An engine problem for Vitaly Petrov during qualifying for this weekend's Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai proved to be a double whammy for Lotus Renault GP, with the Russian's on-track breakdown bringing out the red flags and scuppering team-mate Nick Heidfeld's chances of a top ten grid slot into the bargain.
With the sleek R31 boasting the highest top speed of any of the cars in the field – a not insignificant benefit when you consider the Shanghai International Circuit's long back straight – Petrov and Heidfeld were looking in fine form indeed, and progressed comfortably through the opening Q1 phase of qualifying in second and eighth places respectively.
Undertaking only a single soft-tyred run each in Q2, Petrov had just completed his to slot into fourth place when the air supply to his engine was suddenly and unexpectedly cut off, causing a loss of power and resulting in the 26-year-old coasting to a halt out on the circuit, sending the red flags flying.
Worse still, it occurred just as Heidfeld had ventured out of the pits for his own effort, and when the session re-started with barely two minutes left on the clock, major traffic issues left the experienced German down in a lowly and unrepresentative 16th place, six spots behind Petrov. For a qualifying that could very well have yielded second or third row grid slots for the pair, to say that it was a frustrating outcome would be rather an understatement.
“I am very disappointed with what happened after having just completed a very fast lap which put me in fourth position at the end of Q2,” rued Petrov. “The car lost power, so I stopped on the side of the track. The track was getting quicker and my times were up from this morning – things were going very well – but because of the power failure, I couldn't move off the track and so that was the end of my qualifying. The positive thing is the car was looking fast, and I hope I can make up some ground tomorrow from P10 on the grid.”
“It's quite frustrating to be starting from P16, because I don't think it's a fair reflection of our pace,” concurred Heidfeld. “We were always going to do one run on the soft tyres in Q2, but the red flag made the last few minutes very busy. You really needed to be first in the queue at the end of the pit-lane, because there was not much time to get around and cross the line before the end of the session.
“I managed to do one final lap, but I was stuck in traffic and I couldn't get a clean lap. As I said, our race pace is definitely better than our grid position, but starting from P16 is not going to be easy. I think it's a track where you can overtake, though, so hopefully I can make a good start, like in the previous two races, and fight for points.”
Given that only a matter of days ago and buoyed by back-to-back rostrums in Australia and Malaysia, Lotus Renault GP managing director Eric Boullier had forecast of Shanghai that 'if we can have a clean weekend with both cars then hopefully we can be pushing for good points or even another podium' and technical director James Allison had predicted that allied to a few new aerodynamic tweaks for the R31, 'it's a circuit that should suit our car', P10 and P16 have left Petrov and Heidfeld with much to do on race day to fulfil the team's objectives – but the Enstone-based outfit's chief engineer Alan Permane remains confident both men can deliver.
“We are still investigating exactly what happened [with Petrov's car],” he explained. “It's clear that he lost power and the engine died. We believe the air supply to the engine was cut off. It couldn't be re-started and the car got stuck in gear, which is why he stopped on the track.