When Robert Kubica and Vitaly Petrov pulled off the covers to reveal the new Lotus Renault R31 back on a cold January morning in Valencia, a media frenzy ensued. Not only was the chassis adorned in the wonderfully iconic black and gold colour scheme used by the Team Lotus of the 1980s, a revolutionary exhaust scheme and a driver at the peak of his powers hinted at fighting it out with the likes of Red Bull, McLaren and Ferrari and even race wins.
Less than a week later, the team's season was thrown into disarray when a serious Rally crash not only put Kubica out for the season, it also threatened his career. If this was not bad enough, an FIA u-turn on regulations governing exhaust systems and a closure of Renault's wind tunnel meant that the pre-season euphoria had evaporated within a mere handful of races. The black and gold R31, it appeared, had run over a black cat.
For Renault majority shareholder and Genii Capital chairman Gerard Lopez, the challenge of overcoming such obstacles is what has made him such a successful entrepreneur. Lopez talked exclusively to ESPNF1 about the season so far and how he hopes to turn Renault's fortunes around.
Looking back to the start of the season, how much of a setback to your preparations was Robert Kubica's untimely injury and the Team Lotus vs. Group Lotus naming saga?
Well I definitely think Robert's injury certainly disrupted the pre-season and certainly part of the start of the season but the naming dispute I have to say was really not disruptive to our season or our position, it was more of an issue between the car company (Group Lotus) and the other team. Legally speaking we're not in a position to fight in the fact that we have no legal hold on the Lotus name or the brand. The only issue we ever had was about the colouring of the car but other than that we never really had a situation.
How is Robert's rehabilitation going and does the team have any regrets letting him pursue his Rally interests?
I think it's going well. Obviously it's a tough battle for him but if anybody can come back it's him. Unfortunately it's not Robert's first big accident. We know about his mental strength but we'll have to see how long the physical side will recover. I think he's going to be okay and hopefully we'll see him in a Formula One car again although I don't think that will happen this season. I'm sure he has regrets at Rallying but that doesn't do anything for you, it's all about focusing on coming back.
Despite Robert's injury, Nick Heidfeld has seemed to fit into the team well as a replacement and is marginally ahead of Vitaly albeit by two points. How would you evaluate the performance of your drivers?
I'm happy with Nick's pre-season in terms of helping develop the car and the complications that come with that. I'm happy with his first part of the season but not totally happy with his leadership and performing within the team. We brought Nick in because he's a much more experienced driver than Vitaly and he did a very good job with the podium in Malaysia but he has not consistently been what we would want from an experienced driver like him. Vitaly is maturing exactly the way we expected him to and except for a couple of bad races his performances have been pretty consistent and he has qualified in the top ten pretty much everywhere except for two races and scored a podium in the first race. He's only one and a half seasons into Formula One and with him we still expect some important growth. He has shown that he still has quite a way to go and has quite a bit in him still in terms of race craft, managing traffic and so on. But that comes with experience and I think he can add a couple of notches to where he should be.
You're currently fifth in the standings, where you finished last year. Are you behind schedule in your expectations of where you expected to be?
We are behind in our expectations, there's no question about that. We have had a number of variables that have played against us. To start with, we had to shut down the tunnel at a time when we were doing most of the in-season development to increase the scale of the wind tunnel from fifty to sixty per cent and we had to do it at that moment in time because we had to get ready to start the programming of the new car so essentially we had no choice. We couldn't sacrifice the new car so we probably sacrificed performance in the middle of the season but that was the only decision we could make. Secondly, we developed the car completely around the exhaust system and we couldn't imagine the impact that the switching back and forth of the regulations had for us. It was one of our key differential factors and development factors and we were hit quite hard by the switch in regulations. So those were the factors that accounted for a big part of our performance loss. Fortunately, it is measurable so you can pinpoint why you lost performance. There are a lot of regrets but at least you can tell why you fell behind! In terms of true development, what is interesting is that we increased the output of the wind tunnel, the CFD and the bodyshop compared to last year although is hasn't shown on the track so far. The third variable, pretty much at the same time we fell behind in terms of performance, was the fact that our drivers didn't perform and didn't compensate for the loss in performance. The combination of those factors meant that we went from being able to race from third or fourth to now being fifth and having to bring it all back together and challenge for fourth in the championship, which isn't going to be easy as Mercedes have made big steps forward.
What have the new regulations done to spice up proceedings this year? Are you a fan of the DRS system and Pirelli tyres?
I think you have to strike a balance in what's optimum for the fans and what is manageable for the team. As long as safety is guaranteed for the drivers, that's the most important thing, as it is in any sport. I think the fans have seen very exciting races, maybe too exciting with some of them in terms of even the fans losing track of who is leading given the different pit stop strategies. I think there comes a point where even for the fans it becomes too much and no longer enjoyable. But we really haven't reached that point that often and only had one race that was really out of control due to many factors. But speaking from a fan's perspective it's exciting and good for the sport. My second point is that I think we have now reached the absolute maximum of what a driver can do during a lap and they have a lot more variables to manage. I think we have to re-think that angle and be careful not to overdo it. We are close enough to a balance between spectator sport and manageable sport from a team's perspective. Adding or taking off DRS or switching to certain tyres are small things for spectators who get used to having them or not having them. To a team, it represents a complete re-think of processes and strategies and represents a huge impact. From a sporting regulations perspective the sport should now live in an area that is as stable as possible for the future.
