By Phillip Horton on Wednesday, January 30, 2013
Misguided optimism or a genuine target? Pre-season media spin regularly consists of team personnel throwing out phrases to grab the attention and capture their audience. At the start of 2012, Lotus secretly knew they had a potent weapon in the E20 along with two very fast drivers in Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean. We all know the story. The E20 was the dark horse throughout the season, obtaining an early consistency that other teams failed to achieve but themselves unable to make the final breakthrough to reach the top step of the podium, which finally came in Round 18. Opinions have varied wildly with regards to rating Lotus’s 2012 season. Some believe that with an Alonso or Vettel in the cockpit, the E20 would have stood a chance of winning the championship. But whatever your viewpoint, Lotus’s 2012 was a huge improvement on a miserable 2011. The task now is to build on a strong year and if that means improving on fourth place then one of Red Bull, Ferrari or McLaren must be displaced. Lotus’s gains in 2012 means that expectations for 2013 have been raised, in turn emphasising any potential failures.
One of Lotus’s advantages in 2012 was that other teams suffered from inconsistency and unreliability. Red Bull’s early troubles, Ferrari’s lack of pace and McLaren’s habit of breaking down combined to pave the way for Lotus to score points. That isn’t to discredit Lotus’s achievements, but the Enstone-based team cannot rely on the top three to make errors, instead they themselves must challenge the front runners. All of this while fending off a revitalised Mercedes with a hungry Lewis Hamilton.
On the driver front, Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean are retained by the team for a second successive season. Raikkonen and Lotus appears to be a perfect fit, with the team utilising the laconic Finn for all of his worth without hindering Raikkonen’s performances. “Kimi has such a wide range of experience and he knows how to react to any situation or circumstance”, says team principal Bouiller of the 2007 world champion. Raikkonen’s consistency in 2012 was extraordinary but to look at the qualifying results against points gained and it highlights an issue the team needs to rectify. Grosjean beat Raikkonen 10-9 on a Saturday, but on Sunday the situation was reversed. The championship table read 207-96 in the Finn’s favour. Raikkonen was repeatedly unable to qualify high enough to win races, while Grosjean was unable to stay at the front during the race, with a couple of notable exceptions. There could be advantages on the horizon for Lotus in 2013. The changes to DRS usage in qualifying could help them creep closer to the front, while Hamilton at Mercedes and Perez at McLaren – the Mexican showing inconsistent Saturday performances in 2012 – potentially opens up a couple of grid slots. Pirelli’s 2013 spec tyres also heat up quicker than their 2012 set, a trait that should be of assistance to Raikkonen. Grosjean’s speed is unquestionable, but that has to be put to more effective use. A worrying side to the Frenchman’s driving style suggests he’s either supremely fast and erratic, or consistent but lacking those final few sensational tenths. “Romain has superb raw speed which we are confident will be harnessed in a more effective manner during races in 2013,” says Bouiller. It’s not an emphatic statement that Grosjean’s drinking in the last chance saloon, but the 2011 GP2 champion has to find a way to add consistency to his speed. His rivals know he’ll be under pressure to avoid first corner scrapes and will thus try and exploit that. If he can start the year strongly, he can relax a little. If there’s a few little knocks here and there, the questions will return and the pressure remains. Raikkonen has speed and consistency. Grosjean currently has the speed – maybe even more speed than the Finn – but hasn’t the second important trait. If that continues in 2013, third place will be unattainable.
In terms of the E21, it’s obviously difficult to know what to expect. With the rules remaining relatively stable, the order of the field should stay fairly unchanged. Red Bull and McLaren already begin with a sizeable advantage, while Ferrari may also be out of reach. A crucial part of the year for Lotus will be the back end of the season when the development split between 2013 and 2014 becomes a tricky balancing act. Will a team such as Lotus be able to work effectively on both the E21 and the 2014 machine, without compromising either season? Lotus’s trait has been to tail off as the season progresses – the Abu Dhabi win was the only podium across the final eight events – with 2013/14 being a critical period in terms of the next few years. Technical director James Allison remains coy about the potential of the E21, “We have continued with our design themes and tried to build a more efficient and faster racing car based on all the lessons we learnt last year. How successful we have been at this we will only know once we take to the track at Grands Prix.” So the level of success is unknown, but Allison knows he has to refine a strong machine as “the official target established by the team’s owners is to achieve a minimum of third place in the Constructors’ Championship”.
Expectations of Lotus will be high. Few expected Mercedes to disappoint to such an extent in 2012 and slump to a distant fifth place; they will return stronger this season. Lotus is no longer the dark horse; they’re out to challenge as an established front running team. They’ve done it before and they’ll do it again. But can they do it in 2013?
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