Lotus Racing founder and team principal Tony Fernandes was scarcely able to conceal his emotion and delight after Heikki Kovalainen took advantage of McLaren-Mercedes' and Ferrari's woes during qualifying for this weekend's Malaysian Grand Prix at Sepang to put the home heroes through to Q2 in only their third-ever race at the highest level.
With some of the sport's 'grandees' getting it spectacularly wrong in Q1 in Kuala Lumpur – wagering, ill-advisedly as it would transpire, that the track would dry man out when it in fact only got wetter – the door was left open for some of the lesser-fancied runners to shine, and Kovalainen did not waste his opportunity.
The last man to make it through to the second phase of the session, the Finn went on to outpace Virgin Racing rival Timo Glock to annex a superb 15th spot on the starting grid. Team-mate Jarno Trulli, meanwhile, was left lamenting his ill-fortune after missing out by an agonising nine thousandths of a second after outpacing Kovalainen all weekend only to encounter a spinning car across his bows on his fastest effort in Q1.
“I'm so pleased!” enthused the man from Suomussalmi. “I really like these conditions – it's very hard to judge your speed and you really have to take some risks, and all the time you're feeling like you might lose the car, but that's the challenge and I love it! On some parts of the track it was very wet and raining hard, and on others it wasn't so much.
“Getting to Q2 really exceeds expectations for me and the whole team – yes of course we've been a little bit lucky today for sure, but it means we beat the other new teams, again! Although we were lucky, we played our strategy just right; if you look at the McLarens and Ferraris, they didn't think it was going to rain that much and look what happened. They missed their window at the beginning of the session and we took full advantage of it. Now I can't wait to race tomorrow!”
“It was disappointing because I was doing very well,” countered a phlegmatic Trulli. “Unfortunately, on my quickest lap a car spun in front of me, which impeded me through the second and third sector so I couldn't close my fast lap – and then the rain was getting worse, so there was no chance to improve on lap time. Still, we'll do our best tomorrow and we'll see what happens.”
Notwithstanding the experienced Italian's frustrations, 15th and 18th for the Anglo/Malaysian effort – and on home turf into the bargain – represents another significant milestone for Lotus Racing, and confirms the progress that is slowly but surely being made. With the team's beaming faces afterwards lighting up the thundery Sepang sky, Fernandes now has the next goal in his sights – Red Bull 'B' team Scuderia Toro Rosso.
“I'm speechless!” confessed the AirAsia entrepreneur. “What a day! To get 15th place in our home country and in front of our home crowd is amazing. I'm over-the-moon and just so excited! We gave the Toro Rossos a run for their money today and Jarno was just unfortunate to get blocked, otherwise he'd have been in Q2 as well. Tomorrow's another day and we'll see what happens, but it's a good step forward. Today we'll enjoy it, we'll live for the day and we'll see what happens tomorrow.”
“Obviously we're all very, very pleased to get a car into Q2,” corroborated chief technical officer Mike Gascoyne, “and Heikki did a tremendous job to get us there! I'm disappointed for Jarno as he got traffic on the lap that would have got him in.
“I think we got all the calls on the tyres right on the pit wall, and in Q2 we ran the whole session on intermediates, which was clearly the thing to do. We made a change five minutes before the end, and Heikki got in a good clear lap to get P15. Well done to the whole team – and especially to Tony, for such success at one of our two home races – I know he's very, very proud.”