Even before Lewis Hamilton was excluded from Saturday's qualifying results, Lotus F1 was full of optimism for the Spanish Grand Prix. Now occupying row two of the grid with both its drivers, the Enstone team has its sights set higher.
Romain Grosjean had qualified in P4, with team-mate Kimi Räikkönen fifth fastest, prior to Hamilton's exclusion for contravening Article 6.6.2 of the FIA Formula One Technical Regulations at the end of the hour-long session, and the Briton's demotion to the back of the grid allows both black-and-gold cars to mass behind surprise polesitter Pastor Maldonado and home favourite Fernando Alonso.
Even before the race weekend, Lotus' 2-3 result in Bahrain and Grosjean's performance in testing at Mugello had many suggesting that he and Räikkönen could be dark horses for victory as F1 returned to Europe. Now, with their expected rivals starting behind them - Sebastian Vettel in seventh, Jenson Button tenth, Mark Webber eleventh and Hamilton dead last - the door is open wider than ever.
“Our long run pace yesterday looked good so we can be reasonably confident heading into the race," trackside operations director Alan Permane admitted, "Our target for today was to get both cars into the top six and we've got both in the top five, so let's try and exceed expectations once again tomorrow.”
A spot on row two, even before Hamilton's exclusion, was a tremendous result for Grosjean, who had been forced to miss the whole of Saturday morning practice when his car ground to a halt at turn seven without a time on the board.
“It was a good performance from the team, especially as I didn't run in FP3 because of a fuel pressure problem," the Frenchman agreed, "For the set-up, we went from what we'd found out yesterday and it worked pretty well. Everyone did a good job to get the car ready for qualifying, [and] we can be happy with what we have achieved. Of course, you always want more, but this is the result for today. I think that I could have been a little bit quicker, [but] not too much more."
With Grosjean admitting that managing tyre degradation would be key to the grand prix, even though both Lotus cars exhibited good long-run pace in practice, Permane said it would be interesting to see which team had come up with the optimum strategy for its rubber.
“Today went relatively smoothly for us, [although] having the hard and soft tyres as opposed to two compounds which sit alongside each other meant we had to approach qualifying differently as we all needed the softer tyre to progress through Q1, limiting the number of soft tyres available for the next two sessions," he explained, "We saw different approaches to this; we'll have to see in the race whose was correct.
“We used three sets of soft tyres to go through qualifying, but we have two new
sets of the harder compound [for the race]. We are very flexible on tyre strategy for tomorrow and we'll be spending a lot of time now looking at all the possible permutations. There's certainly no clear solution shouting out at us at this stage, so we have a lot of number crunching to do. We'll be starting both cars on scrubbed soft tyres [but], after that, it is still to be decided.”