Does a famous family name really make a driver’s life any easier? It certainly doesn’t make them any faster, that much has been proven many times. It can make them richer, but not always – Damon Hill would know all about that. Bruno Senna is both blessed and burdened by the most famous name in racing, a name that frankly nobody could live up to. Bruno has been granted a go in free practice this coming Friday at the Hungaroring while his Renault team are also making positive noises about their fellow reserve driver Romain Grosjean. It’s about time that Renault noticed the potential in its own reserve drivers.
Of course Renault will be hoping neither driver is needed to step into a race seat although they are facing the grim reality that team leader Robert Kubica has to overcome many hurdles before he can return to F1 and Nick Heidfeld is solid but not able to lift the car to the highest heights. Meanwhile Vitaly Petrov has gone against type and is within only two points of the veteran, which appears to have brought Eric Boullier and his merry men round to the idea of finally considering a youngster for Heidfeld’s role – 18 months ago the quiet Russian was a far bigger gamble than either Senna or Grosjean are right now.
Some forum warriors on t’internet have been quick to dismiss Bruno Senna, many before he had turned a wheel in a contemporary Grand Prix machine. I genuinely believe that Bruno has the talent, he just needs the chance to use it. He had barely begun in karting when his exploits were cut short by the loss of his uncle prompting his family to stop his career almost before it started. Damon Hill, another man who was the second generation of a driving dynasty, also skipped the karting step and he still did alright for himself. To my knowledge Senna and Petrov are the only drivers who came from a largely non-karting background to make it into F1 in recent years, an achievement that cannot be underestimated.
This lack of a childhood spent behind the wheel meant that Bruno Senna’s very first full season of racing was in British Formula 3, a crucial distinction in his career that is lost on many. Those drivers who are multiple karting and junior formula winners often fall at this hurdle; Bruno gamely went into F3 with only seven races to his famous name. After a solid debut year in 2005 with Raikkonen Robertson Racing he took things up a notch in 2006 by winning the first two rounds in style at a wet Oulton Park, not a bad way to begin only your second year of racing. He went on to win another three races to take third overall at the end of the year, a great achievement for any driver, let alone one with such little experience who carries such great expectations. I’m struggling to think of anybody from the current crop of Grand Prix stars who was winning such high-profile races within just over a year of starting out. Nope, can’t think of any – not even Vettel the wunderkid.
After Formula 3 Senna went on to impress in GP2; in 2008 he took second in the title race to the vastly more experienced Giorgio Pantano – a guy who had been at this level of competition or above for eight seasons, far before Senna had even started his career. Testing for Honda’s F1 outfit beckoned, their emotional link with the Senna name made a hook-up between them a no-brainer. Bruno looked set to hit the big time only four years after he started car racing. Then the Japanese manufacturer pulled the plug on F1, the team became Brawn GP and they plumped for their old pal Rubens Barrichello rather than his more youthful countryman. Senna was left to compete in sportscar racing where he struggled for the first time since his early days. Even harder lessons were learned by taking his F1 bow with the woeful HRT squad in 2010. The impressive momentum built up from 2005 to 2008 was broken and Senna was passed over for this year, winding up as one of Renault’s many testers. A shame in my view. Anybody who can drive the wrong way down Eau Rouge while filming on his phone is pretty handy in a race car!
While I don’t know for certain what Bruno could do with a decent F1 chance, there is no way we’ll ever find out unless he gets the time on track. Hopefully his practice run in Hungary is an audition for a proper go at Interlagos or even sooner.
In the same week that Senna gets his run with the team Eric Boullier has been extolling the virtues of Romain Grosjean. As much as he has been a delight to watch in GP2 this year, Romain has been racing for long enough to know how to win by now, anything less would be disappointing.
What needs to be remembered is that amongst the complex web of ownership at Renault is the Gravity driver management venture. Like Flavio Briatore before them, the current management are tied commercially to drivers so it is in their interest to talk them up, although Senna is not one of them. Grosjean is part of the Gravity stable, but they need to remember that throwing Grosjean into an F1 race seat too soon damaged his market value back in 2009. In my fantasy team manager role I would leave him to focus on winning GP2, he already has F1 on his CV.
Since its rebirth in 2002 the Renault team has never felt a compulsion to run a French driver, so that is not in Grosjean’s favour as Bourdais and Montagny will testify. These days the F1 effort isn’t an outpost of the French manufacturer anyway, indeed the team wouldn’t even be called Renault if the top brass had their way. The chassis would most likely take the title of its sponsor – Lotus – if the team could find favour with enough of the F1 paddock to allow a name change. The car is already painted in black and gold, a yellow helmet would sit nicely in there and they know it.
Group Lotus have bold ambitions which thus far are mostly based around creating a PR buzz. Right now their game-plan is more about building the brand than the brand building thousands of supercars. For the most part their racing efforts involve putting stickers on established racing teams – Renault in F1, ART in GP2 and KV Racing over the pond in Indycar. They’ve badged Judd’s forthcoming Indy engine too, although interestingly there is increasing talk that Lotus-affiliated KV Racing are not interested in running their main sponsor’s motor. With the PR push in full swing Danny Bahar and company must be itching to see Senna race, their marketing department wouldn’t miss Nick Heidfeld at the Brazilian Grand Prix even if his vast experience is valuable to the engineers at Renault.
I can’t stand to see talent go to waste, so I would unashamedly love to see Bruno Senna get a proper crack at driving in F1 again. Hungary is a start, but surely Renault could find a proper place for Senna come Interlagos? Despite the last three years being trying for Bruno, the previous three seasons showed that he is packing more talent than the doubters would have you think. Is it enough to make a real impact on F1? Well we won’t know until somebody gives him a half-decent car, will we? Come on Renault, roll the dice.