Wednesday, 4 March 2015

F1 2015 Season Preview: Lotus - From despair to where?

How quickly things change. You often have to make a conscious effort to remind yourself that only 15 months ago the Lotus was by consensus the second best car out there. Last season by comparison could hardly have been more different, with it running habitually off the back of the midfield, and looking evil as it did so.

Photo: Octane Photography
As Autosport noted, in the preceding two seasons Lotus averaged 16 points per race. In the whole of 2014 Lotus totalled ten. But for all that the Enstone cars were good ones in those years of points plenty, they concealed rather a lot of trouble just below the surface. Namely that there wasn't enough money around. The loss of a number of key technical staff - not least James Allison and Dirk de Beer to Ferrari - gave us an early hint at it all. Then Kimi Raikkonen blew the cover completely by announcing late in 2013 that he'd been paid 'zero Euro the whole year'.

Then with mightily inconvenient timing the regulations changed fundamentally, rendering the fine Lotus car irrelevant and sending the team back to base camp technically. Then the new car was late arriving. Then the E22 that the team eventually came up with was awful. As Ernest Hemingway said of bankruptcy, Lotus's decline happened gradually, then suddenly.

And it manifested itself in a number of ways. Perhaps inevitably the loss of several important technical figures created a period of adaptation. Yet just like in 2011 it incorporated a major innovation that while it looked good in the windtunnel simply did not work on track. For the forward-facing exhausts then now read the twin tusk nose. The airflow behind the tusks did not behave consistently, and tended to stall the floor and diffuser but again, not consistently. It contributed to a car with a tiny operating window, that most of the time could not be found. And by the time the team had worked all of this out the season was nearly over.

For this year with the financial situation for teams such as Lotus not necessarily destined to improve the real risk was that 2014 would be a portent of what was to come. Thankfully judging by the E23 on show the team this campaign will bounce back to a significant extent.

The car turned up slightly late again, which got a few wondering if 2015 would indeed be more of the same, but when the E23 did appear on Jerez's second day it looked like a solid effort. Craig Scarborough described the new Lotus as a 'good, back to basics car', which after overreaching itself so devastatingly last year likely is the best approach. Both drivers have raved about the improved handling in running so far. Its trackside operations chief Alan Permane reminded us that the squad bounced back strongly after its 2011 disaster too, in that it learnt the lessons from its mistakes.

And of course Lotus has managed to drop what probably is the weakest power unit in the Renault and replace it with undoubtedly the best in the Mercedes. The drivers have indeed noticed the power benefit while technical director Nick Chester has commented that the transition has gone rather swimmingly, much more so than you'd expect with an engine switch. Stoppages for the car in testing have been rare - certainly much rarer than last year - and reportedly the team used but a single power unit the whole time.

The best case scenario would be to do as Williams did last year and with a Mercedes in the back propel themselves right to somewhere near the front. Encouraging though its testing has been that looks a bit lofty for Lotus, but it seems at least that it has strode back right in to the midfield scarp, and perhaps even heads it and looks good for at least one car in Q3 in Melbourne

And we've seen over time that the spirit, and performance, of Team Enstone is one remarkably resistant to staff and other changes. Most important of all, on current evidence Lotus has gone a way to ensuring that last season was a blip and not the start of a downward spiral.

Romain Grosjean - Car #8
Photo: Octane Photography
Of course, we had a to wait a while for this Romain Grosjean to be with us. His first F1 appearance in 2009 didn't go well (though was hardly in ideal circumstances), but he then did what is these days considered unthinkable and regrouped in the junior formulae and came back apparently stronger in 2012. But even then there was stuttering, as his undoubted pace was interspersed with repeated and often high-profile error (Mark Webber for one memorably referring to him as a 'first lap nutcase').

But just at the point that things looked irretrievable in the mid-part in of 2013 he suddenly cleaned up his act, and did so without losing any of his prodigious speed. In the latter races of the campaign he was brilliant indeed, almost alone taking the fight to superior Red Bulls repeatedly and being genuinely unlucky not to win a race or two. Stunningly fast in qualifying and the race, consistent, unflustered and sharp in the overtake. Before we knew it some started to talk of him knocking on the sport's top drawer. One Pirelli engineer having seen Grosjean's data went so far as to say 'he's the fastest guy out there'.

Then however with an application of wicked fate Grosjean immediately faced a season with the recalcitrant E22, which not even he could do much with.

He was available for other teams for this year, but no one other than his current employer took up the opportunity. Of course, vacant seats in the top teams are finite, but you wonder if it reflected the odd way of F1, that when a good driver ends up in a bad car rather than getting sympathy their stock suffers by association.

But Grosjean remains a fine driver, and indeed he spent most of 2014 doing as much as could be expected with the equipment he had. On the one weekend wherein the Lotus performed well, in Barcelona, Grosjean qualified fifth and was able to finish the race in eighth place despite engine problems, and as well as that Grosjean could be counted upon to fight hard, often on the periphery of the top ten, elsewhere. He showed the odd sign of frustration as the year went on - such as smashing his Lotus to bits behind the safety car in Hungary and bitching over the radio that was broadcast for all our pleasure in Singapore - but given everything it was perhaps understandable. He also outqualified his team mate Pastor Maldonado 15 times to four, and for all that Pastor raises hackles we know that if he's anything he's quick.

The probability remains that the guy that so impressed us in late 2013 is still in there. Hopefully this year Romain Grosjean will have a car that allows him to show as much more obviously.

Pastor Maldonado - Car #13
Photo: Octane Photography
No current F1 driver raises the ire quite like Pastor Maldonado. He's a danger to himself and others, say his detractors. And he's only in the sport because of the vast briefcase of oil money that he brings.

Well the latter point seems hard to refute at least these days, though it applies also to plenty in modern-day F1 outside of the top-level talents. And it shouldn't be forgotten either that he entered the sport's highest echelon as GP2 champion.

As for the former point, to some extent it's hard to refute too. And in his first season at Lotus in 2014 he didn't help his image with a series of practice accidents, some of which seemed due to a comical lack of concentration, as well as crashing out in Barcelona qualifying - on the one weekend that the car looked decent - and of course pitching Esteban Gutierrez into a barrel roll in Bahrain.

Still the rest of the time, especially on race days, he tended to keep a lid on things and his efforts generally were solid at least. Some were genuinely good indeed, particularly towards the season's end when the car got a bit more predictable and he ran much closer to his rapid team mate. Last year too the E22 wasn't a car to judge him reasonably, given for much of the time its drivers had to guess what downforce would be under them from corner to corner.

And in a statistic that may surprise he hasn't retried from a race due to a spin or collision of his own making since Melbourne in 2013. While that year too in a statistic that may surprise even more when paired with the highly-rated Valtteri Bottas in the rounds where both finished Maldonado finished ahead of Bottas more often than not, by nine times to five. He's not nearly as bad as people like to say in other words. But then again he's not one to get much benefit of the doubt these days, as evidenced most lately with his recent crash in testing, after which in the wider discourse he got bashed from pillar to post only for it to transpire that it was in fact caused by a brake fault.

There are still mistakes in Pastor Maldonado, and such is his rather ragged style a Grosjean-style epiphany seems unlikely. But he's not close to being as awful as you might think.

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