Lotus Racing closed the gap on its more established Formula One rivals in both final practice and qualifying at the Monaco Grand Prix, and dragged rival Virgin Racing with it.
Although they failed to make the cut, both Heikki Kovalainen and Jarno Trulli finished the opening phase of qualifying less than a second behind Kamui Kobayashi's Sauber, making good on the performance they had produced in Saturday morning's final practice session. The day had started well with Kovalainen finishing the hour-long session under three seconds from the leading cars, despite not running the option tyres due to a gearbox issue that curtailed his final run. At the end of qualifying, the Finn - who spun twice in his effort to close the gap - wound up 18th, one place ahead of team-mate Trulli and firmly at the head of the new teams.
"The first run was very good so, on the second run, I decided to go for it, take some risks and see what happened," Kovalainen reported, having held a place inside the top 17 for some time, "The gap to the next car was about 0.9secs so I thought, if I really nailed a lap we might break into Q2. But, to be really honest, it was a bit out of control, just going over the edge, and became untidy. In the end, however, I was able to put myself ahead of all the other new teams, so I think that's fine."
Trulli blamed a late set-up change - the result of losing a lot of track time on Thursday - for his performance, but admitted that he too was satisfied with the margin between Lotus and the teams ahead of tit.
"It was a good day out there for us," chief technical officer Mike Gascoyne confirmed, "We took another step forward in performance terms, showing in final practice and in qualifying that the upgrades we brought to the last race, combined with a good engine package, continue to help us close the gap to the teams ahead, this time to under three seconds.
"In qualifying, I think we did as well as we could have hoped for - Heikki put in a very strong lap early on, and Jarno did the same at the end of the session to take us further away from the other new teams, so I'm very pleased."
Despite Gascoyne's satisfaction, however, just a couple of tenths separated Trulli from Timo Glock in the leading Virgin car. The German had ground to a halt after only three laps in morning practice, but put his experience of Monaco to good use when it counted, benefiting from better reliability and pace from the VR-01. Traffic, as always at Monaco, was an issue but Glock improved on his second run after picking up space on the track.
“It is quite frustrating that I was only able to complete three laps in this morning's free practice session, because it meant that I had to go into qualifying blind," Glock lamented, "I was quite surprised about how close we were with Lotus, but then I felt my lap was really spot-on, with the car almost kissing the armco in places to get the best time possible.
"I'm pleased with my time and happy with the job I've done today but, as for the rest of the weekend, only some of that is in my hands now because, in Monaco, you never know what might happen. I'm optimistic for the race as our car looks better on heavy fuel, so we have to think about what we can do through the strategy and make the most of every opportunity. I think it's worth having a gamble here. We have Chris Ferguson, the professional poker player, with us for the race, so I might ask him which way we should roll the dice!”