Welcome back to Race Chaser Online’s preview of the 2014 FIA Formula One World Championship! We continue our 11-day journey through the field today with a look at the Lotus operation as we continue to lead up to next weekend’s season-opening Australian Grand Prix! Make sure to check Race Chaser Online all season long for all of your stateside-based news from the Formula One world!
March 9, 2014 — Story by RaceChaser open wheel correspondent Joel Sebastianelli — photo courtesy ESPN F1 — What a difference a year makes.
In 2012, Frenchman Romain Grosjean struck seemingly anything that moved, retiring from seven races and even garnering a one race suspension for his reckless start to the Belgian Grand Prix. One year later, he consistently brought the Lotus home in the points and became a podium fixture in the latter half of the year.
In 2012 and 2013, Lotus finished fourth in the Constructors’ Championship, aided by Grosjean’s vast improvements and a race victory from star Kimi Raikkonen at the season opening Australian Grand Prix. The Finn seemed like an outside title contender, while team principal Eric Boullier and technical director James Allison steered the team in the right direction with steady improvements in technology and results.
Fast forward to the present, and Lotus has lost Raikkonen and Allison to Ferrari, Boullier to McLaren, its money to the auto racing financial sinkhole, and with the addition of the occasionally reckless Pastor Maldonado, it may lose its supply of front wings by the midway point of the season.
The financial struggles of Lotus were well-documented, failing to pay Kimi Raikkonen on time and later unsuccessfully pursuing an investment deal from Quantum Motorsport. Maldonado brings lucrative PDVSA sponsorship, but the team’s dire monetary straits robbed it of the chance to lure a more established talent like Nico Hulkenberg.
Furthermore, Lotus missed the entire first weekend of testing in Jerez and lacks not only track time, but speed and reliability from Renault engines. Although a poor test or two isn’t necessarily a kiss of death (see Ferrari in 2012), Lotus is so far behind that it’s highly unlikely to match the results from previous seasons over the course of the entire campaign or even in a single Grand Prix.
What a difference a year makes, indeed.
The Drivers: The Lotus driver tandem is now led by Romain Grosjean, who takes the reigns as the team’s top dog after two seasons behind Kimi Raikkonen. He scored two podiums in a rocky campaign in 2012, but last year’s finish of seventh in the Drivers’ Championship doesn’t do the promising 27-year-old any justice. His first race victory seemed to be in the cards, and by the end of the year, 2014 had all the makings of finally breaking through to cement his feet on the top step of the podium.
From routine wrecker to consistent checkers, Grosjean has the potential to join fellow countrymen Alain Prost as an F1 champion before the end of his career, but that time seems far into the future given the current situation at Lotus.
Alongside Grosjean is Venezuelan Pastor Maldonado. Although it isn’t fair to criticize Maldonado for utilizing PDVSA’s cash to earn an F1 seat with Williams originally (it’s easy to forget he was the 2010 GP2 champion), his ascension up the grid comes more as a result of funding than on track results. Maldonado scored a surprise victory with underdog Williams at the 2012 Spanish Grand Prix, but a post-race explosion engulfed the winning car in flames, destroying the automobile and creating a fitting metaphor for the driver’s F1 career.
Moments of interspersed good are overwhelmed by moments of poor judgment in which Maldonado crashes and burns. Those decisions have resulted in a rather unsavory opinion of his style throughout the paddock. Coupled with the continued behavior of throwing the Williams crew under the bus when dealing with the media, he is no longer thought of highly by fans either
Following a year in which his only points scoring finish was tenth at the Hungarian Grand Prix, the 26-year-old has a lot of maturing to do on and off the track to excel. In a twist of irony, however, the driver deemed undeserving of a promotion by fans now pilots the struggling Lotus, while his former squad may be the most improved in F1.
The Car: What do a Ford Pinto and the Lotus E22 have in common?
They’re both slow, and if you attempt to drive it the distance of a Grand Prix, there’s a reasonable chance it will explode before you reach your destination.
Lotus ranks last in distance covered in testing, logging a mere 1288km compared to 1686km by tenth placed Marussia and the whopping 4000km milestone reached by the top five teams. Powered by the Renault engine, reliability will continue to be an issue and top storyline for the first handful of race weekends. When the car mustered the strength to roll onto the track, a lack of speed surfaced as well, leaving Lotus far behind its rival constructors.
The E22 is the most aggressive design to arise as a reaction to the new regulations this season. While most teams opted for a finger nose, the Lotus machine features an asymmetrical double-pronged nose which protrudes from the right side further than the left, similar to an overhead view of extended grooming and middle fingers on a person’s right hand.
It appears as though the design will channel air underneath the chassis, but it is not the only asymmetrical piece on the car. The rear wing support is offset to one side, with a single pillar mounted to the left edge of the gearbox casing that avoids the exhaust exit. This is a departure from the twin pillar system used almost everywhere else.
The Challenges: It can be difficult to draw conclusions from anything in the offseason other than testing, so the importance of the tests can tend to be overblown. However, there is no doubt that the demons battled at Bahrain threaten to persist as the new year rolls around for both Lotus F1 and any Renault powered team. The software and control systems for the Renault engines have been dysfunctional throughout its time on track and it does not appear as though permanent fix has been found by the manufacturer.
“Some Melbourne preparations are incomplete,” said Rob White, Renault Sport F1’s deputy managing director. “We have cured or found workarounds for some of the problems we had previously identified. New problems that revealed themselves as we ran more have added to the unsolved items, and have disrupted running, which is disappointing for our teams.”
Quite simply, Lotus is not ready for the 2014 F1 season from an engineering standpoint, and even if the problems work themselves out, there is still a shadow of doubt as to whether or not its driver duo is up to the task of keeping the car near the front.
The Strengths: Lotus’ track record and history might not appear to be a concrete strength, but Lotus has done more with less than anybody else in F1 since its modest beginnings in the 1980s, when rookie Ayrton Senna put Toleman on the podium three times in 1984. On a smaller operating budget that perennial title contenders like Ferrari, McLaren, Mercedes, and Red Bull, it has seen significant growth and has been in the hunt for race wins numerous times as of late.
The team still has a lot to prove this year, and with a risky design that is a staunch departure from the rest of the grid, it’s possible that things may wind up swinging more in favor of Lotus as the season wears on than originally suspected. However, the success of the season is mainly contingent on its manufacturer, who is clearly third behind Mercedes and Ferrari based on overall performance and reliability.
Projected Result: Things don’t look promising for Lotus in 2014. As last season progressed, Lotus appeared to be in the mix for more race wins and a brighter future, but with less driver talent, technical talent, and money, it’s hard to see this season as anything but a rebuilding year for the British team. Final Position: 6th.