Features - 2010 Grand Prix Review
JANUARY 25, 2011
Lotus: new team winners irrespective of the name
Lotus Racing's first season, and its 'best of the new teams' achievement has probably got lost in the row over the rights to the name. Although, like HRT and Virgin, they failed to score a point, it was a more than decent effort from a standing start.
The driving force behind the technical side was, of course, Mike Gascoyne. "I signed a contract on May 12 2009 to do the initial entry and when that failed on June 12, we were encouraged to keep going," he says. "There was the FOTA/Max war and it was also predicted that other teams would drop out. Around that time Tony Fernandes came on board. I met him at Silverstone and we arranged to see Tony Purnell and Mosley.
"It was Nino Judge who had the idea of using the Lotus name, initially through Group Lotus who, actually, when we met Mike Kimberley, was very supportive, but then Proton said no. We then talked to David Hunt and put the initial entry in as Team Lotus. With Tony on board, he had the ability to talk at a high level in Malaysia to Proton and the government and pull together the agreement for Proton to let us go in with the Lotus name. But at that point peace broke out unexpectedly between FOTA and the FIA so we really didn't know how we were going to get an entry."
The bottom line was that Fernandes didn't want to spend a fortune if the team didn't get one and so from mid July the team made a plan to stay on target and awaited developments. It looked like it was all over when Sauber seemed to be the FIA's preferred entry but there was still the suspicion that Toyota would pull out.
As Gascoyne explains, "There were six people at MGI (his design company) in Cologne and four of us - Sylvi (Schaumloeffel, Mike's partner), myself, Paul Craig and Keith Saunt - who drove to Hingham and sat in this Marie Celeste of a building. We looked at each other and said, 'what do we do now?'"
Gascoyne had contractors standing by and quickly ramped up to 25 people on the design side. Jean-Claude Migeot and Aerolab started an aero programme when the team knew they had an entry, on September 12, but they were still a month away from any wind tunnel testing.
"We had no buying department, nothing! But Keith had 20 years in the business and his suppliers notebook. The most pleasing thing was that on that first day at the factory, September 14, we planned a fire-up day of January 5 and we were just 24hrs late which, considering what could have gone wrong, was one hell of an effort!"
Out of necessity the team had to be conservative for reliability reasons. They couldn't take risks with cooling or brake duct size and had no data to attack a new formula which precluded refuelling, not having run a Cosworth at 18,000rpm. They also had to finalise things like side impact tubes and the nose box for the impact tests before they had a chassis. There was certainly no time to fail a crash test.
"We had two cars classified in Bahrain, the engines ran to temperature at a hot race and we didn't run out of brakes," Gascoyne says of the team's debut. "We could have got two cars over the finish line but we stopped one at the last corner so we could look in the gearbox. I don't think we could have done anything better. There were people with plenty more time and knowledge who didn't get it right..."
Toyota withdrawing was obviously a blessing in disguise for Lotus and Gascoyne, who now had a ready supply of former colleagues in Cologne looking for a job. The Lotus race team, including stalwarts like Dieter Gass and Gianluca Pisanello, Jarno Trulli's longtime race engineer, was almost exclusively ex-Toyota.
Gascoyne always aimed to score highly in the reliability stakes but, like the other new teams, Lotus was hit by unexpected hydraulic problems. "Practically all our failures have been down to hydraulics," he says. "We had no real inkling about that because between Xtrac and Cosworth you'd think they'd know how to do hydraulic systems and gearboxes. We're going a different route in 2011 (using a Renault/Red Bull drive train).
"Always, when you have a split, you end up saying nice things about each other for PR purposes but in Cosworth's case it really wasn't their fault. We are still not in a position to do our own gearbox and guarantee to be reliable. And we needed a pull rod suspension spec and so went looking for a turnkey solution."
The team had an aero update at Barcelona and ultimately got the car 15-20kgs under the weight limit so that they could start experimenting with weight distribution. They had, however, expected to get closer to the Establishment than turned out to be the case.
"The diffuser didn't make the expected progress and I think that was down to the early compromises," Gascoyne admits. "Long before the end of the year we had a single diffuser car in the wind tunnel that had more downforce, which shouldn't have been possible!"
For both Trulli and Kovalainen, coming from Toyota and McLaren respectively, it must have been a tremendous culture shock going from the finance and resource of those two outfits, to an empty factory. Jarno got the worst end of the stick in terms of reliability, which frustrated him more than a little, but both knew they were in it for the long haul and were supportive. "At the end of the day we were 10th," summarises Gascoyne, "and we weren't ever going to be ninth..."
The Lotus shenanigans have been regrettable, of course, but whatever colour the cars and whatever the team ends up being called, the aims will remain the same. The team did a strong job to develop from those four people less than 16 months ago to the pukka working factory they have now, with a wind tunnel in the pipeline and an evolving infrastructure that should put them on a sound future footing.