On Sunday, Pastor Maldonado pulled off the circuit just 29 laps into the Australian Grand Prix. Fourteen laps later, his Lotus teammate, Romain Grosjean, joined him in retirement from the first Formula One race of the season.
Strangely, in the new, hybrid-power unit (not engine) world of F1, this double-retirement actually represents a positive result for the team.
There was concern the Lotus cars may not make it to the starting grid even before the two drivers combined for only 33 laps—and zero competitive times—in the three free practice sessions in Melbourne.
The Saturday qualifying session did nothing to allay those fears. Grosjean managed only six laps, the quickest of which was nearly two seconds slower than any other car on track. Maldonado did not even complete a timed lap.
Still, both drivers did start the race and were actually making progress before the issues with the Energy Recovery System—specifically, the Motor Generator Unit - Kinetic (or MGU-K)—forced both cars to stop:
Despite the disappointing result, Grosjean said, in a team press release:
In a way, it was a pretty positive day. I expected to do around 15 to 20 laps in the race after all the issues we’ve had this weekend, and we managed 45! We’ve learnt a lot today and all the changes made to the car have been positive. ... We’ve still got lots of work to do, but we’re definitely heading in the right direction.
Talk about setting your expectations low! Especially considering it was just one year ago on the same circuit that Kimi Raikkonen gave Lotus its most recent victory.
Trackside operations director Alan Permane was less enthusiastic in his post-race comments, lamenting that, "In simple terms, we've finished a disappointing weekend with a disappointing race," per the official F1 website.
Of course, the problems at Lotus did not start in Melbourne. Last season, there were financial issues: Kimi Raikkonen did not receive his salary, contributing to his decision to return to Ferrari, and the team's long-awaited partnership with Quantum Motorsport fell through.
The loss of the Quantum money forced the team to sign Pastor Maldonado for 2014, with his significant PDVSA sponsorship and equally significant attitude problems, rather than preferred choice Nico Hulkenberg.
In the offseason, Lotus missed the first test in Jerez and lost a significant number of personnel through lay-offs or—in the case of team principal Eric Boullier, for example—because they found better offers elsewhere.
Given all of that, Grosjean's optimism is understandable. After all, the two Lotus cars completed more race laps in Australia than Red Bull or Mercedes (and—pending appeal—scored the same number of points as Red Bull).
Certainly there are significant issues to be rectified before Malaysia, with the MGU-K at the top of the list, but the team is finally moving in the right direction.
Just before the Australian race, the team announced that the experienced Federico Gastaldi had been promoted to deputy team principal, hopefully stabilising the management structure.
At this point, Lotus is unlikely to replicate last year's success—fourth in the Constructors' Championship, 14 podium finishes—but the season is far from a write-off. If the team can sort its reliability problems, both Grosjean and Maldonado have proved they are capable drivers and Lotus will be back in the points.
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