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Features - 2011 Grand Prix Review

JANUARY 4, 2012

Team Lotus


Heikki Kovalainen, Japanese GP 2011
© The Cahier Archive

Pos 10: Team Lotus

Jarno Trulli (I); Heikki Kovalainen (FIN); Karun Chandhok (Ind).

Points: 0; Best finish: 13th (Australia, Monaco, Italy)

The 2011 season was not Team Lotus's first season, but in many ways it might have been. The team had a new, young design team and it had a change of engine/gearbox.

The first year Cosworth was replaced by a Renault and the team had also done a deal to run Red Bull's gearbox/hydraulics package.

"On the positive side," says technical chief Mike Gascoyne, "the aero programme had been in existence much longer and we were able to put things like a blown diffuser on the car. It was a lot more up to date than the previous year's car but still a considerable effort.

"Technically, we were still 12 months behind. Blown diffusers were key in 2011. We implemented one like everyone finished '10 with, but they'd taken a massive step."

The aim had been to compete at the Toro Rosso / Williams / Sauber / Force India level and, as things transpired, that was too ambitious.

"The diffuser was the problematic area. Simulating it is difficult and getting it to work full-size is equally difficult. When we went to our outboard exhaust, to start with it didn't do anything. You didn't see what you saw in the tunnel. We got caught out and then it was a resource issue - all the aero testing, mapping and throttle settings.

"Also, we didn't have KERS. That was always going to be a step too far. And although we had a good aero programme, Aerolab and our own CFD facility, we were still only operating at around 60% of the other teams' level under the Resource Restriction Agreement.

"Add that up and there's your deficit. Having said that, we became a proper F1 team, moved two seconds in front of the other new teams and, in Singapore, managed to beat Renault."

Looking towards 2012, the team has recruited Mark Smith and also has a stable design team doing its second car, as well as the benefits of a programme in the Williams wind tunnel.

Team owner Tony Fernandes has U-turned on the importance of the Lotus brand, gone the Caterham route and acknowledged that perhaps a Norfolk base is not most conducive to topline staff recruitment.

The intention is now to dovetail a race operation based at the former Arrows premises in Oxfordshire - right in the centre of the UK's motorsport valley -- with the nearby Williams wind tunnel programme to close the gap to F1's other independents.

Gascoyne thinks there was nothing wrong with Lotus's development direction in 2011.

"We had an update for the start of the season, a big update for Turkey and then the next big package was Singapore. If you look at the stats, we kept pace with the leading teams and caught some of the midfield team, like Williams.

"It was pretty circuit dependent. Places like Suzuka are where we struggled most but the low-speed tracks were better, probably showing that the downforce wasn't bad but the efficiency wasn't great. We simply didn't have the same performance from the blown diffuser."

From day one Lotus went with experienced drivers, Gascoyne believing that with so many car issues to resolve, the last thing you needed was a question mark over the drivers' baseline.

Bearing that in mind, it was odd that in the 18 races that both Jarno Trulli and Keikki Kovalainen both contested in 2011, Jarno, renowned as one of the fastest single lap drivers in F1, was bested 16-2 by Heikki. The world at large assumed that Trulli had simply lost interest. Gascoyne says not.

"If Jarno gets it right on a qualifying lap he's still the quickest guy out there. But Heikki is very consistent, quick and a strong racer in all conditions. When we have wet qualifying he gets into Q2 every single time.

"And Heikki's confidence has grown. He suffered being Lewis Hamilton's McLaren teammate -- he was very unsettled and unsure of himself. In the car he was fine but out of it things got to him. This year he became stronger. Heikki was quicker in qualifying this year until we changed the power steering, then he wasn't.

"Jarno's strength is also his biggest weakness. He's the most sensitive driver I've ever worked with. He has fantastic feel for the car, but, take that away and he can't drive it.

"The drivers were asking for a system with more assistance and so we produced one. As soon as Jarno drove it he said yes, it's lighter, but I can't feel the car. Heikki wouldn't feel any difference. And it's not a simple re-design, it's a three-month process.

"We then redesigned one a lot heavier but with less friction and that's why we couldn't use it everywhere. Coming through somewhere like 130R at Suzuka, for example, it couldn't give enough assistance. The same thing for Eau Rouge at Spa.

"Heikki and Karun Chandhok could feel it but it made no real difference. Jarno said it totally transformed the car and immediately started telling us what he needed. Go back to the old one and he couldn't tell you what the car was doing. It was black and white.

"Jarno put the new one on for Hungary. He'd been half a second off Heikki all year and he outqualified him. Change it back for Spa and he couldn't drive it. He's super-sensitive and that's what gives him his speed. Next year we'll take what we've got and tweak it so that we've got a bit more assistance."

At times you got the feeling that patience with Trulli was wearing thin but F1 is a complex business and drivers as quick and committed as Timo Glock have previously been confounded by Jarno's pace. You get the impression that Tony Fernandes won't want any excuses, however relevant, in 2012.

That will increase the pressure on Gascoyne, Smith, et al, but in the final analysis the team has met the most important target for its first two seasons. Two consecutive 10th place constructors' championship finishes have been achieved and Fernandes' squad is now a 'column one' team, entitling it to a bigger share of F1's revenues. It now aims onwards and upwards.