Features - 2011 Grand Prix Review
JANUARY 17, 2012
Lotus Renault GP
BY TONY DODGINS
Pos 5: Lotus Renault GP
Vitaly Petrov (RUS); Nick Heidfeld (D); Bruno Senna (BR)
Points: 73; Best finish: 3rd (Australia, Malaysia)
One way and another Renault, or Lotus Renault GP to be precise, was very much in the pre-season news. There was the row over the Lotus naming rights, the ground-breaking front exit exhaust, and Robert Kubica's rallying accident.
The Pole's fate was a huge blow to the team, which still managed to start the season with podiums in the first two races, from Vitaly Petrov in Melbourne and Nick Heidfeld, the injured Kubica's replacement, at Sepang.
The Renault's relative performance, however, was destined to slide. The team had elected to go that particular route with the exhaust before it was in possession of all the tyre data.
Technical director James Allison explains: "When we ran a blown exhaust in 2010 it gave us downforce, and plenty of it, but with a rather unpleasant understeer with the Bridgestone tyres. The downforce was all at the rear.
"One of the hypothetical benefits of a front exiting exhaust was that you generate most of the lift from the middle of the car and don't get that nasty understeer. But, wind on to the start of 2011 and we found that the Pirellis actually had a very different characteristic to the Bridgestones.
"They suffered more under combined load and so, as you come out of the corner, when you want traction, the rear becomes unhappy quite quickly. What you really want is a load more rear downforce - in other words, what we had before..."
For the Renault drivers, that translated into a car that was fairly snappy and difficult and, in Allison's words, "ugly as hell at places like Monaco, Hungary and Singapore, where very little of the redeeming features are to be seen but the nastiness is on display at every corner."
Two chief factors masked the issues at the beginning of the season. First, only Red Bull and McLaren had properly mastered a decent exhaust blown diffuser. Second, Renault was in the vanguard of off-throttle blowing. When the others caught up, Renault was overhauled.
Allison says that the team's exhaust solution was tricky to optimise around the sidepod. Things such as stone damage or parts that fitted less than perfectly, cost a lot of downforce.
The team's experiences led it to re-evaluate and experiment with a rear-blowing exhaust at the German GP. They configured it close to the point at which they'd frozen development the previous year and copied some trends seen elsewhere.
It was a compromise though, and because they had to use the existing diffuser package, Renault found itself unable to control the performance of the floor at lower rear ride heights. In the higher speed corners the diffuser was unstable and stalled.
As the regulations developed for 2012 and it became clear that top exit exhausts were the future, Allison says that the remainder of 2011 did not justify re-inventing the wheel, "We just had to take it on the chin.
"One of the nice things about our team is that the technical director has to make decisions of the front exhaust type. If I could have a time machine, I wouldn't have made it. But from the bottom of the company to the top, no-one gave me a hard time."
The team made progress in other areas, switching from a 50% to 60% wind tunnel model capable of running ride heights, yaw values and steer values that the other model couldn't get to.
It's hard to know what the team would have achieved with Kubica. They may even have fought for an early season win but Allison admits: "I'd be kidding myself if I thought that just having Robert would have steered us out of the mire we subsequently found ourselves in.
"Petrov surpassed expectations and did a creditable job for us, as did Bruno Senna stepping in mid season -- a tough thing to do. And Nick Heidfeld put in some good performances as well." The feeling though, was that without Kubica they no longer had one of the main men.
There were some rumblings of discontent beneath the surface. It was not so much aimed at Eric Boullier's management but perhaps more at a feeling of "too many cooks" with the involvement of Genii. Experienced sporting director Steve Nielsen, for instance, tendered his resignation, unimpressed by the arrived of John Wickham as team manager, with a part-brief to report back to Genii on the efficiency of the team.
A new broom also swept clean the entire driver line-up, with both Petrov and Senna jettisoned at season's end in favour of Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean.
It was understandable. Raikkonen, we know, is capable of winning world championships and, as such, goes some way to replacing the loss of a top liner such as Kubica. And Grosjean too, has shown speed deserving of a second chance at the top level. They will certainly be one of 2012's most interesting pairings and, the team hopes, capable of putting it back in the frame to challenge for wins.
This is not a team content with fifth place in the constructors championship. Ultimately though, you get the feeling that the chassis will be a bigger influence on progress than the drivers.