Lotus technical director Nick Chester is a man with much to do after a tough start to the 2014 F1 season, but he remains optimistic that the Enstone squad can turn its fortunes around before too long.
Although deputy team principal Federico Gastaldi urges caution when talking about the possibility of returning to the podium before the end of the year [ see separate story
], Chester is keen to focus on what the current car has to offer once its early-season foibles are sorted.
Lotus has yet to score a point through the first three races, with Romain Grosjean coming closest with eleventh place in Malaysia, and ongoing gremlins continued to hamper both the Frenchman and team-mate Pastor Maldonado in post-Bahrain testing last week, as the pair combined for just 32 laps in two days. Chester, however, remains optimistic that the squad can turn itself around, starting at next weekend's Chinese Grand Prix.
“I think we've got a lot more to learn about the E22 than the other teams [have with their cars],” he emphasised, “We learn something every time the car takes to the track, with every lap. We've also got some aerodynamic developments that should be interesting to evaluate for China, when we are hoping for a bit more out of the power unit as well, both reliability and pace wise.
“The E22 has tremendous potential, even if we are only gradually unlocking it. In the Bahrain Grand Prix, we were closer to Mercedes, Williams and McLaren than we have been previously. Our race-pace gap to the Williams and McLaren is now half a second and it was over a second in Sepang, so we've made a decent incremental improvement.
“Although we were still not quick enough in Bahrain, we actually don't need to find much more performance before we can be regularly in the points, which when you consider where we started from, is encouraging. We are about level with Toro Rosso for pace at the moment. Were it not for the safety car incident in Bahrain, Pastor would have been fighting for our first point. That's not where we want to be, but we're on the edge of the points during what are still very early days for the E22.”
Admitting the ongoing problems with the Renault-supplied power unit continues to the team's biggest bugbear, Chester also conceded that Lotus needs to raise its game on a Saturday afternoon.
“Our qualifying pace hasn't been on the same level to our race pace,” he acknowledged, “We made quite a bit of progress during Bahrain, getting quicker during each session. In Q2, a further 1.2 seconds would have put us fourth, rather than 16th. We know we are still at a very early stage with the E22 – more so than our rivals – and there are clear areas where we know the performance can be extracted.
“We're working very closely with Renault Sport F1 to understand why we have faced so many challenges [and], clearly, we all want to put reliability concerns behind us so we can focus on performance and showing our true pace. [The relative lack of track time] means you have to prioritise what parts to evaluate, so we've had to adapt our programme for China because of this. We're going to attempt to get as much as we can out of FP1 and FP2 in Shanghai to test new parts, but ultimately we've delayed the introduction of some key developments until Barcelona now.”
Amongst those changes will be a focus on the shape of the car, with changes expected over the next two race weekends.
“There are quite a few areas [to be addressed],” he confirmed, “Partly because of how immature the car is, we haven't managed to evaluate all the performance capabilities we want to yet. The big areas I would say are braking, aero and the power unit.
“We have a lot of aero parts we want to evaluate throughout the E22, including an evolution to our nose. Expect to see some bodywork upgrades in China and then a bigger upgrade in Barcelona.
“[China] should be better [for us] than Bahrain. Bahrain was an obvious power circuit, as you could see from the way the cars lined up on the grid. China's got a long back straight, however there are more slow and medium speed corners than Bahrain, so that gives us the chance to try and get closer to the front.”