Lotus Renault GP Review
The team that some were calling ‘Lotus Renault GP’ have a weak claim to both names.
The self-consciously prominent ‘Lotus’ branding on the R31 is at present down to little more than a sponsorship deal.
Renault have sold their remaining share in the team, but the car continues to use their engines and carries their name.
Sadly, this means we’ve lost the distinctive yellow-and-black cars of last year – the only time in their modern incarnation that Renault raced in their traditional colours.
They replaced it by a rendering of Lotus’s classic black-and-gold John Player Special livery which is attractive if not quite perfect (blame Total for that).
But the real substance of the car looked promising indeed. The team made rapid progress with the R30 last year.
Their aerodynamic division, shored up in numbers following a too-hasty reduction in the latter days of the Flavio Briatore years, excelled in bringing rapid updates to the car which generally worked as intended.
For 2011 they pushed the envelope further with a radical exhaust solution which blows hot air out around the front of the sidepods with the aim of increasing downforce.
It was starting to look promising for Renault when Robert Kubica set the fastest time in the final day of the Valencia testshortly after the car’s launch.
But just three days later came the blow that may have derailed Renault’s entire season. Kubica suffered serious injuries when he crashed while competing in a rally in Italy. If and when he might be able to return to racing remains to be seen.
This presented a problem for team principal Eric Boullier. None of the team’s five reserve drivers including the new recruit Bruno Senna was considered experienced enough to take Kubica’s place.
The loss of Kubica exposed the weakness in the team’s driver line-up.
Vitaly Petrov’s debut season last year was patchy at best. There is little doubt that his continued presence at the team owes more than a little to the sponsorship he has helped attract.
Boullier reacted quickly by installing Nick Heidfeld as Kubica’s replacement and there was little doubt he was the most qualified driver available for the job.
The question was what Heidfeld can make of the car that was made for his former team mate. The pair were often closely matched while at BMW together from 2006-2009.
The team, despite Robert Kubica’s fate which was a huge blow to the team, still managed to start the season with podiums in the first two races, from Vitaly Petrov in Melbourne and Nick Heidfeld, the injured Kubica's replacement, at Sepang.
The Renault's relative performance, however, was destined to slide. The team had elected to go that particular route with the exhaust before it was in possession of all the tyre data.
Technical director James Allison explains: "When we ran a blown exhaust in 2010 it gave us downforce, and plenty of it, but with a rather unpleasant understeer with the Bridgestone tyres. The downforce was all at the rear.”
One of the hypothetical benefits of a front exiting exhaust was that you generate most of the lift from the middle of the car and it didn't get that nasty understeer. But, wind on to the start of 2011 and they found that the Pirellis actually had a very different characteristic to the Bridgestones.
For the Renault drivers, that translated into a car that was fairly snappy and difficult and, in Allison's words, "ugly as hell at places like Monaco, Hungary and Singapore, where very little of the redeeming features are to be seen but the nastiness is on display at every corner."
Two chief factors masked the issues at the beginning of the season. First, only Red Bull and McLaren had properly mastered a decent exhaust blown diffuser. Second, Renault was in the vanguard of off-throttle blowing. When the others caught up, Renault was overhauled.
Allison says that the team's exhaust solution was tricky to optimise around the sidepod. Things such as stone damage or parts that fitted less than perfectly, cost a lot of downforce.
The team's experiences led it to re-evaluate and experiment with a rear-blowing exhaust at the German GP. They configured it close to the point at which they'd frozen development the previous year and copied some trends seen elsewhere.
It was a compromise though, and because they had to use the existing diffuser package, Renault found itself unable to control the performance of the floor at lower rear ride heights. In the higher speed corners the diffuser was unstable and stalled.
As the regulations developed for 2012 and it became clear that top exit exhausts were the future, Allison says that the remainder of 2011 did not justify re-inventing the wheel, "We just had to take it on the chin.
"One of the nice things about our team is that the technical director has to make decisions of the front exhaust type. If I could have a time machine, I wouldn't have made it. But from the bottom of the company to the top, no-one gave me a hard time."
The team made progress in other areas, switching from a 50% to 60% wind tunnel model capable of running ride heights, yaw values and steer values that the other model couldn't get to.
It's hard to know what the team would have achieved with Kubica. They may even have fought for an early season win but Allison admits: "I'd be kidding myself if I thought that just having Robert would have steered us out of the mire we subsequently found ourselves in.
