2013-08-17 11:00:00 EDT
Just over 18 months have elapsed since Kimi Raikkonen announced his comeback and what a comeback it’s been.
Prior to the 2012 season and their new driver pairing of Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean, Lotus had been the strugglers of the top half of the F1 grid. Formerly known as Renault, the team had only a handful of podiums, mainly for Robert Kubica, to show for having been well of the pace in 2011.
The start to last season wasn’t anything spectacular either. Raikkonen got his comeback of to the worst start imaginable having been eliminated in Q3 during qualifying in Melbourne.
It was only at the Bahrain Grand Prix of last year that we really saw Lotus take a massive step forward. Ever since that point they’ve been generally on the up with two race wins to their name, both victories to Raikkonen.
That’s why team principal Eric Boulier will be disappointed with the overall performance of the team so far this year. It’s a testament to just how far they’ve come.
The story of 2013 so far has been the tyres, and this is where the Lotus E21 excels. The ability of the Lotus drivers to exploit this was never more evident than the first race in Australia where Raikkonen was able run longer on all of his stints, dropping on pit stop on his rivals and therefore going from P7 on the grid to comfortably win the race.
Bahrain, Spain, Germany and Hungary have been the other races where Raikkonen has gotten on the podium predominantly due to the E21’s gentle tyre degradation.
However, with this searing race performance there is often a tinge of disappointment of the unfulfilled potential over the whole Grand Prix weekend. It’s qualifying where Lotus have been thoroughly let down.
In this particular aspect Raikkonen has comprehensively outdone Grosjean, leading the qualifying battle 8 to 2.
This analysis leads into the wider problem Lotus have had with respect to the Constructors’ Championship, which is that only one of their two drivers is really pulling their weight.
Raikkonen sits very pretty in second position in the Drivers’ standings, 38 points of the leader Vettel, while Grosjean languishes down in eight, and a staggering 85 points of his teammate.
Grosjean, though, has had his moments. He was arguably the better Lotus driver in Bahrain and definitely in Germany. He was the one who should have been challenging for the win at Budapest as well, had it not been for a couple of losses in concentration.
The inconsistency of Grosjean’s performances leads to incredibly similar comparisons to Felipe Massa at Ferrari, with both drivers so obviously the number two at their respective teams.
Lotus however have to deal with a more realistic problem. Unlike Ferrari their championship position is not only a matter of pride, but dictates their future financial resources.
At the moment with the new regulations coming in next year, prize money becomes even more significant.
Eric Boulier is often asked about how Grosjean can become a more consistent driver, and what he says to the man he granted a second chance.
In truth, Boulier can do nothing. Boulier is not a driver and isn’t someone who Grosjean will be taking driving advice from.
Grosjean’s problem probably isn’t a lack of driving ability either, or else we wouldn’t see the few occasions where he appears super-fast.
It’s more of a mental problem, perhaps due to nerves and an eagerness to be too good to quickly. Grosjean has to realise he doesn’t have to overtake three cars on the first lap, and take things as they come without trying to force something that’s not really there.
The current driver pairing is actually fairly strong. It’s just the inconsistency of Grosjean that depreciates their true value.
The dilemma for Lotus is that Raikkonen has effectively openly stated his interest in the vacant Red Bull seat.
He’s almost saying ‘I know what they’re going to give me, so show me over the next nine races what you guys at Enstone can do.’
The onus is now on Lotus to show that the recent upturn in the E21’s pace, especially in qualifying, isn’t short lived. The steady stream of upgrades and development parts need to keep coming and critically need to work.
Their much hyped double DRS system that has been in the works for what seems nearly a whole year now has been effectively dumped. Considering the amount of time and effort that went into that particular part, it’s been a massive waste of time.
For a team that’s come under financial trouble of late and that is much smaller than its immediate rivals, those type of risky projects can’t be undertaken.
The double DRS was a fanciful development that would only have given a very small advantage on certain tracks anyway, so the decision making by Lotus needs to be better.
Another problem that would be coming into full effect around this time is the fact they’ve lost their technical director James Allison to, what many think will be, Ferrari.
It makes to upcoming few months all the more difficult with their design team having to work on car without its main designer.
Although their current position in the championship is similar to where they were this time last year, they’ve effectively been eclipsed by Mercedes, with McLaren having dropped out of the ‘big four’.
While that may not be so disappointing in itself, it’s more the internal progress, or lack of it, that Lotus has made.
Throughout last year it was frequently highlighted that if their one lap pace was addressed, the car would be infinitely more capable of fighting for the podium much more easily, and even for the win.
This year the theme of the season has been much the same, an indictment on Lotus’ ability to fix what’s wrong.
Raikkonen, when weighing up his decision, will be looking specifically at these points as an indicator of the current Lotus’ outfit ability to compete for the title.
Taking into account that he’ll be 34 years of age come season’s end, the Finn knows that there aren’t a whole lot of years left to add to his solitary 2007 World Championship.
That’s perhaps where Lotus’ through challenge for the rest of the season lies. Without Raikkonen, this car would be receiving a severe disservice.
Raikkonen’s challenge is to attack all the races with everything he’s got. 38 points isn’t an insurmountable lead, not based on recent performance where the E21 has been able to match the RB9 in performance terms.
To do this, however, it comes back to the same thing again and again. Qualifying.
Raikkonen was put to some shame in Hungary when Grosjean was in the fight for pole and he wasn’t.
It seems Raikkonen inevitably encounters something problem or another during qualifying, whether it be tyre temperature, understeer or oversteer. In the end it’s just not good enough for these problems to continue to crop up.
These are issues that should be dealt with during the ample Free Practice time, and needs to be for the Finn to have a better crack at qualifying.
Grosjean showed at the Hungaroring that the Lotus, as it stands, certainly has capability to competently fight for the win when starting from a solid grid position. Although he couldn’t follow through, it was more due to driver than car.
If Raikkonen could do what Grosjean did in Hungary, then the championship certainly is a realistic prospect.
With Lewis Hamilton’s win in Hungary, his championship hopes have been widely depicted to have soared to near equal status with Sebastian Vettel.
Fernando Alonso has been seemingly cast aside due to his underperforming Ferrari.
Kimi Raikkonen is perhaps a forgotten man when it comes to the championship contenders. If Lotus are able to improve a car that is currently strong podium contender, then Raikkonen will certainly take a few wins a many more podiums in the remaining races.
When I comes to Grosjean, who knows what he could do. The way his season has gone, he could win a race, or he cause a horrendous crash in the first lap. You just never know with the Frenchman.