Team by team previews: Lotus
The rebranded Renault team is looking to bounce back strongly from a tough end to the year in 2011 — so with a top-line driver and a car that looks tidy, fast and reliable, what can they hope to achieve?
The target for 2012 will be to retain fifth place but after some promising testing form (despite a major setback which cost them crucial running) several factors suggest those aspirations could be raised higher.
Last year, this team was missing a front-line driver after Robert Kubica suffered a rally accident before the season began. The loss of his technical feedback and his driving talent to push the car to its limits hit them even harder when Nick Heidfeld, who was expected to be a strong replacement alongside Vitaly Petrov, flopped badly and was ultimately dropped for rookie Bruno Senna.
This year, it's all change — and while a stable line-up has its benefits, it's hard to argue with the team's decision to bring Kimi Raikkonen back to F1 and draft in talented Frenchman Romain Grosjean alongside — and on paper, at least, the potential is strong.
Raikkonen, a world champion and 18-times race winner, left F1 under a cloud after being criticised for his lack of commitment at Ferrari but he's looked a man back to his best in testing, focused on both technical development and, importantly, his relationship with the media.
Much of this season depends on the performance of the Finn, who topped the testing times on his first day back. One simple but crucial element will be how his driving style suits the Pirelli tyres, while the other will be his mental approach, which is why it is important to nurture a support that pumps up his confidence rather than knocking it down.
Grosjean, meanwhile, should benefit from the focus on Raikkonen to allow him to develop his potential further, more than two years after his first foray into F1.
The Frenchman made his debut for the team, then known as Renault, in place of Nelson Piquet junior in 2009 and while he didn't disappoint, he didn't set the world alight either.
That debut, however, came far too early and at the wrong time just after the Singapore race-fixing scandal. Now, as a GP2 champion, he has much more experience and could spring a surprise. If he can get close to Raikkonen, it will be interesting to see how that affects the dynamics in the team.
STRONG CAR POTENTIAL
Last year's car was entirely based on an innovative front-blown exhaust system, which was focused on maximising the blown diffuser concept — and when off-throttle exhaust blowing was banned mid-season, it effectively made the entire layout redundant.
Two podiums at the start of the season had shown the concept could have been a success if the ban had not been brought in, but with limited development potential due to the restrictions in the second half of the year the team was quickly overhauled by their rivals, with Force India almost chasing down the advantage and stealing fifth.
Lotus kept hold of their position by a narrow margin — and in truth that fifth place is representative of a natural order, with their budgets and personnel not as big as the four in front of them (Red Bull, McLaren, Ferrari and Mercedes) but larger than the team close behind (Force India).
If money talks — as it tends to - over the course of 20 races, the resources should shake out to determine the natural order and only innovation can shuffle the pack.
Renault almost stole a march in that direction when they developed an innovative suspension for 2012 that maintained the ride-height under braking — improving the car's stability and making the aerodynamics work more consistently with less influence from pitch.
This aerodynamic boost, however, was determined an illegal advantage and, well into the development stages, the system was banned.
The blow to the technical plans was potentially of a similar level to that of Kubica's accident on driver plans for last year — and while the Renault still looks strong, that system could have helped them take that all-important innovative leap forward.
Despite the technical setback, the first pre-season test did well to demonstrate the team and its new line-up does have a real opportunity this year, topping the times on day one and finishing as the second-fastest new car on day four.
The car proved extremely reliable, running 404 laps over the four days, and trackside reports suggested it was a good, stable and predictable car.
But then it all went wrong, with a front suspension mounting issue forcing them to skip the second test and seek a quick redesign. Back on track for the final test, they managed just 43 laps due to steering problems on the first day and ended the pre-season with the lowest mileage tally of the 10 top teams.
That said, in one of the team's final race simulations at Barcelona the car still demonstrated strong pace and even suggested they might be faster than Ferrari on the long runs.
Raikkonen has reported good traction on the car — which will be important in Australia and on many of the mid-level aero tracks. And with Ferrari, even by their own accounts, set to fumble through the early stages of the season, the opportunity to snatch some early points could be vital for Lotus in the chase for fourth place.