You have Bruno Senna as test driver this season, would you like to see a relaxation of the test ban for 2012?
Well yes. We know Bruno from his GP2 days and he was a proven performer and race winner. Last year he was with HRT so it was difficult to judge where his level was. With the test ban we can't really find out what a driver holds but he's certainly a very popular guy and a smart guy so he fits the assets of test driver quite well although there is not as much testing as he would like.
How do you see the future of the sport regarding the current economic crisis and commitment of sponsors going forward?
I've said it before, it's still the pinnacle of motorsport and carries a lot of interest for a lot of industries, especially the emerging countries that were never really in Formula One and have never been exposed to the levels of technical knowhow and performance. That provides perhaps a partial offset. In terms of the historical f1 countries, it is true that the economies are struggling and any sport or any entertainment usually struggles if the economy is struggling. But as far as the sport being healthy, I think the viewership went up again quite considerable last year. I can't speak from a financial perspective about CVC Capital but I would venture it's healthy. From a team's perspective it's challenging now and I think it will be challenging ahead and I think the teams need to embrace new economies and new markets. To me, the US is a new market because Formula One has never really broken into the US and we have a huge responsibility to try to have F1 penetrate the market because to this day it is still the largest consumer of professional sports in the world and there are all sorts of revenues around sport. Even soccer has made it into the big time now in the US and I think Formula One has a place and we all need to work to make that market and other emerging markets help us offset the general feeling.
Renault appears to be committed to the sport in the long term and is supplying engines to yet another team in Williams next year. Is there any disadvantage to you?
The engines have reached a point in development in being frozen and I think that anything that could be done has been done with the engines and in terms of fuel consumption and reliability you almost don't see too much of a difference. So I think that with having a standardised engine approach and distributing it the engine side of things is not an issue any more. The only issue is gearbox and KERS system and we still maintain a very strong relationship with Renault in the sense that we develop part of the KERS that they provide to the customers and we develop our own gearbox. And we have historical ties as some of these people have been working together for 15 years or so. We're not jealous and it's good for Renault that they are supplying Williams and it's probably good for Williams too. But to be honest, with the way engines are frozen, I don't think the gain is whether you have a Renault or Cosworth engine. The gain is with the future engine and Renault have proven they can develop engines although they're not the only ones!
The current team structure also seems pretty settled. How good a job is Eric Boullier doing and what has Sir Jackie Stewart brought in with his new advisory role?
Eric is exactly what we expected, someone who just gets on and gets the job done without making a lot of waves and is certainly an antidote to what we had before, which is a good thing. I think Sir Jackie is an amazing person and the amazing thing about him is he combines two qualities that few people have. He is an unbelievable stickler for detail but at the same time he has a very good view of the big picture which means that he applies detail to strategy and strategy to detail and makes a great advisor and great ambassador. I have to say that he collaborates with us quite a bit on the Genii side on business and on the team he is there to support and see things that perhaps other people won't see. But most importantly he is there to share experience and he has been a great addition to our family.
Belgium is up next, which is one of the drivers' favourites and a good test of the car. What are your hopes for there and indeed the rest of the season? Have you set a timeline for race wins?
For us it's going to be essentially one of the moments of truth because we've collected everybody together, learned what happened over the last races, put our heads down and essentially come up with what we believe to be a package that is competitive again. In Spa we will find out whether we are competitive or not and for us the tension is going to be high because the expectations are going to be high again and we should be able to deliver. Anything that is not delivering is going to be seen as a failure by the team and all of its components. What happened over the last races is that we never panicked because we were able to measure and identify what went wrong. A lot went on behind closed doors at the factory and this race coming up should be a result of that group of people trying to get things right. With the car we had at the beginning of the season, without the issues with the exhaust system and the wind tunnel and with Robert Kubica in the seat, I still believe our objectives of winning races were entirely achievable. We were thrown a couple of curve balls which obviously led to us not achieving what we expected. We still stand firm by the fact that we do want to be one of the front running teams and that includes race wins. In Formula One you need to look forwards not backwards and at the beginning of the season we thought we were capable of shooting for third but with the variables working against us, fourth has to be what we are trying to fight for. It's not going to be easy as Mercedes has made a big jump in terms of performance but we will try to make it happen.
And what of the championship in general? Who do you see as this year's champions?
McLaren probably thinks the same thing as we do that they can win the title just as we can get fourth and giving up on that would be giving up on Formula One. I wouldn't write off someone like Fernando but if anyone, be it Jenson, Lewis or Fernando makes a jump forward with the performance of the car and for some reason that jump is considerable then the championship is for them to fight for and win but if it stays the way as it is now then it looks like the championship will to go to Vettel and Red Bull.