At the age of 28 and in the third year of his stalled-stop-start F1 career, Bruno Senna has finally been presented with his big chance to make his own name for himself.

Still best – perhaps only? – known for being Ayrton Senna’s nephew and the bearer, for better or worse, of the most iconic surname in motor sport, it’s up to the Brazilian to prove in 2012 that he is on the sport on merit rather than on account of his undisputed fame or fortune. Like it or lump it, there’s a stigma attached to Bruno and he must be a Senna to remove it.

Williams, in doth-protest-too-much mantra, have insisted that Bruno was hired in preference to Rubens Barrichello purely on driving criteria. “We picked the final decision based on a number of factors ranging from the raw pace of a driver, consistency, tyre management, technical feedback, fitness, mental capacity and, most importantly, the impact the new driver would have on the team,” the team solemnly declared in a phone-in to invited journalists last month. But be that as it may – and there’s no question that Williams put Senna through a rigorous period of evaluation before and after Christmas at their Grove headquarters – it’s still difficult to believe that the knowledge his arrival would be wrapped in $10m worth of sponsorship money did not factor in their thinking.

How could it not? Williams are a business, not a charity, and there isn’t a business on the planet that wouldn’t be interested in an extra $10m on the balance sheet.

What was also telling on the day of Bruno’s appointment was the level of animated response the news, despite being widely expected, still generated. In modern parlance, it trended. As Tom Cary of the Daily Telegraph later noted, “This is the first clue that Williams made the right decision hiring him.” The team are on to a ratings bonanza.

But that doesn’t help Senna. Indeed, any acknowledgement that his signing is a PR and marketing coup for a team short of profitable publicity in recent times is merely another reason to doubt whether he would be on the grid without such an advantageous family connection. From the team’s perspective, reuniting with the Senna name was the no-brainer, logical choice. After the worst season in their history – and with Barrichello the only realistic alternative given Adrian Sutil’s court date in Munich – they had nothing else to lose. Offering a big chance to a hungry and potentially competitive driver whilst receiving a bountiful financial bonus up front amounted to a low-risk gamble very much worth taking.

The onus, therefore, is firmly on Bruno to prove himself on track. Having entered the sport carrying the heavy burden of his family name, he is familiar with pressure and well versed in fielding questions about the demands of being his uncle’s nephew. Bruno is nobody’s fool and his intelligence will stand him in good stead in the year-long trial to come.

So, too, will his personable and articulate character. Universally popular and eager to please, he’ll settle in quickly at Grove and has sufficient technical understanding to adequately compensate for the loss of Barrichello’s feedback – a critical facet in such an inexperienced driver line-up. They money’s there, but so too is considerable potential.

To date, there have been only a few glimpses of his talent, but his top-10 qualification in Belgium last season was particularly tantalising. His spell at Renault rather fell away after that brief highlight, not least in the first-corner crash which followed a day later. Yet it’s worth reminding – as Senna duly did – that he was bereft of heavy-fuel running beforehand, just as he was denied any track and testing time before his stint at HRT. Such a handicap has been the bane of his F1 life: it was only a lack of testing that prevented him replacing Barrichelloat Brawn for their championship-winning season of 2009.

In general, Bruno showed up well against Vitaly Petrov last term, regularly out-qualifying the Russian during their eight races together, while his untidiness – he received three drive-through penalties in those eight races – could be reasonably attributed to his lack of track time and race experience. Roughly speaking, what he lacked he in consistency he made up for in pace before the Renault gave up on the 2011 season altogether. However, it’s also true to say that he never managed once, over the course of those eight events, to put together a full weekend of creditable performance.

As attention turns to 2012, this winter’s rigorous testing should serve him well; it also means he will arrive at Melbourne deprived of any excuses. It is, as it is for so many drivers on the grid, now or never for Senna. One salient difference to the norm is that beating his team-mate will not be sufficient. Maldonado, the very modest definition of a pay driver, represents such a low bar that Senna will need to leap far above the much-lamented Venezuelan if proof of merit is to be achieved.

Senna’s target must be to single-handedly drag Williams back into the top 10 – a tough task given that they fell behind Force India and Sauber last term, but one that an elite driver, such as a true Senna, would accept and relish.

A final thought: While Bruno’s presence on the grid is unequiovally connected to the past, his recruitment, undoubtedly financially motivated in part, has also been widely depicted as a sign of the current times. Were he to succeed at Williams, marrying money with performance, then he might well be the forerunner of the typical F1 driver of the future in a sport increasingly indistinct from big business.

If he can prove himself, Senna might prove to be the driver every team will seek in the near future: good enough to be on the grid on merit but, better still, a driver who also pays his way. Oh well.

Pete Gill

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