Lotus was the big success story among the three new teams this year. It was the pacesetter in its group virtually all season, wrapped up the critical 10th place in the constructors’ standings, and snapped at the midfielders’ heels on several occasions.
Having secured Renault engines, Red Bull transmission systems and some handy new technical signings for 2011, it looks set for a very promising future – though what it will actually be called next year remains uncertain…
With its 2010 entry not granted until September 2009, Lotus had less time than anyone else to get ready for this season – and yet it ended up comfortably the most successful of the new teams, and the one most likely to get among the established midfielders in 2011.
It was far from a flawless season, with reliability issues hard to shake off, and a row developing over the Lotus name which could yet see Tony Fernandes’ squad rebranded over the winter, but overall, this was a triumphant debut for whatever this alliance between Malaysian and Norfolk talent ends up being called long-term.
Being out-qualified by Virgin’s Timo Glock in Bahrain proved to be against the trend, as in the race not only did Lotus assert itself at the front of the unofficial new teams’ class, it also got both cars to the flag at the first attempt.
By the end of the season, Lotus had taken 14 ‘class poles’ and 12 ‘class wins’, and had the three new teams been in a championship of their own, Lotus’ Heikki Kovalainen would’ve won it by a colossal 120 points, with team-mate Jarno Trulli in second.
Lotus also claimed the highest placing for a new team in the constructors’ championship, claiming the vital 10th place in the standings.
This was always likely to be decided on a tie-break of best results as for any of Lotus, Virgin or Hispania to actually get into the top 10 in a race was a long-shot.
Kovalainen’s 13th place in Australia gave Lotus an early headstart in this quest, and it then pretty much put its position beyond doubt by taking 12th and 13th at Suzuka.
While Lotus had its rival backmarkers under control, one thing it couldn’t do was get on terms with the rest of the field.
The T127 was a deliberately conservative creation – with such a tight timescale, the team felt its only option was to design a basic car that would get it on the grid and see it through 2010.
A revamp for the Spanish Grand Prix shaved off some of the car’s excess weight, but the fundamental redesign it really required to get near the points was never on the cards, with Lotus declaring early on that as it was confident it had enough in hand to see off Virgin and Hispania this year, it would focus all its efforts on its 2011 car from the summer.
Although Virgin, which said it was also working with one eye on 2011, did get a little closer later in the season, in general Lotus’ prediction that it was fast enough to win the new teams’ race without any further developments proved correct.
There were a few occasions when Lotus had a shot at some giant-killing.
Inclement weather helped it reach Q2 in both Malaysia and Belgium, while Kovalainen gave his absolute utmost to get through in the dry in Monaco and Canada as well, just falling short on both occasions.
Strategic choices saw Kovalainen run as high as sixth in China too, and in the Monaco GP he did well to keep Vitaly Petrov’s Renault in sight.
But Kovalainen’s efforts to take the fight to teams ahead did provoke some controversy, when his Lotus became a launchpad for Mark Webber’s Red Bull in Valencia.
Webber couldn’t see why Kovalainen was trying to race the much-faster car (which was down among the backmarkers after a very early pit stop) when it was inevitably soon going to cruise past him, while Lotus strongly defended its driver’s right to battle for position with whoever he pleased.
Overall, Kovalainen emerged from 2010 with his reputation fully restored after a disappointing McLaren stint, having been the class act among the new teams.
His team-mate Trulli actually ended up with the superior qualifying record, having rediscovered some initially missing speed following a change of chassis and adjustments to the steering system.
But Trulli’s luck was abysmal, and he didn’t have a single weekend without mechanical problems intervening at some point, with the fragile hydraulics proving particularly troublesome on his car.
Always a perfectionist who is only at his best when the chassis handles to his liking, Trulli admitted very early in the season that the T127 was not ideal for his style and that this was going to be a poor season for him.
Yet while he was very open about the problems with Lotus’ 2010 package, Trulli was also quick to point out that in the fraught circumstances of the late entry, Lotus had done the very best that was possible, and that while he was writing this year off, he was very optimistic about the team’s future.
Plans for the future dominated much of Lotus’ season.
Next year it will receive the Renault V8 and Red Bull transmission system – effectively giving it a large part of the package that took Sebastian Vettel to this year’s world title.
And steps have been taken to get the rest of the car up to scratch too, with technical chief Mike Gascoyne going on a recruitment drive that will see several key colleagues from earlier in his successful career rejoining him, led by Force India’s Mark Smith, who also working alongside Gascoyne during Jordan’s rise and the early days of the current Renault works team.
With the drivers both back on board for 2011 and a very promising technical and personnel package in place, the only lingering headache for Lotus is what it will actually be called.
The now Proton-owned Group Lotus is frantically expanding its motorsport activities, and wants to be representing the brand in F1 as well, mostly likely in partnership with Renault.
The current Lotus team is adamant that it has the rights to the Team Lotus title, insisting that the F1 racing and sportscar sides of the company were always separate operations and that Proton did not buy the former when it acquired Group Lotus.
Initially it seemed that Fernandes would seek a compromise and agree to rename his team, but then the 2011 entry list appeared with the Team Lotus name still listed for his cars.
The Malaysian declared that fan support – and Lotus seems to be earning a level of crowd affection reminiscent of Jordan’s ‘favourite underdog’ status from its glory days – had convinced him to fight on, and if there’s one thing this team has proved in its first year, it’s that it shouldn’t be underestimated by its rivals, whatever the battle…
Highlights: Managing to frighten the established midfielders in Monaco and Canada, getting both cars to the finish at the first attempt in Bahrain.
Lowlights: Every time Truli’s car ground to a halt again, the name row, Kovalainen’s tangle with Webber in Valencia.