Lotus started the winter testing season under a bit of cloud as to what they could possibly achieve in the coming season. 2011 hadn’t exactly been stellar for them and the team lacked the overall intensity needed to excel in the top echelon of motorsport.
But they were making changes for 2012. Gone was the lucrative Petrov to be replaced by equally as lucrative but a lot more talented Kimi Raikkonen. Not having set the world alight Bruno Senna was dropped and in his place Lotus had opted to bring back Gp2 champion Romain Grosjean. Some eyebrows were raised with the signing of Raikkonen but he’s not a world champion without merit and if he had maintained his mega speed he would be a force.
The designers had done away with the front-facing exhausts for 2012 and the E20 seemed all round a sleeker and sexier piece of kit. It was the front-facing exhaust in 2011 that severely hampered the development of the car. It was near impossible to revert to the exhaust used up and down the pitlane and difficult to design around it. They didn’t make the same mistake with the E20; and it didn’t just look good either, it was fast. The first pre-season test was extremely positive for Lotus as the E20 set fastest lap with consummate ease and even more impressively racked up consistently fast laps one after the other.
Lotus now had the car, potentially the drivers and certainly the right philosophy the make a decent challenge. How far up the grid they would advance was still questionable but they were heading in the right direction.
By the time Australia arrived Lotus were well on course to cause an upset or two. But it didn’t go the way it should have. In qualifying a miscommunication between the pitwall and the no.9 Lotus meant Raikkonen missed the cut in the first part of qualifying. Somehow he made up for it on Sunday by storming through the field and finishing with a decent haul of points.
In Australia it worked out, relatively speaking. It was the first mistake the team had made. It wasn’t a disaster and could easily be chalked up to the rustiness of the first round in a new season. It was clear if they wanted to take on the big boys they’d have to use everything at their disposal and cut out any mistakes. In China Raikkonen’s qualifying session ran smoothly and he lined up the Lotus in fourth. A shot at the podium was the aim and it was more than possible.
To gamble in Formula 1 almost never works; though when it does the result can be spectacular. If it goes the other way it can still be spectacular, spectacularly bad. The cool conditions in China didn’t suit the E20 which thrives in the heat. Lotus saw their opportunity for a podium and instead of running a normal two- or three stop pit strategy they opted to run a strategy that would leave Raikkonen out on track having to more laps on the Pirelli’s that anyone else had ever managed. The initial result of the call had Raikkonen running in second but soon his tyres started giving up and he was gobbled up by the chasing pack and spit out in fourteenth.
Hindsight is always a great teacher but questions started surfacing about the rationale behind Lotus’ decision making. For them to keep going with this plan there had to be a belief that it would work. What they based this belief on is a mystery. No driver had ever been able to do more than twenty laps on the volatile Pirelli tyres but somehow, somewhere they decided it was a good call. Did they flip a coin?
In Bahrain and Spain it seemed that the team were getting over their indifferent decision making. Still the time given away on pitstop caused concern and sooner than later it would cost them more than just a few seconds on track. In Valencia the price was bigger. Raikkonen pitted in front Ferrari driver Fernando Alonso but a tardy 4.8 second pitstop dropped him behind Alonso, the eventual race winner. It is impossible to say with certainty that Raikkonen would’ve won the race had he stayed ahead of the Ferrari but it’s beside the point. The fact remains that he wasn’t given the opportunity to try and win it.
Lotus is an exciting team with two drivers more than capable of winning grand prix. However, statements from team principal Eric Boullier are less than encouraging. Lotus currently find themselves third overall in the constructor’s championship yet Boullier is only aiming for ‘top five.’ When the team have missed out on a victory that was in reach Boullier was not disappointed at a missed opportunity rather he has been happy to settle for second and third.
Boullier may be happy with mediocrity and unwilling to point out mistakes made by the team but he’s asking a lot of Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean fans if he wants them to look the other way.
Lotus is currently in a better position that its own team principal thinks it’s capable of. Combine his lack of belief with tardy pitstops and flawed strategy calls and it’s no surprise that neither of the Lotus have been on the top step of the podium.