Despite being confined to the car with which he started his debut season in the top flight, Lucas di Grassi remains confident that the Virgin Racing team can close the gap on those ahead of them as the 2010 season progresses.
The Brazilian's rookie status means that team-mate Timo Glock will get the lone VR-01 to have been modified to accept a bigger fuel tank, but he is happy with the rate at which the team is settling in to life in F1, and coping with the demands of keeping pace with developments elsewhere. Although Virgin has not enjoyed the best of reliability records - indeed the Brazilian has the team's only recorded sighting of the chequered flag - it has shown the pace to trouble Lotus in practice and qualifying, and di Grassi is confident that moving forward will be possible before too long.
"I think our main competitor is Lotus," he told f1fanatic.co.uk
, "Hispania are a bit short on pace - they improved for China mainly because they're quite low on drag and were quick in a straight line - [while going] against Lotus depends on their new updates.
"I heard they have a second in upgrades, [but] we'll have a major step as well for this race, [although] I don't know how much it will be worth. But we know we have a lot of margin to improve the car, there's a lot of things we can do to make the car better and each of these steps are not hundredths or even tenths but half-second steps. So I believe we can close the gap to the middle-range teams by the end of the year, and especially for next year. For this year, Virgin can be the best of the new teams as soon as we sort out these little issues."
The poor reliability record has to be Virgin's primary focus, di Grassi admits, although ensuring that the VR-01 can finish races on the fuel load it can carry has been a priority since returning from the 'flyaway' races.
"I think the priority is reliability, [and] it's something that's completely out of my hands," he noted, "We've finished one race out of eight starts so far - [and] six of them were [due to] reliability problems, one was Timo crashing. So our biggest problem is reliability and fixing that, or at least making it better, would be an improvement.
"Then, the second part for here, is fuel saving. If we have a safety car, or if we have rain, it makes it possible to finish the race without fuel saving. The problem was not only the size of the tank, but fuel pick-up as well. That meant we had to finish the race with some fuel left over. I will be getting [the bigger tank being run by Glock in Spain] after Monaco, but some of the updates can be put on this car, some aero stuff and some reliability improvements.
"I think our main aim is to finish the race again, as we did in Malaysia. I'm the only guy in the team who has finished a race, and that was the toughest one of all because there was no safety car, so it was a clean race from start to finish. [But] we've also had to run it heavy in qualifying, especially for me because I'm about seven kilos heavier than Timo. We're not able to get down to the weight limit so far, so that's costing us performance in qualifying and the race. Our difference in weight is worth about two tenths every single time, and this is the biggest thing we're working on, together with the reliability."
di Grassi also had the disadvantage of trying to develop his VR-01 while also learning the circuits used for the first four rounds, but is now on more familiar territory as the F1 season returns to Europe.
"You lose a little bit of a session to learn the track but I think, from here on, if I continue to develop myself in such a way, I will be more comfortable in the car every time and more able to get the best out of the car," he noted, "I really like Monaco and I really like Istanbul - but it's so different in F1 compared to GP2. The last half a second is all about getting everything right on the set-up, getting the differential correct. And, in qualifying, you have only one lap and that's it. It helps to be on a familiar circuit, but it's more important for me to get used to F1."