Lotus have a quick car. That much is obvious. In the hands of Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean, the Lotus E20 occupied the lower two-thirds of the podium at the Bahrain Grand Prix. Grosjean qualified third in Australia. Both drivers have looked fast all season. But it bears considering that neither Raikkonen nor Grosjean was on on the grid last year. They’re both taking some time to get acclimatized to Formula One in 2012.
Lotus are competing with McLaren, Red Bull and Mercedes. Each of those teams has had a stable driver line-up for at least two seasons, but Lotus has an all-new driver pairing for this 2012. Raikkonen and Grosjean have only worked with the team and each other for a few months. By contrast, Vettel and Webber have been team-mates in a largely unchanged Red Bull team since 2009.
Team principal Eric Boullier is impressed with his young French driver, saying of Grosjean, ”He has the speed and the talent to be world champion one day.” Raikkonen, champion in 2007, has already proven his winning ability. The technical team produced a solid car in 2010, and an ambitious but ultimately unsuccesfful challenger in 2011. The 2012 car seems so far to be fast and reliable in all conditions.
So it seems logical that there is more to come from Lotus. A fast car, a previous champion and a quick young driver makes for a competitive package. We can expect to see a black and gold car win a race this season.
Four races into the Formula One season, and it’s time to take a little break. Or is it? Although there are three weeks between the Bahrain and Spanish Grands Prix, the teams will certainly not be relaxing. Instead, they will be testing from 1-3 May at Mugello in Italy.
In-season testing was banned to save costs in the wake of the global financial crisis in 2008. All subsequent testing has been conducted in the pre-season, with some limited in-season straight-line running permitted. Teams have also been able to run on track with demonstration tyres for filming purposes. Now, for the first time since the testing ban was instituted, Formula One teams will participate in a full track test during the season.
Amazingly, HRT have elected not to run at the Mugello test. The team claims this is to allow time to focus on an upgrade to the car, and to get settled into their new headquarters in Madrid. Their reasoning doesn’t seem particularly sound, as there is no substitute for track time when evaluating an upgrade. Unless HRT are significantly quicker at the Spanish Grand Prix, this will almost certainly turn out to be the wrong decision.
This is the time for a team like Ferrari to catch up to the front-runners. The factory in Maranello will have been working round the clock since the start of the season, developing upgrades and testing them in the wind tunnel. Now that the Scuderia is back in Europe, the new parts can be track-tested. We can expect Ferrari to be much more competitive after the Mugello test.
For those not taking part in the test, like Jenson Button (McLaren are running their test drivers and possibly Lewis Hamilton), it’s a good opportunity to spend some time at the factory, in the simulator, training or just generally recovering from the stress of the first four races. All of the teams will arrive in Barcelona for the next race at full strength, after operating on somewhat limited resources at the flyaway races, so it’s crucial for each of the team members and drivers to be as well-prepared as possible.
I will be posting after each day’s testing, looking at the time-sheets and upgrades. In the meantime, take a look at my summary of the season so far, published by f1plus.com:
Sebastian Vettel has returned to the top of the podium with an emphatic victory in Bahrain. The double World Champion has had a difficult start to the season, but silenced his doubters by taking pole position yesterday and driving a faultless race to victory this afternoon. The perfect weekend for Vettel sees him at the top of the points standings for the first time this season.
Only Lotus had an answer to the pace of Vettel, with Kimi Raikkonen challenging for the lead before the last round of pitstops. Unfortunately for the Finn, he was unable to keep pace with Vettel once the Red Bull driver was on fresh tyres, and Raikkonen finished the race in second, his strongest result since returning to Formula One in Australia this season. Team-mate Romain Grosjean finished third for his first Formula One podium, completing an impressive weekend in which he outqualified Raikkonen and led his team-mate in the early stage of the race. His joy was evident on the podium and again in the post-race interview as he smiled broadly during the proceedings.
Mark Webber scored his fourth consecutive fourth place, which makes it four Renault engines in the top four, a surprising result given that the Mercedes engine is considered better for straight-line speed and the Bahrain circuit has two long straights.
Chinese Grand Prix winner Nico Rosberg could only manage fifth place today, recovering after a slow start that saw him lose a few places in the first corner. Rosberg will be the subject of two investigations by the stewards after the race, after on-track battles with Hamilton and Alonso saw both opponents running off the track to avoid contact with the Mercedes driver.
McLaren had a miserable afternoon. Lewis Hamilton had two very slow pitstops, both due to problems with his left-rear tyre, which pushed him down the order. Some good aggressive driving saw him finish in eighth, although that could change if the stewards find him guilty of passing Nico Rosberg outside the limits of the track. Jenson Button’s afternoon came to a premature end with a cracked exhaust.
Paul di Resta made a two-stop strategy work well to finish sixth, a good result for Force India. Alonso fought hard to finish seventh, with team-mate Mass scoring his first points of the season in ninth after a strong drive. Michael Schumacher rounded out the top ten after a solid drive from 22nd on the grid.
This weekend concluded the first round of fly-away races. The Formula One teams now return home, in advance of the first European race in Barcelona on 13 May.