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Growing pains - are Lotus about to bloom? 17 Jun 2010

Heikki Kovalainen (FIN) Lotus T127.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 8, Canadian Grand Prix, Practice Day, Montreal, Canada, Friday, 11 June 2010 Heikki Kovalainen (FIN) Lotus on the drivers parade.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 8, Canadian Grand Prix, Race Day, Montreal, Canada, Sunday, 13 June 2010 Jarno Trulli (ITA) Lotus.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 8, Canadian Grand Prix, Preparations, Montreal, Canada, Thursday, 10 June 2010 Heikki Kovalainen (FIN) Lotus T127.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 8, Canadian Grand Prix, Race, Montreal, Canada, Sunday, 13 June 2010 Heikki Kovalainen (FIN) Lotus T127.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 8, Canadian Grand Prix, Practice Day, Montreal, Canada, Friday, 11 June 2010

As they looked ahead to their first season in Formula One racing, 2010’s three new teams faced a mountain to climb. It’s tough for any competitor to keep up, but when you’re up against rivals who have survived for decades, have seemingly unlimited resources at their disposal and have won countless championships, the nerves are bound to be jangling.

But for one new team the weight of expectation must have felt particularly heavy. We take a look at how those given leave to bring the celebrated Lotus name back to F1 are faring…

With seven championships, 79 race wins and 107 pole positions, Lotus remain one of the sport’s most successful constructors, having achieved glory with the likes of Jim Clark, Graham Hill and Ayrton Senna, after being set-up by Englishman Colin Chapman almost six decades ago. Although they had the support of Chapman’s family, Lotus’s new lease of life came courtesy of a partnership between the Malaysian government and a consortium of Malaysian entrepreneurs led by Air Asia boss Tony Fernandes. The team also boasted the technical nous of F1 veteran Mike Gascoyne, who had honed his skills during spells with Force India, McLaren, Sauber, Tyrrell, Jordan, Renault and Toyota.

Compared to the death knells resounding from one of the grid’s expected new entries, and HRT’s very last-minute driver announcement and rushed car launch, the unwrapping of Lotus’s Cosworth-powered T127 was an organised and glamorous affair. Although arriving just five months after the team were granted entry by the FIA, Gascoyne’s car was sensible, manageable, and at the same time supple enough to easily assume upgrades. Most importantly, it was ready early enough for the team to take part in two pre-season tests.

If the car’s design had been carefully considered, so too had the driver line-up. In former Toyota star Jarno Trulli and ex-McLaren pilot Heikki Kovalainen, the team had unexpectedly signed two Grand Prix winners, who had enough experience to bring weight to technical improvements, yet still enough hunger to push the car to its absolute limits. All in all, the team’s hopes to pick up a few points during the season, and nuzzle their way into the tail end of the established teams, didn’t look too overambitious.

It may have been 15 years since the Lotus name had last appeared on the F1 grid - at the 1994 Australian Grand Prix - but at the 2010 season opener in Bahrain, the team did their eminent name proud. Visits from former Lotus drivers (and world champions) Emerson Fittipaldi, Mario Andretti and Nigel Mansell seemed to do the trick and after qualifying in 20th and 21st places, they became the only new team to see both their cars classified on the Sunday. Although 15th-placed Kovalainen finished two laps down on Ferrari race winner Fernando Alonso, the team had met their objectives for the weekend and team principal Fernandes declared himself ‘over the moon’.

In Australia they again out-qualified fellow ‘newbies’ HRT and Virgin, and Kovalainen finished in 13th, but Trulli was stymied by another hydraulics problem. At the next event in Malaysia, Kovalainen made it through to Q2 for the first time, after cannily taking advantage of strategic errors from Ferrari and McLaren. But while they desperately wanted to impress on home turf, Trulli was embroiled in a Lap Three collision, finishing five laps down in P17, and Kovalainen’s T127 succumbed to hydraulic issues. But at April’s Chinese Grand Prix, they finally fought with the big boys, and a clever tyre choice saw Kovalainen eventually finish ahead of the Williams of Nico Hulkenberg.

It was just the encouragement the team needed as they headed back to Europe, for an upgrade package and the Spanish Grand Prix. In Barcelona they were comfortably the fastest new team, but a pre-race software issue for Kovalainen meant Trulli was the only driver to finish (in 17th). At the next two races, in Monaco and Turkey, the T127 was undoubtedly the quicker car but again technical gremlins meant its improving pace was overshadowed by retirements.

Last weekend in Canada, however, car, drivers, and team eventually came good. Not only did Kovalainen qualify barely two-tenths down on the BMW Sauber of Kamui Kobayashi to take 19th on the grid, but in the race itself the Finn’s fastest lap was under a tenth slower than the other BMW Sauber of Pedro de la Rosa. At one point he was running as high as sixth, and even though he eventually finished in 16th, excitingly he’d managed to hold the Renault of Vitaly Petrov at bay. Yes Trulli’s T127 once again succumbed to a technical issue (brake vibration), but in contrast established team BMW Sauber recorded their fifth double DNF of the year.

Of course Lotus’s Montreal showing once again confirmed that they are leading the way from fellow new teams Virgin and HRT (they lapped both), but it was also a very respectable performance in comparison to the midfield. The team were understandably thrilled.

“Heikki drove a fantastic race, fighting all the way with the guys in front, and kept it up right to the end to keep Petrov behind him,” said Gascoyne. “I think this weekend has been a massive step forward for the whole team. Rather than being just one of the new teams, we actually got stuck in and raced the teams ahead, which is what we wanted to do, so congratulations and thank you to the whole team for getting us to this position.”

Next week’s European Grand Prix in Valencia will be Lotus’s 500th, and the team will no doubt be hoping they can return the legendary marque back to the scoreboard. With just a few tenths in it, Lotus are starting to look like a real threat - any stragglers at the back of the midfield had better watch out.