We continue our series of insights into the progress of the F1 teams after the first four ‘fly-away’ races of the season with a look at a team that was flying high this time last year and ended 2013 as Red Bull’s closest challenger.
This year they have yet to score a single point in 2014 and are having to climb up from the back of the grid – literally – in the opening race.
Best result: P11 (Grosjean, Malaysia)
Best grid slot: 10th (Grosjean, China)
Average grid slot: 17th.
Constructors Championship: 8th, 0 pts
Drivers’ Championship: Grosjean 0 pts; Maldonado 0 pts
Fastest race lap, gap to pace setter
What’s gone right?
Not much. If a Martian were to come to Earth and study the F1 championship tables after the first four races and compare them to last year, the immediate question would be – what happened to Lotus?
Last season at this stage the team from Enstone had 93 points with one driver lying second in the championship and the team itself lying second in the Constructors’ table.
This year they have yet to get off the mark, with a lowly 11th place the best result to date. The reason for the turnaround is complex, like the background story to the team itself. The Renault power unit is clearly part of the story, but Red Bull uses the same engine and has 57 points to date. So the chassis is part of the story, but it’s not just that either. The team missed the first test of the season in Spain amid rumours of financial problems and with 95 people having been laid off over the winter.
An investment in the team by the mysterious Quantum Motorsports group, which was allowed plenty of media airtime at the end of last season, did not come off and new faces appeared in the management structure. This meant that they took Pastor Maldonado and his PDVSA money as a banker move.
Team principal Eric Boullier found an escape tunnel in the form of a senior role at McLaren. Federico Gastaldi found himself at the helm in Australia and Malaysia as deputy team principal.
On track issues are displayed below, but on the positive side the team got the updated Renault power units in China to align it with the two Red Bull backed teams and this gave a significant boost to performance with Grosjean making it into Q3 for the first time this season. There was a new drive in the MGU-K unit of the ERS system, modifications to the turbo and revised exhaust. Further steps are promised.
With these immature hybrid units, the steps are big; increments of 10-15 horsepower at a time are talked about this year, all under the guise of “reliability” fixes as performance developments are banned.
What’s gone wrong?
Enough hard luck stories to last three seasons. Pre-season testing was a nightmare with only 1,288km covered, a quarter of the target mileage, as the team struggled to get the car to run.
Things didn’t improve when the team started racing, with a troubled Melbourne weekend. They had all kinds of problems with the power units; overheating turbos, mapping, hybrid ERS systems among other issues like brake by wire. The cars covered just 31 laps between them before qualifying in Australia.
There was stuttering progress in Malaysia and Bahrain until a decent step in China. Even the Bahrain test after Round 3 was a disaster with two engine failures and just 162 km covered in two days. No wonder team principal Gerard Lopez has said that, “Our season begins in Barcelona.”
A promising weekend for Grosjean in China ended with a gearbox issue when he was 10th and on course for the first point of the season.
Maldonado, who left Williams to be part of Lotus, has further burnished his “Bad Boy of F1” badge with a pointless accident with Gutierrez in Bahrain netting him more penalties and points on the new licence system.
Strong points of the team and car
Despite the redundancies and the resignations, there are still plenty of good people at Lotus across the various departments, with two solid experienced operators running things on the race team; Nick Chester on the technical side and Alan Permane on the operational side.
Lotus has made some lovely cars in the last few years, so they didn’t forget how to make a chassis. This one is perhaps not as elegantly engineered as some of its predecessors and the twin tusk nose has as many critics as admirers, but the car has started to show some promise and there is clearly much untapped potential. How much we will hopefully find out through the summer as things calm down on the Renault front and they are able to push to the maximum.
Grosjean was one of the revelations of 2013 and it was heartbreaking to see him lose all career momentum, but the experience will have taught him to appreciate how far he has come and he will be certain to capitalise once the car and power unit gets sorted.
Weak points of the team and the car
Losing Boullier was a major blow, much like technical director James Allison’s defection last year, as much for what it said about the state of the team and its prospects, as for his leadership. Lopez insists that the 2014 budget is ring fenced and that there is no prospect of the team failing, but there are plenty in the F1 paddock who don’t share his optimism.
Clearly they have had significant problems packaging the Renault hybrid power unit in the chassis and getting the systems to work and the resulting loss of time has meant that they are behind on set up work and optimising the chassis. It looked a handful in Bahrain, but with more track time in China started to come together and it was able to keep a McLaren and Toro Rossos behind it comfortably before the gearbox problem hit.
Maldonado continues to be F1’s enigma and time will tell what he makes of his time at Lotus.
Where do they go from here?
The Barcelona GP weekend and the subsequent test should help move things along. There will be chassis updates and fixes as the team makes up for lost time. By Silverstone we should have a clearer idea of how competitive the Lotus package is.
On the bigger picture stuff, we watch with interest. Lotus has a seat on the F1 Strategy Group, which recently voted against any kind of cost cap. It looks set to be a tough year for the teams who are close to the breadline and all the signs are that the big teams have little concern about the plight of the less well off.
Overall Marks out of 10
Lotus – 3/10
Romain Grosjean – 6/10
Pastor Maldonado – 2/10
How many marks out of ten do you give Lotus so far? Leave us your comments on this post in the comments section below.