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 J?r?me 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.

"Both Heikki and Jarno know there's more to come from the car, and we feel good about the race this weekend. The aim is to keep our reliability and bring two cars home. I am really proud of the team, particularly after such a hard winter, so I take my hat off to every single one of them for keeping up the progress and helping us reach where we are today."

"A very, very good day for the team," concurred chief technical officer Mike Gascoyne, "however, we are left feeling a little disappointed, because we felt we had a real chance of getting into Q2. We had no problems on the cars at all today, which meant we were able to show the true level of performance that we had seen in winter testing, and ultimately we were very close to Q2 on merit. The drivers did a great job, and the whole team has worked very hard to turn everything around from yesterday and from Melbourne.

"On Heikki's last run he made a couple of small mistakes and we could have been even closer but, looking at the positives, we are all looking forward to the race tomorrow. Tyre degradation will be very important here - it will be an interesting Sunday for the whole grid, and at last we have a car with which we can go and take the fight to the midfield."

"That was a much more solid performance from the whole team, particularly compared to Melbourne, where we were not able to show the true pace of the car," summarised Renault Sport F1 support leader, Thierry Salvi. "The improvements are very encouraging for us, and I think seeing it here at Sepang is particularly pleasing as it is tough on everyone's engines, so for us that goes down as a good day.

"We have looked strong all day, especially in qualifying, and I think we have found improvements in a number of areas that have contributed to the step forward - cooling, engine-mapping and the car behaviour in general. I think this is a good result all-round."