"Petrov surpassed expectations and did a creditable job for us, as did Bruno Senna stepping in mid season -- a tough thing to do. And Nick Heidfeld put in some good performances as well." The feeling though, was that without Kubica they no longer had one of the main men.
There were some rumblings of discontent beneath the surface. It was not so much aimed at Eric Boullier's management but perhaps more at a feeling of "too many cooks" with the involvement of Genii. Experienced sporting director Steve Nielsen, for instance, tendered his resignation, unimpressed by the arrived of John Wickham as team manager, with a part-brief to report back to Genii on the efficiency of the team.
The team had a noticeable decline when dropping Nick Heidfeld for Bruno Senna, scoring only seven points from their seventy-three, after dropping their lead driver.
Was it the right decision?
Well, Renault didn’t have much to lose (apart from points), with fifth position looking very secure and fourth looking out of reach, it seemed like an alright decision. They got much needed sponsorship money, and a young eager driver.
Heidfeld’s replacement seemed to prove the doubters wrong at the Belgain Grand prix qualifying, he qualifed in seventh place three places ahead of his team-mate, however, it went pear-shaped from there.
A first corner collision in his first Grand Prix for the team, cost them what looked like good solid points.
The race at Monza looked promising as the car was running well, Senna in a good position made a mistake, losing him several places, but recovered to finish in ninth.
He did well again in qualifying, this time at his home Grand Prix, but again failed to take advantage of it, as he went backwards then had a collision with Michael Schumacher, resulting to a drive through penalty, ruining his race even further.
The qualifying pace was there, however the race pace and the race craft weren’t up to scratch.
Nick Heidfeld, however was the exact opposite, qualifying wasn’t great, but race pace and race craft was as solid as it could be.
Heidfeld had a fair few good performances, one of them most notably being, was the podium finish in Sepang, qualified sixth, but after the first lap was up into second with a great start, then went on to finish third.
Then there was Catalunya, started twenty-fourth on the grid, but came through the field to finish eighth.
Was consistently in the points six times from eleven, could have been more if he didn’t have a collision with Kobayashi in Canada, where Kobayashi slowed down on the racing line, and at Hungary where his car went on fire, when he was running well.
Let’s turn to Vitaly Petrov now, the driver that lasted a full season with the team.
Started the season really well with a great third place in the opening race in Melbourne. What was surprising, was the pace of the Petrov in the race, running ahead of both Ferrari’s, a Red Bull and a McLaren.
It was well earned podium for the Russian.
In the first of the season, it really looked like Petrov improved from his 2010 season, scoring the teams first podium, beating his team-mate in qualifying consistently, and only being two points behind him.
But as the car became poor, Petrov started to under-perform.
Being the lead driver for the team, he didn’t seem to step up, only scoring five points in eight races.
Not all can be blamed on Petrov though, as he was looking at a great result in Monza where the car was at its best in the second half of the season, he qualified in seventh on the prime tyres, only to be taken out by a rocket named Vintantonio Liuzzi.
There was also Korea where he and Alonso where having a drag race with Petrov taking out Schumacher and Alonso escaping, more so Petrov’s fault rather than anybody else’s.
The team was also to blame with poor strategies, most notably in India where they left Petrov out on worn tyres for a quite some time.
Petrov, sealed his fate with his team, not by performance, but by his off-track antics, where he slammed the team for poor results, what he said may have been true, but while still employed and currently in the racing season, it wasn’t the greatest of ideas.
The team was lucky that they didn’t lose fifth place in the championship to Force India as they only finished four points ahead of them after their big gamble of changing their lead driver, with an inexperienced one.
A new broom also swept clean the entire driver line-up, with both Petrov and Senna jettisoned at season's end in favour of Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean.
It was understandable. Raikkonen, we know, is capable of winning world championships and, as such, goes some way to replacing the loss of a top liner such as Kubica. And Grosjean too, has shown speed deserving of a second chance at the top level. They will certainly be one of 2012's most interesting pairings and, the team hopes, capable of putting it back in the frame to challenge for wins.
This is not a team content with fifth place in the constructors championship. Ultimately though, you get the feeling that the chassis will be a bigger influence on progress than the drivers.
Highlights: Podium finishes in the first two Grand Prix’s and consistently in the points for every race up until Hungary.
Lowlights: Dropping off rapidly in the second half of the season, finishing fifteenth and seventeenth in Singapore, being beating by Team Lotus on merit in the same race.