The modern-day Team Lotus was left celebrating arguably its most convincing performance in F1 to-date following qualifying for this weekend's 2011 Malaysian Grand Prix at Sepang, with Heikki Kovalainen and Jarno Trulli getting to within spitting distance of the sport's midfield runners.
It was always Lotus' stated ambition this season to mix it with the midfield, but in the Australian Grand Prix curtain-raiser in Melbourne a fortnight ago, there was scant evidence of any step forward at all over the winter months, with myriad issues with the new T128 resulting in no discernible improvement in pace compared to the end of last year.
The Anglo/Malaysian outfit vowed to fight back and show its true colours on 'home' turf in Kuala Lumpur, though, and in lapping only around a second shy of the likes of Force India F1, Williams, Sauber and Scuderia Toro Rosso – and at one stage both even featuring up inside the top ten – that is precisely what Messrs. Kovalainen and Trulli did, even if their final positions of 19th and 20th respectively did not necessarily truly reflect the progress made.
“That was a great session for us, and I'm really pleased with how we've performed,” enthused the Finn. “After yesterday, I didn't really know what to expect going into today's sessions, but the guys have done a great job to give me a car that is totally different to yesterday. As soon as I went out on-track this morning, I could feel there was a huge improvement in every area and we have had no reliability issues at all today, so I was able to really push.
“I've enjoyed the whole day, and I felt like I was able to get the best out of the car on all the runs. There's still a bit more to come, so I think tomorrow will be a really interesting race for us, particularly when you see how close we are to the midfield and with the pace we know the car has in race trim.”
“Today's performance is obviously a lot more positive for the whole team,” concurred his Italian team-mate, just over a tenth of a second further back. “We had no issues with the car in either session, and I think we got pretty close to showing what the car can really do. FP3 was very useful, and we have also taken some good data from qualifying itself as we tried to get the best out of the car.
“The plan for tomorrow is to keep consistent and reliable, take our chances when they come and be there at the end. It is a long and very hot race where anything can happen, but I think we are ready for it, so let's see how it goes.”
Indeed, having scarcely been ahead of F1 2010 nemesis Virgin Racing around the streets of Albert Park, at Sepang, Kovalainen and Trulli were able to put clear air to the tune of some two seconds between themselves and Timo Glock and Jérôme d'Ambrosio. Now, asserts team principal Tony Fernandes, the only way is up.
“Words cannot express how happy and overjoyed I am,” confessed the ebullient AirAsia founder. “To see 18 months of hard work come good with us finishing within a couple of tenths of teams that have been around for a long time, and less than a second away from the midfield pack, that is an amazing achievement! It is made even more satisfying after what has been a pretty hard winter test programme, taking on the issues we have been working through and, honestly, not a great start to the season – but this is a great feeling.