Sunday, 2 March 2014

F1 2014 Season Preview: Lotus - Enstone woe

On the surface, all looked good for Lotus last season. The E21 machine was an excellent one, arguably the second best out there; some had it closer to the mighty Red Bull than top-level results suggested. The team was in the thick of the battle for second place in the constructors' table, bagged a race win as well as had a few other near misses along the way. And all this against teams much better resourced than it. Lotus had a good claim to be punching further above its weight than any other.

Photo: Octane Photography
But F1 teams are rather like icebergs, that what can be seen is but a small proportion in relation to what goes on underneath. And so it was at Team Enstone in 2013: the main problem was that the team was out of money; spending more than it was raising. A drip-drip hemorrhaging of technical staff, such as Technical Director James Allison as well as his deputy Dirk de Beer to Ferrari and Rod Nelson and David Wheater to Williams, gave the first hint at problems. Then the dam rather burst late in the year, via a very public falling out with star driver Kimi Raikkonen, the Finn owed apparently upwards of 16 million Euros in wages. The Quantum Motorsport deal, that was supposed to solve the whole matter, for months lingered apparently poised to be finalised but proved ultimately to be a mirage. And then, on the eve of the 2014 season, team principal Eric Boullier jumped ship too, gratefully accepting the rope thrown by the restructuring McLaren. It was tempting to ask that the last person out of Enstone please turn out the lights.

Perhaps, as Toto Wolff did, you could criticise the team for not living within its means. Perhaps also, as some did, you could criticise the team for not raising more cash from sponsorship and the like. But there are plenty of other things going on: the limited funding coming from Genii Capital didn't help, but Lotus's case in large part betrayed the sport's currently skewed funding model that concentrates cash with certain teams, of which Lotus isn't one. Ferrari based on its 2013 effort gets $171m in result money; Red Bull $162m. Lotus - despite being about as competitive as Ferrari as well as not so long ago being habitual title winners - gets a princely $65m, in large part because it doesn't benefit from a bonus independent of its constructors' placing, that the 'big five' of the Bulls, Ferrari, Mercedes, McLaren and Williams get, the Bulls and Ferrari in particularly vast quantities.

The cash flow problems further appear to be reverberating into its 2014 effort too: the E22 appeared late - uniquely missing the first test in Jerez. And then when it did appear in the two Bahrain tests (having apparently completed 100km of mileage in promotional filming between times) it didn't run much, and when it did run it was seconds off the pace. After the second Bahrain test the two Lotus cars were bottom of the pile both in laps completed and in times. And while the team is rather hamstrung by being a Renault power unit runner, just as with Red Bull the feeling is that on top of this it has been creating problems for itself, such as with its exhaust failures early in Bahrain test two and mileage that is way behind the likes of Toro Rosso and Caterham. Grosjean admitted towards the end of testing that the team wouldn't be ready for the opening rounds of the season and would likely struggle therein, but it wasn't really a revelation to anyone.

Lotus's pre-season antics have been curious on occasion too. After the first four-day test in Bahrain, wherein there was little outward sense that the team had much to be optimistic about, Technical Director Nick Chester was rather gushing in his rosy assessment of it all, using words like 'encouraging' and 'successful', stating what a success the Lotus's unique 'twin-tusk' nose was as well as speculating that the team would be the most competitive Renault runner. Outwardly, there's almost nothing that's happened before or since that would indicate what such optimism was based on.

But, again just as with Red Bull, the distinct possibility remains that once the reliability ills are remedied that the car could still be quick. Certainly, out of just about all the machines launched this year the E22 has the most outward evidence of thinking out of the box. And the nose, while unsightly, certainly is the product of lateral thinking and as mentioned the team's said it's given encouraging aero data in testing. More broadly, Team Enstone is one that likes nothing better than fighting in adversity, taking on supposedly better equipped rivals and defeating them. While the Enstone culture, that of a gritty, skilled and no-nonsense group of racers up for any challenge, is one that's shown itself to be impervious to any amount of staff comings and goings. Which as far as 2014 goes is just as well.

Enstone has surprised us before. And even with all of the recent woes no one in that collective will even be thinking about giving up.

Romain Grosjean - Car #8
Photo: Octane Photography
Patience is a virtue not often displayed in the F1 paddock. And the matter is particularly acute when it comes to assessing drivers, who tend to be judged - for good and more often for bad - before the rest of us can blink. But thankfully Lotus in the past couple of years has gone against this grain, and has just got its rewards in the latest-spec Romain Grosjean. The team's co-owner Gerard Lopez in recent weeks described him as one of the three fastest drivers in the sport right now. Such a claim may be slightly over-egged (unless he was talking about qualifying pace), but that it didn't sound totally absurd displays just how far Grosjean's star his risen since the middle of last season.

As late as Monaco last campaign Grosjean looked rather a dead man walking: following a series of accidents there including one that ended his race, which in themselves followed on from an underwhelming opening to the year, some even had him being booted out mid-year. Almost no one had him being retained for 2014. How long ago that seems now.

