x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Wasted opportunity for Lotus ahead of US Grand Prix

Final chase is on in Formula One but Lotus decides to go with experience and snubs their rookie driver, which could be costly in the long run, writes Graham Caygill.

Lotus driver Heikki Kovalainen, right, of Finland speaks with his crew before the first practice session of the US Grand Prix on Friday. Adrees Latif / Reuters
Lotus driver Heikki Kovalainen, right, of Finland speaks with his crew before the first practice session of the US Grand Prix on Friday. Adrees Latif / Reuters

Now, before we go on, it should be made clear none of the following is meant to be a criticism of Heikki Kovalainen as a driver.

He is a decent man, always very approachable to both fans and media, is pretty quick in a Formula One car, and did a reasonable job back in 2008 when he had a championship-winning car in the McLaren-Mercedes at his disposal, winning once and taking a pole position, too.

The statistic that he has not scored a championship point since 2009 is slightly misleading as Sebastian Vettel would not have got a top-10 finish, either, in the underwhelming Team Lotus/Caterham machinery between 2010-2012.

Lack of sponsorship funds meant Kovalainen did not keep his Caterham drive this year, but his spell on the sidelines comes to an end Sunday when he steps in to replace Kimi Raikkonen in the Lotus team for the United States Grand Prix, as his Finnish compatriot misses the final two races of the season to have a back operation.

But why have the team ignored their own reserve driver, Davide Valsecchi, and gone for Kovalainen?

As said, this is nothing against Kovalainen, but surely the point of a reserve driver is to bring him in when a vacancy arises? Not ignore him and go for a safe pair of hands.

Valsecchi, 26, has never raced in F1, but the Italian won the GP2 championship in 2012, has done some testing in the past and will have done countless hours in the team’s simulator.

You could understand Lotus looking to Nico Hulkenberg to leave Sauber early to drive for them.

If the team get their funding in order the German is the No 1 option to drive alongside Romain Grosjean next season. But that is still a big “if” until the money is sorted.

Hulkenberg chose to stay with Sauber, seeing a risk in getting in an unknown car and possibly hurting his reputation in the closing two races if he did not do well, with no guarantee he is going to be with Lotus next season.

If Lotus falls through, Hulkenberg faces a fight to stay at Sauber or rejoin Force India, and two weak performances in Lotus would not help him in that regard.

So he did the sensible thing, which is when Lotus should have turned to Valsecchi.

But the team, who are hoping to secure second place in the constructors’ championship, went with Kovalainen, with Eric Boullier, the team principal, pointing out the Finn’s “experience” as being the deciding factor.

Kovalainen got his first look at the Lotus in practice yesterday, ahead of today’s qualifying session, but you really have to feel sorry for Valsecchi, who one imagines is feeling pretty demoralised with life right now.

He has to be wondering after the snub from Lotus whether he ever will get to start a grand prix.

He has driven the car and would have been more familiar with the set-up than is Kovalainen.

Lotus’s motivations are financial, not surprising considering the problems they have had with cash flow, which led to Raikkonen revealing in Abu Dhabi two weeks ago he had not been paid all season by the team.

Second in the constructors’ competition pays out quite a bit more in prize money than does fourth. Lotus are 37 behind second-placed Mercedes-GP, and 26 behind third-placed Ferrari.

It is a long shot, in reality. Red Bull Racing and Vettel will dominate these two races, as they have done everything else of late, so the chances of scoring a points total big enough to overhaul Mercedes and Ferrari would be slim, even with Raikkonen still in the car.

That is why it is baffling Valsecchi has been ignored. Once it is acknowledged that catching Ferrari or Mercedes is highly unlikely, there is nothing really to lose, no real pressure. Just a chance to test out a rookie driver.

You could understand it if Lotus were holding second and were looking to stave off their rivals.

Kovalainen will do a solid job and will, in all likelihood, score a couple of top-10 finishes if he avoids trouble.

But Lotus have wasted an opportunity to find out if their own driver has what it takes to compete in the future.

gcaygill@thenational.ae

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