Lotus Renault GP suffered what it described as a 'dramatic' opening day's practice at Sepang ahead of this weekend's Malaysian Grand Prix, following suspension failures on the cars of both Nick Heidfeld and Vitaly Petrov.
The incidents occurred during the morning FP1 session in Kuala Lumpur. First, Heidfeld encountered what seemed initially to be a brake-locking problem, having to drive practically a whole lap back to the pits with his right front brakes locked on and a damaged tyre. Shortly afterwards, Petrov found himself pitched into the gravel trap following what appeared to be a spectacular brake failure, leaving the 26-year-old with a broken right front wheel and suspension.
However, following careful analysis, the issues were subsequently found to have occurred due to a defective batch of front suspension uprights – and once the batch had been changed in time for the afternoon's FP2 running, the remainder of the day passed far more serenely.
“[It was] a bit dramatic,” confirmed Lotus Renault GP team principal Eric Boullier, assuring that the two R31s are now safe. “We had a couple of failures this morning on the uprights on the cars. First, we thought it was a brake problem, [but it was] very difficult to understand and to have a proper diagnosis. It took us a lot of time to investigate properly, obviously as it is a safety issue.
“We found out that the two failures were coming from the same batch, so we had a back-up plan and we took the decision to run [a different batch] and it went okay. We suspect very strongly that we had heat treatment or a materials issue because it is the same design, everything is the same except it was a new part from a new batch. That's it – sh*t can happen, unfortunately.”
The Frenchman added that with a range of new parts on the car this weekend, 'the lack of track time is not helping us to understand the balance, so we still have a lot to think about tonight and to work on tomorrow morning' – and both the Enstone-based outfit's chief engineer Alan Permane and technical director James Allison concurred that the twin failures have left the team on the back foot somewhat and with much still to do before qualifying and the race.
“It was difficult to learn anything today,” rued Permane. “The issues this morning limited our mileage in both sessions, and it's difficult to draw too many conclusions. Due to the lack of running, neither driver was able to make much progress with their set-up programmes, and we have a lot of work to do to improve the handling.”
“Both Vitaly and Nick suffered failures under braking in the front uprights early in the first session,” added Allison. “As a precaution, we stopped running the cars until we had understood the problem. We quickly established that the two failed items had come from the same material batch, and that nothing from this batch had run prior to today.
“It took a little longer to rule out other potential causes, but once we were confident that the failures were related to a material problem, we released the cars for the second half of afternoon practice where they ran without problem.”