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F1 2015 – Wildcards: Lotus’ Driver Pairing

Lotus E e

Lotus suffered a dire 2014 campaign. The team went into the season with a lot of doubt regarding their finances, despite enjoying two race wins with Kimi Raikkonen in 2012, and a vast amount of podium appearances for himself and Romain Grosjean over their two years as teammates.

In the midst of their financial crisis they lost a lot of key staff. The most high-profile loss being Raikkonen, who was followed by the teams technical director James Allison, the man who’d penned the cars that’d brought them their recent upturn in form. In January last year their team principal Eric Boullier also jumped ship to take a post at Mclaren.

The writing was on the wall, and the bleak financial situation at Lotus heralded the arrival of Pastor Maldonado, a one time race winner and more importantly for Lotus, a man who came with a huge sponsorship package courtesy of Venezuela’s national oil company, PDVSA.

Alongside Romain Grosjean, Maldonado would make up one of the most erratic driver pairings F1 has seen, with neither driver at the time holding a reputation for consistently finishing races, and often picking up penalties. So, how did they fare in the unreliable, underpowered, underfunded Lotus E22? And how shall they fare against each other in the Mercedes powered E23? Well, here are my thoughts.

Lotus E22
In 2012 Romain Grosjean was dubbed, “The first lap nutcase” due to his raft of retirements on the first or opening laps, and he looked unable to race wheel-to-wheel without incident. He was also handed a race ban after causing a terrifying multi-car shunt at turn 1 of the Belgian GP.

This problem appeared exaggerated alongside his teammate for the Season, Kimi Raikkonen, who went on the longest ever run of consecutive points finishes, a run that would carry on until Spa 2013, whilst making passes you’d barely imagine possible without contact.

But there was hope for Romain. He had proven he had the speed and potential to outrace his World Champion teammate, and a team principal who recognized his ability and his issues, which were addressed through the hiring of a sports psychologist. Despite his frequent crashes, Romain managed to score strong points finishes.

Spa T1
In 2013 he managed to largely shake his reputation as an erratic driver, and in the later half of the season really came on song with the changes to Pirelli’s tyre construction giving him an edge on most race days over almost everyone but runaway Championship winner, Sebastian Vettel.

His challenge for victory in Suzuka was, for me his biggest high of the season given how untouchable Seb had been in the Asian races with the Red Bull cars.

Over the season, he made several good, assertive yet fair passes without error and showed the world that when the car suited, he could consistently finish ahead of Kimi Raikkonen. To me, this was the season he had proven his credibility, shown an ability to grow and develop as a driver in the top flight and assert a discipline to his racing.

He still hasn’t taken his first win, but there’s a sense around Romain, that if opportunities arise to win races he is more than capable of taking them.

Grosjean Suzuka

Through the struggle of 2014 Romain secured 80% of Lotus’ meager 10 point total, with two eighth places; Spain and Monaco.

Now we turn out attention to Pastor Maldonado.

Pastor, like his teammate quickly earned himself a reputation for being a dangerous and error prone driver. When you look back over his time at Williams a few words jump out at you. Crashed, spun, penalty and the phrase, “involved in an incident”.

Then in the middle of all that carnage, there sits the fact that he won Williams’ first GP since Juan Pablo Montoya’s last win. Pastor’s win in the Spanish GP of 2012 has netted him more than 50% of his total points tally his now 4 years in the sport.

In 2014, Had Jean-Eric Vergne not crashed into Pastor’s teammate Grosjean in the closing stages of the race and received a time penalty for it, Romain would have scored 100% of Lotus’ points last season.

Pastor’s driving remains largely undisciplined, clumsy and erratic. He regularly beached the Lotus unaided in 2014, caused dangerous collisions and upon watching his onboards, even the one of his qualifying lap for Spain 2012 you can see the he drives with an extremely reactive style, as if the car is driving him and not the other way around. We have seen on one instance, however, that if the conditions are favourable and he doesn’t have to race wheel-to-wheel, Pastor can claim victory.

If I had to bet on one of these drivers to come out ahead of the other on points next season, 100% of the time I’d bet on Romain Grosjean. I’m sure with the Mercedes power unit, and a car that’s been built by a cohesive design team there will be far more points scoring opportunities for both drivers next season.

We’ve seen Romain develop a driving style over the years. He brakes late, and with an aggressive snap of the wheel he turns the nose in and picks up the throttle as soon as he can. There’s a discipline to this, an approach, which gives him a baseline to work from, allows him to generate speed and consistency.

Pastor on the other hand, every corner is an adventure. He’s been praised by his engineers for giving very good feedback regarding the car’s behaviour, but there’s no sign of him using this feel or understanding of the car to establish a workable approach to racing it.

Next season, if Lotus do see the upturn in form I expect from them, I also expect to see Romain consistently score points where he can, and for Maldonado to squander the opportunities through crashes and unforced errors.

Hopefully I’m wrong, and Pastor takes a look at how he’s approaches his racing as Romain did. This will be his 5th season, and if he doesn’t show signs of maturing out of his reckless ways I feel it’ll be the end of his career in the top flight of circuit racing.

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