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Lotus’ challenge for the title: In the shadow of the other teams?

With Mercedes shining during testing, are the Enstone team being overlooked?
Sunday, March 10, 2013

March 10th, 2013 (F1plus/B. Dixon).-16.00 BRT at Interlagos: The curtain of finality on the 2012 Formula One season has dropped. From behind the curtain, the Lotus F1 Team can reflect on a successful first season in their latest guise. Kimi Raikkonen coolly crept up to third position in the Driver’s Championship, the highest since Fernando Alonso took the double Championship for Renault in 2006. This was coupled with fourth place in the Constructor’s, trailing only the mighty Red Bull, Ferrari and McLaren. The victory at the hands of the iceman in Abu Dhabi, and Lotus’ first in 25 years, provided an extra sprinkling of progress. Running as the Lotus F1 team for the first time since 1994, 2012 definitely saw them making their mark on a new era for the famous name.

But who really noticed Lotus amassing their achievements? With Red Bull and Ferrari being the team names most uttered from peoples lips due to their battle at the front, Lotus were stalking McLaren in the Constructors Championship, largely unobserved. Going into the mid season break, Lotus were trailing them by only one point. Kimi Raikkonen’s second places in Bahrain, Valencia and Hungary, together with thirds in Spain and Germany placed him fifth in the Driver’s Championship with 116 points, just one behind Lewis Hamilton. Romain Grosjean’s third places in Bahrain and Hungary and second in Canada supplemented their points tally. Their stealthy challenge for the Constructors title declined a little during the second part of the season but it quietly surged on in the driver’s, with Kimi pursuing and overtaking Lewis Hamilton, finishing seventeen points clear.

So what will the challenge from the team and the E21 look like for 2013? As was the case last year there is the chance for them to be an inconspicuous warrior that does battle from the shadows. Although not being an accurate indicator of where the teams are in relation to each other, pre season testing is all there is to go on at this stage of the season. Combined times from the first test in Jerez displayed Kimi Raikkonen second fastest over the four days, with Romain Grosjean fourth quickest, meaning they were the highest placed team mates. Some discourse was to be heard about whether Lotus and their E21 could be title contenders, but with testing arriving in Barcelona and a surge in performance by Mercedes, talk about Lotus mostly dissipated.

Although Toto Wolff has down played suggestions that the Silver Arrows could be a force to be reckoned with this season, Pat Fry, Technical Director at Ferrari told Speed Week that he thinks they look very strong. Due to their impressive performances throughout testing, but especially in the final one, all the gabble is now centred around the Brackley based team. Poaching Lewis Hamilton, arguably the most famous current Formula One driver from McLaren, followed by Toto Wolff from Williams and Paddy Lowe, also from McLaren, has established Mercedes firmly in the limelight where they will now mount the quest for their first title in fifty seven years.

It has emerged this week that Red Bull have the slowest car in a straight line, and that worry about their two second speed deficit to Mercedes in testing has begun to creep in. Helmet Marko expressed that not everything had “gone to plan.” We are still yet to see what surprises they have to unveil in style at Melbourne. Having taken the Constructors crown for the last three years, talk about Red Bull as contenders will never be far from people’s lips, and every move they make will be closely scrutinised.

Combined times from the final test at Montmelo showed Fernando Alonso second fastest with his teammate Felipe Massa in fourth. Ferrari Team President Luca Montezemolo is optimistic that the F138 is “meeting all our expectations.” Due to their history and pedigree in the sport, even when the car isn’t operating at a peak level, Ferrari will always take centre stage in a championship to some degree.
Martin Whitmarsh, Team Principal at McLaren has voiced the difficulties faced by the team when attempting to gain a full understanding of the behaviour of the MP4-28. Jenson Button and Sergio Perez haven’t seemed entirely happy with the performance of the car throughout winter testing. McLaren have a huge fan base, and a long history. Couple this with all eyes watching Perez to see whether his move to the team will end in success or failure, you have another substantial slice of the limelight taken.

With all the focus on their main rivals, Lotus are free to begin their challenge in their usual understated style, in the shadow of the other teams, something that will suit their laconic Finn, Kimi Raikkonen. Suffering reliability issues during winter testing, in particular gearbox issues, has placed them slightly out of contention.

One aspect of their 2012 season that wasn’t understated was Romain Grosjean’s penchant for causing first lap incidents. The Frenchman was involved in eight across the season, including the worst opening lap crash at Spa since 1998, which resulted in his being issued with a race ban for Monza. Lotus will need to hope that he has matured and learned from his mistakes if they are to make a stealthy advance into the top three or beyond.

Lotus have kept a consistent driver pairing for 2013, and with the E21 being unveiled as an essentially slicker, more precise version of the E20, consistency could be the team’s secret weapon in their dusky rise up the table. It is the belief of Raikkonen that adding more pace to the consistency from last year could propel them further forward. Lotus’ title challenge this season could again be understated, in the shade of others, but the addition of outright, blistering pace to an already solid package could shoot them from the shadows. Their rivals should watch out for these stalking panthers, their stealthy ascent could catch them unawares.

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