Team Lotus was happy to admit that its 2010 Formula One season was about learning rather than getting results.
Their entry for the season had been granted very late in the day and having a car at the first race was a triumph in itself. Of course, the car was slow. Any Formula One car built from scratch in a matter of months is going to struggle against the highly toned pedigree of the opposition. The car was particularly poor aerodynamically. I watched the car at Jerez in preseason testing, and I noticed it looking almost square from some angles.
This wasn’t a problem. The team spent most of the season asking its fans to wait for 2011. This was the year we would see strong, point-scoring performances. In preparation for 2011, they took the world championship winning Renault engine and Red Bull transmission and bolted them in the back of the car. They signed the highly-rated engineer Mark Smith from Force India, and they had some of the most important commodity of all, the one money can’t buy.
They had a year of Formula One racing experience.
We are now seven races into the season, and the bottom line is that the team has failed to reach its targets. They are not on the pace of established teams like Sauber and Toro Rosso. The team hasn’t taken the step forward it all but promised.
There have been some positive signs.
The car is reliable, with only one mechanical retirement so far—when Jarno Trulli’s clutch failed in Malaysia—and in Spain, Heikki Kovalainen qualified 15th, with Jarno in 18th. This was a boost to the team, but it wasn’t achieved on pure pace. Instead, they were aided by Rubens Barrichello’s gearbox glitch, and the Force India team’s decision to run hard tyres as opposed to Heikki’s soft tyres.
Put simply, the team doesn’t have the pace to qualify 15th on merit.
Their average qualifying position in 2010 was 19.3. In 2011, it is 18.8. There hasn’t been any significant improvement, and if you take Heikki’s one-off 15th out of the equation, the figure for 2011 drops to 19.08. To put this into context, if the team was regularly getting both cars into Q2, the figure would be around 16.5. They are some way off their expected pace relative to the opposition.
Looking for causality in this is immensely difficult. Why hasn’t Team Lotus moved up the grid? The new car is clearly a big step forward. Unlike last year’s model, it looks like a proper F1 car. It's bright metallic livery and the 2010 Mercedes-style roll hoop make it look like one of the faster F1 cars of the 2011 season.
But the car has problems.
The power steering lacks feel, and this is a big problem in motorsports. The driver feels the car through the seat and the steering wheel. If the feeling in the steering wheel isn’t there, the driver can’t push the car to its maximum. It’s like trying to sew while wearing gardening gloves.
The team has made a step forward since 2010, but making a step forward in Formula One isn’t enough. Every team develops their car every week. While Team Lotus has made a big step forward, so have all of the other teams. In Formula One, when the rules regarding car design change, the bigger teams tend to find the optimum solutions faster than teams toward the back because they have more resources.
Eventually you come to a point where the car design is optimised to the new rules and the development of the top teams slows down. It is only at this point that the small teams begin to catch up. Look at how close Formula One was in 2008, and compare that to the dominance we’ve seen since the dramatic 2009 rule changes.
This is the plight Team Lotus find themselves in.
In the meantime, we have to hope there won’t be any consequences for the disappointing performance. With Jarno, they have a strong development driver with 15 years of Grand Prix experience, yet he is being wasted because he can’t feel what the car is doing when he takes it to the limit.
Heikki and Chief Technical Officer Mike Gascoyne look fully committed, but being soundly beaten week in week out must be painful.
Owner Tony Fernandes is a staunch supporter of the team, and it is clearly a very important part of his marketing programme, but it remains to be seen if his interest will drop if the lack of progress is allowed to continue.
To move up the grid, they have to keep developing the car and pushing to get improvements onto it at every race. If they keep pushing, they will close that gap.