It was a trend we anticipated for much of last season. With their relatively small budget compared to the top three teams, Lotus seemed destined to fall off the pace at some point last season. This didn’t really happen, though you could maybe consider the races between Italy and India below par, as Kimi was not on the podium. It wasn’t until the Finn’s famous win in Abu Dhabi that we realized Lotus was here to stay, and here to win.
2013 started off much in the same manner; a win in Australia followed by 3 straight podiums between China and Spain, including a double podium in Bahrain. It seemed like 2013 could, and possibly would, be Lotus’s year.
A wall, though, has been met in recent races. While Lotus’s more consistent tire usage was used to its advantage in Australia and China, one could argue that it was used as a means of survival in Spain. While Fernando Alonso stormed to victory with a 4-stop strategy in Spain, Kimi Raikkonen had to make his way to a podium with 3-stops. While that should be applauded in this day and age, where tire conservation is paramount, it does hint at the fact that perhaps the Lotus is not quite as fast as it needs to be. Ferrari could have done 3-stops in Spain. It would have been perfectly feasible. But they knew that their car was easily fast enough to make up the deficit of a 4th stop. So they went for it. They went for a surprisingly controversial 4-stop strategy to dominate the race, while Kimi Raikkonen was left to try and compete on an alternate strategy.
Let me explain the differences between the alternate strategies of Lotus in Spain and Australia. To begin, we must remember that the Australian Grand Prix, along with practice and qualifying, was far from straightforward. The presence of rain immediately makes conventional strategy unconventional, and unconventional strategy more feasible due to the various uncertainties surrounding the performance of the cars, tires and track. This means that Kimi’s two stop in Australia, while unconventional in theory, was more “in the box” thinking. Add to that a clear performance advantage, in race conditions at least, for the Lotus (backed up my Kimi’s fastest lap with 2 laps to go in the race) and you have a shining recipe for a win.
In Spain, the weekend, all through practice and qualifying, was completely conventional. At this point in the season, Lotus was not the fastest team over one lap, and their superiority in race conditions was being questioned, no doubt because of Sebastian Vettel’s crushing performance in Bahrain just three weeks prior. When it was decided that either three or four stops would be the norm for the Spanish Grand Prix, Ferrari took a leap of faith and chose to race flat out the entire way, while relying on a four-stop strategy. The confidence with which Ferrari approached this race, however masked, was phenomenal. Fernando Alonso in particular left the field scratching their heads at his dominance. Kimi Raikkonen, on the other hand, used whatever advantage could be had with the Lotus’s easy tire wear to make a three-stop strategy to work. He limited the damage by coming home a distant second, but Lotus was now faced with the possibility that their car was falling behind.
Monaco proved inconclusive in terms of how much progress they made with their car, as passing is nigh on impossible and as Kimi was taken out in the race by Sergio Perez (though I personally place some of the blame on the Finn for taking an unconventional line into the corner and not giving Sergio as much room as was available).
Once in Canada, the harsh realties really came to the fore. Both Kimi and Romain were nowhere in the race, getting lapped by more than just the leader. Kimi’s two points in the end can be taken as a slight victory given the circumstances. Where the pace went in the race, no one really knows. The track that delivered a fantastic podium for last season left the team with a bad taste in their mouth.
Their championship ambitions rest on the possibility of a good performance at Silverstone. One could argue that the Lotus was the best car there last season, with a win out of their reach because of the dreadful qualifying conditions. Whatever the race was last season, it is what happens in two weeks’ time that could prove vital to the team’s championship hopes.