When Lotus technical director Nick Chester announced this week that the Enstone outfit would not be attending Jerez it surprised me. A lot.
Normally, skipping the first test of the season would not be something to get too concerned about. Unwrapping the car ahead of the season at a later stage can be advantageous as it allows a few design features to be kept secret and developed further, blocking other teams from copying what could be an innovative performance solution sooner.
The first test is generally regarded as a ‘shake down’ anyway, so what’s all the fuss about? Jerez is often described as an unsuitable environment to go testing at: the track surface is unnaturally abrasive and the cold winter climate of Spain is not representative of the environments that the Formula 1 circus travels to.
However, such are the technical regulation changes that the teams are challenged with for 2014, any mileage will be absolutely crucial. The new power-units are a totally unknown quantity and so are the individual systems that each team must create to operate them.
Add into the equation an all-new aerodynamic package, electronically controlled brake bias and Pirelli’s 2014 specification tyres and you start to see why this should be a concerning matter.
Let’s not forget that Lotus did not attend the tyre test in Bahrain last month, where a variety of different specifications of tyre were put through their paces. Although the final 2014 specification tyre was not necessarily tested in Bahrain, the teams that attended will have amassed a very healthy sum of data to explore.
Pirelli will most certainly provide information to those teams as to which direction to take regarding compounds and structure. Although Lotus will receive some of this information, feedback and communication will be a fundamental process in designing the car around the tyres, so Lotus already have a disadvantage here.
Although many expect not to see too much action at the first test, being relatively close to home will be advantageous to both engine and chassis manufacturers. The engine technology is so new that we could be seeing a lot of inconsistent running, with plenty of system checks and back-to-back testing carried out on even the smallest, detail items. As the teams are all based within Europe, this allows for parts to be drafted in during the testing period without a moment’s hesitation – components can be driven from their respective bases to Spain overnight if needed.
For the second test in Bahrain (February 19-22) this will not be possible as parts must be flown over. Going through customs with a new wishbone assembly could be quite a lengthy process considering that the country is still quite a hostile area.
Lotus’s main concern will be the (relatively) considerable mileage all the teams that attended Jerez will have already put on their new machines. Renault – Lotus’s engine supplier – may have gained information from the other cars they supply, but this will not be enough this year. Individual gearboxes aside, the Energy Recovery System (ERS) setup and mapping will be totally independent from team-to-team as most of its fine-tuning will be based around the braking and tyre management characteristics of the car.
Could skipping Jerez be a consequence of their on-going financial issues? It wouldn’t surprise me. Even though Pastor Maldonado has no doubt been drafted in in part-thanks to the hefty pay-cheque he carries, there was rumour that Enstone could be shut down during the winter. Senior staff are also fleeing at an alarming rate, too, making preparations all-the-more difficult and unstable.
Money problems aside – unless they are hiding a revolutionary technical development – they have started 2014 on the back foot.
Images courtesy of Octane Photographic