Kimi Raikkonen’s championship challenge took a serious blow when he retired from the last race in Belgium – but a major upgrade from his Lotus team this weekend could at least get him back to winning ways.
Raikkonen won the opening race of the year and has finished second five times, including twice in the last three races, but poor showings in Monaco, Montreal, Silverstone and Spa have left him with a 63-point gap to leader Sebastian Vettel.
With the Finn still undecided on his future, Lotus have been pushing hard to prove they can play with the big boys – and this weekend they will introduce a long-wheelbase car in a bid to show Raikkonen that they will do all they can to move forward.
They are already one of the few teams to persist with the innovative passive DRS system, which is now ready to pay dividends after it was integrated with a new slimline engine cover and modified sidepods at the last race.
Now, in a similar move to one tried by Mercedes in 2010, Lotus are introducing new suspension geometry to move the front wheels further forward by approximately 10cm – in their case more in exploration than desperation.
A longer wheelbase typically gives a straight-line stability benefit and also helps the car cope well with quick changes in direction. Lotus says that is why they are introducing it, revealing that the concept came from the vehicle performance team rather than the aero department.
But this change in wheelbase – a major upgrade for mid-season – is a big gamble as it will also have a knock-on effect in a number of other areas.
The wheelbase also determines the weight balance of the car and this change could entirely alter the way the car will be set up. That will make hard work for the race engineers, who will have to change their set-up sheets and plans, and means that much of the data from previous races this year will not be relevant any more.
It will also affect how the car works its tyres. Lotus has benefitted in races from a car that is kind on tyres, giving them less wear and longer race stints and opening up a wider variety of strategy options. It has, however, also meant their car does not build heat into its tyres quickly enough to deliver a strong performance over a single lap.
The introduction of new Pirelli tyres, which have made longer stints less challenging, mean that more focus will be on single-lap pace in these later races – and if this change can improve that for Lotus, it could deliver significant rewards.
Last, but not least, the aerodynamic change should deliver another benefit.
The longer wheelbase means the front wing moves forward and the nose is re-designed, and it also means the front wheels, which obstruct the airflow, move forward and open up the flow to allow more clean air to feed under the floor of the car and around the sidepods to the rear end, improving rear end grip.
It’s no simple change, as it requires new crash tests for the nose, but the design has been developed using the team’s simulator, which allowed them to try out such a radical modification very simply and conclude it gives significant enough improvement to warrant its development.
And if Lotus can prove it was worth the effort, it sends out a very positive signal to Raikkonen, and their rivals, for the future...