Lotus generated plenty of interest in 2012 - not only did Kimi Raikkonen make a hugely successful return to Formula One racing, but Romain Grosjean enjoyed a rollercoaster season filled with highs and lows. This week has seen the team putting their new car, the Renault-powered E21, through its paces at Jerez in Spain. The early signs are promising - Grosjean completed an impressive 149 laps over the first two days and sat atop the timesheets after the second session.
Formula1.com sat down for an exclusive chat with Lotus team principal Eric Boullier to discuss the highlights of 2012, his hopes for 2013, and why he will never attempt to change Kimi Raikkonen’s character...
Q: Eric, you were surely among the luckiest team principals of 2012 - the season was incredibly competitive, yet Lotus seemed to make good progress... Eric Boullier: I wouldn't consider myself that lucky. In the last two years we have had our share of misfortune - think about the Kubica accident. Then we took some technical gambles that didn’t work so well. So 2012 can be considered good. Think of where we could be without all those 2011 hiccups!
Q: Look at it this way: McLaren's Martin Whitmarsh and Ferrari's Stefano Domenicali had to answer questions as to why their teams didn’t do better. On the other hand, everyone seemed to be patting you on the back for Lotus’s achievements… EB: Probably that’s right. Our success is very much based on the fact that we’ve tried to go different ways and that our shareholders followed us in each and every decision that we’ve made. Kimi, for example, was clearly a gamble…
Q: Let’s move on to the subject of Kimi. He’s a unique personality who likes to do his own thing. How difficult is that to control and implement into the team? EB: You clearly have to draw a line. To be honest he is not difficult to manage, but you have to make the engineers understand and respect his way of thinking and behaving. He is delivering, so he gets the respect easily.
Q: So when he says on the team radio ‘Leave me alone, I know what I’m doing’ you have to just trust him? EB: Yes, you have to have a lot of trust! (laughs) On top of being Kimi - the character that we know - he did cleverly build his system. It takes some time until he gets up to speed, but he is delivering because he knows that probably his strongest asset is race craft. And little by little over the course of the year he adjusted all the parameters to make himself fast, strong and in a position to deliver - the Kimi we like! He might have his moments sometimes, but it is up to us to adjust what we want to achieve to his style rather than the reverse. I probably prefer to switch the team to the style of Kimi.
Q: So is it a case of ‘King Kimi’ at Lotus? EB: No, because at the same time I don’t want to have a spoiled character who is probably leading the team in the wrong direction. We are not servicing his moods. We are just making sure that he can be himself. This is a big difference.
Q: If Romain Grosjean were able to be as consistent as Kimi, you might have been able to claim P3 in the constructors’ standings. How often did you curse Romains’s youthful enthusiasm in 2012? EB: Ha! Maybe a lot! (Laughs) But let’s turn it into positives now. We have built some expectations over the winter that we could be top three this year if we can transform Romain’s enthusiasm into results. If we succeed that would mean a lot of points at the end of the year.
Q: Was there ever an alternative to keeping Romain? EB: To be honest I had chats with some alternatives because they were chasing me, but I never pushed these talks too far. I still believe that the pairing of Kimi and Romain is good.
Q: What do you see Romain achieving in the future? How do you make him a success? EB: You do everything you can. From building his environment, protecting him, supporting him - doing everything we can to make him feel good. But in the end it is up to him - only him - to build up and grow. We have to be patient, but not for three years, not for ten years - it has to be now. I think he has some of the best speed over one lap, now he has to learn to do the rest. Then I predict that he will be one of the best drivers.
Q: You recently said that you want to do better in 2013 than you did in 2012. There are only the so-called ‘big three’ ahead of you - can leanness challenge manpower and hunger rival money? EB: Yes, it can. And I think it would be a good sign for the sport and the big teams as the message is clear: they are smaller and with less money, but they are still on our heels, fighting with us for top positions and we are spending twice the money. Maybe there is something wrong.
Q: How can you keep your good people when others, perhaps, have deeper wallets? EB: This is something you will never change. You will never avoid this. But I have a clear idea on that: if someone thinks that he needs to earn more money, then he might leave - I will not chase him. My principle is to build up the right environment for all employees, not only the drivers. It is about making sure that they earn enough money to make them happy where they are. If somebody comes with a crazy demand I tell him bye bye. If somebody believes that the grass is greener on the other side - fine - go.
Q: Turning to the new car, where would you say that the E21 is better than its predecessor? EB: It is a stronger evolution of last year’s car, but it is not a simple one. We spent a lot of time thinking about why the E20 was good on some tracks and not on others, then we put everything together and went quite far in the evolutionary process.
Q: What was Romain’s feedback after his two days of testing? EB: He immediately said - after the first laps on day one - that the car is definitely a step ahead compared with the E20 and we are only at the start with the E21.
Q: Why did Romain do the first two days? Wouldn’t Kimi - with all his experience - have been a better choice to drive the car first? EB: What makes you think that Romain doesn’t give good feedback? It was the choice of the engineers and I don’t want to interfere with this. What we have to do in the first two days is a mix of shaking down the car and feedback. There was no real strategy behind it. Both get the equal split of days over the three test sessions.
Q: So when Kimi takes over on Thursday the car is ready for him? EB: The car is ready, but it is not giving Kimi any preference on this - it just felt more logical.
Q: Can you explain where you think the strengths and weaknesses of your two drivers lie? EB: The strength of Kimi is his character, his speed, his experience, his race craft. Is his character a weakness? Probably you could say this. But I can cope with this. It fits in my world. Romain’s strength is his speed and his dedication to this job to deliver. His weakness lies on the emotional side. He is a perfectionist and his 2009 experience is still a trauma for him. He has to overcome it and he will be over it when he has a good season.
Q: Do you have a wish for 2013? EB: Both drivers on the front row at every race!
Q: That would be a wish for an ideal world... EB: That’s not even ideal world - this is pure fantasy world! (laughs)
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