Towards the end of last season against most expectations he blossomed into something akin to a complete F1 driver. Pace had always been there in ideal circumstances but the repeated crashes, especially early in races, and apparent propensity to panic when other cars were around, as well as the timidity borne of lacking confidence, were almost entirely shed. His turnaround can be pinpointed at roughly mid-last season: apparently the Pirellis used later in the year suited his driving style, particularly for a qualifying lap, but his team reckon that the big breakthrough was psychological - Grosjean noted before the season end that he had indeed been getting help in this area. Whatever was the case, in the latter part of the 2013 campaign he was superb and increasingly so: fast, aggressive without overdoing it as well as immaculate under pressure. It was rewarded with a series of podium finishes (four in five races), status as the Lotus team's pace-setter as well as of the biggest, perhaps the only, irritant to the imperious Red Bulls. Splitting the Milton Keynes cars in Austin where by rights they should have had the race to themselves, and never putting a wheel out of line as his previous tormentor-in-chief Mark Webber stalked him from behind for much of the distance, felt a lot like scaling a mountain top.

It's a pity therefore that having scaled this high peak, and that his freshman F1 win seemed a matter of when rather than whether, that almost as suddenly he'll find himself struggling with a recalcitrant, initially anyway, E22. We can only hope that his recent improvements aren't vulnerable to this setback. Grosjean will also be aiming to cement the status that he started to build late last campaign of being the Lotus go-to guy, of it very much being his team. And in these circumstances he'll need a positive attitude and the ability to keep the team's spirits up in order to lead them out of the rubble. The ball's in his court.

Pastor Maldonado - Car #13
Photo: Octane Photography
No one was in any doubt as to why Pastor Maldonado got the Lotus drive for 2014. Indeed, in case there was any still lingering Eric Boullier made the matter explicit: had there not been a financial imperative, such as had the Quantum investment come off, the team would have snapped up Nico Hullkenberg. But as things were it needed Pastor's PDVSA cash (often-quoted as being in the region of £30m annually) to steady the ship.

It was hardly a popular decision, particularly as the latter stages and aftermath of the 2013 campaign was something of an open season on Pastor Maldonado. Largely this was because of the goings-on of the Austin weekend wherein he was taken to the cleaners by his team mate Valtteri Bottas (tumbling out in Q1 while his team mate topped that session and later made the top ten on the grid and finished eighth in the race) and worse got out of his car after his quali effort to at least heavily imply in front of a microphone that the Williams team, given he was on the way out, was out to screw him. This too followed some weeks of Pastor rather conspicuously seeking to extract himself from Williams - the driver-team relationship clearly having gone sour. The move to Lotus, reportedly, wasn't popular with his prospective team mate either, Pastor and Romain Grosjean apparently falling out after a series of scrapes in their GP2 days together.

There was also rather a lot of sniggering in the gallery when Pastor claimed that 2013 was his best season in F1 in terms of his driving. But rather against the common perception Pastor, Austin aside, put together a reasonable year of effort in a difficult and disappointing car. He did have typical offs early in the year - three in the first two rounds - but after that though he knuckled down, and for the most part delivered finishes that were about as high as could be expected with the set of wheels he had access to. He breached the points in Hungary, the first time in 2013 that a Williams troubled the scorers, and only just missed out in several other rounds. There also certainly were fewer prangs and infamous red mist moments in there than was the case in 2012 (though perhaps you could say that's not saying much), and this was something confirmed by Alex Wurz, who worked with Pastor at close quarters at the Grove team, who has said recently that Pastor is by now well-aware of his need to change and that there 'has been a large improvement' in his ability to avoid error and rages when behind the wheel.

Some too have mused that Lotus, as seen in the recent case of Grosjean, have shown an ability to polish a rough diamond; to convert a fast but wild pilot to being one fast but fast. Maldonado will be slightly more of a challenge, evidenced by the fact that he rarely takes the same line twice through a corner, and often gives the impression of hanging to the back of a car rather than being ahead of it. But as mentioned, in Maldonado they have a driver who already has gone a long way to sharpening up his act. And while it may grate, Pastor's sheer ambition cannot be denied - he makes no bones of his desire to be world champion. Matching, or even beating, Grosjean would certainly make such an aim a little more plausible.

And a stat that may be of surprise is that in the rounds last season wherein both finished Maldonado finished ahead of the highly-rated Bottas more often than not, by nine times to five - indeed it seems rather airbrushed from history that for much of the year, particularly in the mid part, Pastor was the Grove team's habitual race day pace-setter. In other words, the common trashing of Pastor's efforts in 2013, and the equally common assertions that Bottas whipped him, are not really borne out in fact. Indeed they appear based only on the Austin weekend and rather ignore the other 18 rounds.

But of course, Pastor's never been one to get much benefit of any doubt. He's no Nico Hulkenberg, but these days he's also not necessarily the idiot that a few seem to insist.

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