Will Gray

Gray Matter: Can Lotus recover?

Will Gray

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After a turbulent winter and some terrible early season form, Lotus finally got back in the points in Barcelona – but how did they fall from the top and can they go on to complete the ultimate comeback?

It was a tough winter for Lotus. Kimi Raikkonen, a driver who not only got the best out of the car but also lifted the team’s status, left for Ferrari and painted a bleak picture of team finances on his way out. Then team boss Eric Boullier, an ever-positive leader who helped the team punch above its weight, lost the faith and switched to McLaren.

And then came the new car launch, and a disaster in testing.

Data is king in modern era F1 and from day one that data has been something Lotus has struggled to get.

When they launched the tusk-nosed E22, their shakedown filming day showed promise, despite the fact they were late out the factory, but Renault’s engine problems soon hit hard and the team averaged just 29 laps per day over the eight pre-season days in Bahrain.

Unlike Red Bull, who despite similar lack of running somehow managed to get enough understanding of their car to be competitive in Australia, Lotus was embarrassing, looking as lost as a struggling newcomer when the season kicked off.

The team quickly came to the conclusion to use the opening races as test cases – and hope their rivals did not get too far ahead.

Fortunately for them, with Mercedes taking all but one of the highest scoring points positions in the first quarter of the season, their main rivals are still in the distance, but may not be too far ahead.

TESTING TIMES

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Even in the early races, the team struggled to get in the laps and would typically run only a third of the other teams. Then the first in-season test in Bahrain was wiped out by double engine failure.

Once again, they were left lacking the data they needed to find the faults and recover.

Things started to go right in China when they finally managed to get through a full programme in Friday practice - something that has always been defined as one of the most crucial elements in a successful Grand Prix weekend.

It was only at that race that they were able to switch focus from fire fighting to developing car set-up – and they soon realised why they had been struggling.

The set-up approach they had followed through with from 2013 was not working on the new car, with the new engines, tyres and aerodynamics requiring a completely different approach.

Once some important set-up changes were made, the car went from “unstable and unpredictable” to “understandable” and, helped also by an engine upgrade from Renault, Romain Grosjean made Q3 then ran inside top ten until gearbox problem forced him out at half distance.

At the following race in Spain – which is where team boss Gerard Lopez had stated their season would really begin – Grosjean qualified fifth and finished eighth, which could have been higher but for an engine sensor problem.

It’s just one result, but it does seem the tide has turned.

BACK ON TRACK

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In the post-race test at Barcelona, Lotus ran more laps than everyone except McLaren and Mercedes – giving them some quality data to analyse at last.

Lotus and the Enstone teams that went before it have always been driven by strong technical talent (perhaps more than managerial leadership) and with Nick Chester now settling into the top technical role after the departure of James Allison to Ferrari, the impact of Boullier’s loss may not be as significant as first thought.

Likewise, Grosjean has matured significantly over the last few seasons and is now in a position to lead the team. He seems to have added the confidence to his raw ability – and if the same can be done with Maldonado, Lotus will actually have a pretty handy driver line-up.

Fundamentally, the chassis appears to have plenty of potential and although victory – the ultimate comeback - may be a distant hope, that is the situation for any team other than Mercedes.

The bottom line is Lotus currently lies eighth in the table but they have a massive 62-point deficit to Ferrari.

That, however, is now the season target – and on their way they also need to overcome Toro Rosso, McLaren, Williams and Force India.

They now have a small amount of momentum. Upgrades from the successful test will come in for Monaco, including aero modifications to help stability, some “new parts” to help the mechanical grip on the low speed bumpy track and a new fuel – which has been a key element to success for other teams this season.

And while four no-score races will hurt, there’s still three quarters of the season left to run...

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