Lotus must make the most of its early advantage
For most of his career it's been impossible to read anything into Kimi Raikkonen's body language. He's built a brand around his cool demeanour, but after winning the Australian Grand Prix it was safe to say he was genuinely happy, and with good reason.
It was the 20th victory of his career but that milestone may not have even registered with Raikkonen, for what he's really excited about is being in a front-running car. "The team worked very well and we had a good plan, and we follow the plan and it work out perfectly for us," he said after the race. "I could save the tyres and I could go fast if I needed and I could really drive very easily." What more do you need to make a racing driver happy?
But can that happiness last a whole season? The Albert Park circuit in temperatures below 20C is not really representative of the rest of the F1 calendar. It is essentially a street circuit, with a smooth surface and few high-speed corners. It's clear that the current generation of Pirellis are very sensitive to their environment and, despite his brilliance, Raikkonen's victory was all about understanding the tyres in the rather unusual conditions.
Although Lotus has undoubtedly got a head start with its understanding of the tyres, judging by past seasons it won't take too long for its rivals to catch up. Given a hot and dry track like Sepang next weekend, its rivals should start learning very quickly.
"We weren't in the optimum window with the tyres," Red Bull team principal Christian Horner admitted on Sunday. "For whatever reason we were just a bit off on set-up and on the tyres for these conditions. It was fairly apparent from lap four or five that Seb [Vettel] got a good start and built up the lead that we wanted, but then it was quite clear that the car was pretty heavy on the tyre and that forced us to go down the route of a three-stop. I think the conditions were a significant factor today and we were just out of the window.
"Kimi was the only driver/car combination that could make a two-stop really work and it was quite obvious from half distance that was what they were doing. And just to emphasise that point he did a fastest lap on old tyres that we couldn't have dreamt of going anywhere near. I think we've learned quite a lot this weekend and I don't think it will be a chilly next weekend."
Vettel demonstrated during Sunday morning qualifying that the Red Bull is clearly still one of the fastest cars on the grid over one lap. If what Horner is saying is true - that Red Bull simply gambled on warmer temperatures with its set-up and lost - then Lotus will have to up its game over one lap to stay in the running, and team principal Eric Boullier knows it.
"It was a strange weekend when I'm not sure everybody could put the correct setup on the car, especially for the race," he said. "Next weekend let's see if we have a normal weekend. I'm sure it's going to be a bit tougher."
However, while Vettel excelled in qualifying but struggled in the race, Raikkonen had the opposite problem and qualified seventh. However, he thinks there was plenty of unlocked potential in the Lotus at Albert Park during qualifying.
"I was pretty disappointed after the qualifying," he said. "Obviously there was only one lap really on the dries and I took it a bit too easy and got a bit of a small mistake in one corner. It was more timing and getting it right than really the maximum speed from all the cars."
The new tyres seem to have exaggerated the strengths and weaknesses of the front-running teams from last year, with the exception of McLaren which has opted for the biggest overhaul in its chassis design and got lost along the way. Red Bull looks even more dominant on one lap than last year, but the Lotus, which was always good at preserving its tyres in 2012, has stretched its advantage in race conditions. Last season Lotus came close to winning in Bahrain and Hungary by playing to this strength but didn't quite have the edge it needed. This year the new rubber might just make the difference, at least while it is still being fully understood at the early rounds.
"We saw it last year already, if you remember, a couple of times towards the end of the race we caught up with the leader because we had a different strategy or the car was better on tyres," Boullier pointed out. "We worked very hard that to keep the strengths of last year's car while improving the weaknesses and it's true that, with the 2013 tyres that degrade a bit more, it has put us in a better position.
"I remember sitting having a chat with my engineers and we were saying that for many years the tyres were just black and made of rubber and you put them on the car and you do 100 laps. Now tyres are a very important component on the car because they are degrading and wearing and you have to consider this and it's good we did it."
What Lotus has to do now is make use of its tyre advantage before the others catch up. They will be helped by Pirelli's decision to be more aggressive with compound choices this year but they can't rely on it. The focus will have to be on improving qualifying pace to make sure that by the time Red Bull and the rest have caught up they have a car capable of starting from the front. In Raikkonen they have a driver capable of taking advantage of the situation but the team knows it does not have the resources of its well-heeled rivals. Boullier has confirmed it has the same operating budget as last year, but it will have to spend wisely to remain a contender over the long, 19-race season.
"There was a big question mark last year in our team whether we can keep up with the bigger teams," Raikkonen said in the press conference. "Of course it's not going to be easy for us. I'm sure we have the people, all the tools to make it. The money is a big part of the thing. For sure we don't have the same budget as Ferrari or Red Bull or Mercedes but we could show last year that… we did pretty well on the money and the things we have. I have no doubt we have the people and the tools but of course if we get more money it will help and it will give us a better chance and more fair play against the bigger teams.
"If you do things right it will go nicely but one thing can change the whole year. You do a few things a little bit wrong it can turn around and go downhill after that. So we just have to do our normal things, like we did last year and put the good effort into new parts and if we're happy we keep them and if not we have to look more closely. But like I said, so far it has been good, so there is no reason why we can't keep it up."
So it's going to be tough for Lotus, although judging by Raikkonen's new-found enthusiasm (and possibly the longest answer he has ever given in a press conference) we can read that Lotus is definitely in with a shot at the title this year.