Saturday 3 March 2012

F1 2012 Season Preview: Lotus - Bouncing Back

The rule changes between 2011 and 2012 are not major by historical standards (despite the obvious aesthetic alteration). In such circumstances seismic shifts of the F1 pecking order tend not to happen. It could be the same this year, but even with this there is reason to think that Lotus (née Renault) may be this year's highest climbers.

Credit: Gil Abrantes / CC
This is for a number of reasons. Last year was a difficult one for them in peculiar circumstances, so some bounce back should be expected, especially so for a unit that have won world titles in recent times (indeed, they've won two constructors' titles since McLaren last won one). They've got a new and exciting driving line up, who clearly have had a galvanising impact on the squad. And, most importantly of all, their new car looks like it's a good one.

It seems odd that after the first pre-season test of 2011, in which Robert Kubica topped the times and the R31 caused a round of head scratching in the pit lane, particularly in regard to its innovative forward-facing exhausts, Renault (as Lotus were then) were talked of as the season's dark horses. The team's decline from this point started almost immediately and barely abated as 2012 progressed. Kubica put himself out for that season (and this) with injuries sustained in a rally accident, but worse as far as the team's prospects were concerned the exhaust concept proved to be a blind alley, and even worse than that precluded development in the aggressive exhaust blowing of the diffuser which was the key development area for competitiveness last year. This all left the team as sitting ducks, and they were counting down the days until 2011 finished long before the season was out.

There were also murmurings of difficulties away from the track, such as from uncertainties about the team's ownership and a resultant 'identity crisis' (not helped by trying to be the 'second' Lotus team on the grid), as well as what was thought to be a strained relationship between team principal Eric Boullier and his rotating cast of drivers.

But, already, all of this now seems like it's from the dim and distant past. The identity issues seem to be resolved and there's a new vibrant driving line up, featuring a returning supremely-talented world champion in Kimi Raikonnen and a promising young driver in Romain Grosjean. All of this looks to have had an invigorating impact on the team, who've had nothing but good to say about their new pilots.

And as always, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and in Lotus's case their set of wheels looks pretty mean on the basis of testing thus far. The E20 has frequently set strong headline times, as well as looks tidy and fine-handling out on the track. Lotus of course had a major testing set back, missing almost the entire first Barcelona test with a chassis problem (eventually traced to front suspension mount problems). But they seem to have bounced back from this strongly as well, helped by having a clearly solid car to fall back on. Further, in recent Barcelona testing the car showed long run consistency and relatively low tyre wear that put Ferrari to shame, who were running what seemed a similar program at the same time (as well as outpaced them on a harder tyre compound). The performance here even got Lewis Hamilton's attention.

Of course, any testing performances come with a massive asterisk, but it bodes well. So too does the air of quiet confidence, without complacency, that the team have been exuding in recent days and weeks. Exactly what you need heading into a new season. Lotus probably won't be on the pole in Melbourne, but getting in among the 'big four' teams there, possibly even having a car qualify in the top six, is far from out of the question.

Matthias v.d. Elbe / CC
Kimi Raikkonen - Car #9
So he's back, thus bringing to an end speculation that had never really abated in his two years away.

Kimi's the sort of guy, and sort of driver, who'll attract attention whatever he does. This is partly down to his apolitical, devil-may-care attitude out of the car, but mostly because of his prodigious and instinctive talent when in it. We know what Kimi is capable of at the top of his game, which is drives which are among the best anyone has ever seen, such as in Japan in 2005.

Many will point to Kimi's flip side, such as perceptions about his lack of consistency and fluctuating motivation, as risks for him to underperform now he's back in F1. But such is the strength of Raikonnen's talent I personally don't see where the risk is in Lotus signing him for this year. Kimi at half-cock will be about as good as the other candidates for the seat would have been. And Kimi at his best will be wonderful.

So, how will Kimi do? The first question related to this is what exactly has changed since two years ago when he left F1, seemingly exasperated? Perhaps Martin Brundle is right that two years of digging rally cars out of the snow may have resulted in a change in him. Indeed, Brundle reports Petter Solberg reckoning that over this time in rallying Kimi became 'much more approachable, much less smart ass'. Further, parallels with Michael Schumacher's struggles in his comeback aren't perfect: Kimi's over a decade younger and hasn't been away for as long.

And you could argue that the talk of Kimi lacking motivation towards the end of his 'first' F1 career is overstated. In 2009, after Massa's accident, he looked to be driving as well as ever, helped by the focus of the team being on him and the car handling to his liking. If this happens at Lotus then watch Kimi fly (especially with seats in the front-running teams being up for grabs in 2013). But it also gives a clue as to a potential downfall: Kimi isn't always the best or most proactive in getting his car to such a pitch. It's possible that if he doesn't immediately get the E20 handling to his liking, and with a rapid team mate in Grosjean, he could find himself in a similar underwhelming performance cycle as he did a lot of the time when alongside Felipe Massa at Ferrari.

But Kimi's looked fit and focussed in testing so far (despite his usual disdain for some journalists' more docile questions!), has appeared to be on it pretty quickly out on track, and he's been getting a lot of mileage. Further, the team have clearly been impressed with him, and Kimi seems to have had a galvanising effect on the squad. The signs so far are that he won't be another Schumi, or indeed another repeat of his Ferrari self.

Credit: Robk23oxf / CC
Romain Grosjean - Car #10
F1 is a business wherein people tend to make their minds up very quickly, for better or for worse. With this, it's an amazing achievement for Romain Grosjean to have earned his comeback in an F1 race seat, after being effectively written off and quietly forgotten about following his unimpressive cameo driving for Renault in 2009. It just goes to show you should never write off anyone.

In any case his drives that year, given the circumstances, perhaps weren't as bad as has been widely assumed. Being team mate to Fernando Alonso is usually a graveyard shift (ask Felipe Massa), the Renault R29 was a difficult, uncompetitive machine, Grosjean stepped in mid-season with no testing and the team were in turmoil off the track. With all this, the average gap between Grosjean and Alonso in qualifying was under sixth tenths of a second. Given everything, that wasn't a bad effort.

For those who encountered him 'before and after' as it were, Grosjean also appears a different person now to 2009, a million miles away from the haunted, uncertain figure that was in the paddock just over two years ago. He now looks like he feels he belongs there, and in pre-season testing he's been driving like it as well.

Grosjean, post-2009, has had a long look at himself and come back even stronger, via Auto GP and GP2 Asia before cantering to the GP2 title last year. He then took a big stride to sealing the Lotus drive by outpacing his race driver team mate in both Friday practice sessions he ran in during the final two rounds of last year.

His match-up with Kimi Raikkonen is one that could go either way - and that says a lot for Romain Grosjean.

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