6 Reasons Why Lotus Will Not Be Serious Contenders in the 2014 Formula 1 Season
Lotus go into the 2014 Formula One season on the back of two very successful campaigns.
Benefiting from the experience and skill of Kimi Raikkonen and having produced cars which used their tyres well, the team exceeded expectations to finish fourth—not a million miles shy of second—in both 2012 and 2013.
When Raikkonen announced he was leaving, the seat for 2014 became one of the most coveted in the pit lane. Pastor Maldonado's Venezuelan oil money eventually secured the drive ahead of the more highly-regarded Nico Hulkenberg.
There was much talk at the time of how Maldonado would be getting a chance in a front-running car.
But F1 history is littered with proof that success in one season does not necessarily translate to success in the next. Lotus, more than any team, look likely to fall down the grid.
Before Romain Grosjean got it together in the latter half of the year to earn the (imaginary) title of most improved driver of 2013, Lotus' driver line-up would have looked terrifying.
Now? It doesn't look quite as bad, but it's still weaker than they'd like it to be. Kimi Raikkonen's departure left a gaping hole, and it hasn't been filled.
Despite his explosion of form, there's no certainty with Grosjean. He's unquestionably talented, but can he sustain that level of performance over a whole season?
If Grosjean's name has a few question marks over it, Pastor Maldonado's has a whole family of interrobangs.
He's certainly very fast and has the ability to drive exceptional races. His flawless drive to win the 2012 Spanish Grand Prix is the stand-out example.
But he isn't a reliable points scorer (his poorly rated Williams team-mate Bruno Senna had twice as many points finishes in 2012) and his attitude, especially when things aren't going well, is—seemingly—rather rotten.
The loss of Raikkonen leaves Lotus with two quick but inconsistent drivers, neither of them a proven leader.
That will cost them dear, especially in a season with so many regulation changes.
The Renault V8 engine was long considered slightly less powerful (maybe 10 horsepower) than the Mercedes and Ferrari efforts, but it excelled elsewhere.
The French manufacturer was probably the best at working with its teams to make the most of exhaust blowing, and the clever system they devised in 2013 (the one that sounded like traction control) played a large part in Red Bull's dominance.
Lotus, also a Renault user with a well-developed Coanda exhaust, gained a lot too.
To make matters worse, Renault are putting maximum effort into making their V6 turbo work with the Red Bull.
Customer teams like Lotus had no problems with the old, long-established V8. But with a brand new engine being introduced, having it tailored to a rival's car and not their own may prove a significant hindrance.
Loss of Key Personnel
It would be grossly unfair to attribute the success of Lotus to a small handful of people. The best technical teams have quality at every level—even Adrian Newey would struggle if he was in charge of a group of work-experience kids.
But the loss of technical director James Allison to Ferrari was a massive blow.
Widely regarded as one of the best in his field, Allison was the driving force behind the successful cars of the last two seasons.
Gone too is Dirk De Beer, former head of aerodynamics and another new Ferrari acquisition.
Lotus have also said goodbye to their head of computational fluid dynamics, Jarrod Murphy. He's gone to Mercedes.
One key team-member leaving doesn't have to be a big deal, but three?
Lotus have a significantly lower budget than the other big teams, but they still ran into massive financial difficulty last season.
Kimi Raikkonen wasn't paid, staff were paid late and the owners (Genii Capital, a venture capital company which probably doesn't like losing money) are having to put in a small fortune each month to keep the team afloat.
Pastor Maldonado arrived with several tens of millions of petrodollars, but Raikkonen still hasn't been paid in full, so how much of that cash went straight to Kimi?
The situation isn't dire and they're probably in a better financial state than most of the midfield and backmarkers.
But the money to compete with the big guns just isn't there.
Rivals Look Set to Make Gains
Lotus have beaten a "big team" in each of the last two seasons.
In 2012 it was Mercedes, but the German team are now established as strong contenders with a massive budget and one of the best driver line-ups on the grid.
In 2013 the honour of being defeated by Enstone fell to McLaren, who had a terrible season. Having identified where the MP4-28 went wrong, it seems likely they will produce a far more competitive car for 2014.
But the threat from further back is very real too.
Force India gave up on their 2013 challenger very early to start work on the VJM07. They have a very strong line-up in Nico Hulkenberg and Sergio Perez, and will be using the engine rumoured to be the best.
And what about Williams, now packing a driver line-up that marries the experience of Felipe Massa with the potential of Valtteri Bottas?
Their budget is a touch lower than that of Lotus (or it was last year), but they also started work on 2014 earlier and will have the Mercedes engines.
Lotus may end up fighting them, not Red Bull, in 2014.
Lotus announced earlier this week that they'll be missing the first four-day pre-season test at Jerez.
The team's technical director, Nick Chester, said per www.formula1.com:
We’re going to keep our car under wraps a little longer than some other teams. We've decided that attending the Jerez test isn't ideal for our build and development programme.
We are likely to unveil the car before attending the Bahrain tests, and in Bahrain we should really be able to put the car through its paces in representative conditions.
This year more than any other, the new engine and ERS regulations mean track time—especially early in the season—will be critical. Missing a whole four days of running is a significant setback.
Lotus will have only eight days of testing before the season starts in Australia, all at the Bahrain International Circuit in February.
They'll be ironing out teething issues as their rivals are getting on with some serious testing. When they get round to serious testing, everyone else will be working on the finer details.
It may take them several races to reach their full potential.
And follow @Lotus_F1Team too. Best team tweets in F1 (unless Ferrari stole that guy as well).