a daily basis.” [managing a team]which I greatly appreciate. And I don’t miss driving at all.”