The last 12 months have been quite the rollercoaster for Lotus F1 Team. After spending two years at the front of the field with Kimi Raikkonen leading its charge, 2014 was a miserable campaign that yielded just ten points as the E22 struggled upon the introduction of the new technical regulations.
For Pastor Maldonado, it was a disappointment made all the more gutting by the fact that the team he had left, Williams, went on to finish third in the constructors’ championship.
However, the Venezuelan driver appears to be in a better place this time around. After switching to Mercedes power units for 2015, Lotus has enjoyed a far better winter testing programme that saw Maldonado finish as the fastest driver on both of his days in Barcelona.
Ahead of the new season, we caught up with Pastor to talk about the misery of 2014, his hopes for 2015 and what the future may hold for Formula 1 as a whole.
How has it all gone so far, your pre-season?
Pastor Maldonado: It’s going not too bad, much better than last year in terms of speed and performance, but the main thing is reliability. The car looks very good, no big issues. It’s quite good.
How does it compare to last year’s car overall?
PM: Difficult to compare because it’s a new engine and completely a new car. It’s not like the rest of the teams where it’s a step or continued development of what they had last year. It’s completely a new car, so it’s difficult to make a comparison.
But the engine feels better?
PM: For sure. The entire package feels much better.
The contrast between this test and last year is so big. How far do you think you can go in 2015?
PM: It’s a difficult one. We are right at the beginning of the test. For sure, it’s not enough time to do many things until the last race, but you will see a different car as with all the teams in the first race. Parts are arriving at the moment, every day we are upgrading the car. So it’s difficult to say something.
We hope to keep improving. We have a lot of new components and at the same time we need to have some experience with the engine to try and make the engine work better with our package and try to get 100% from every single particular of the car.
So you’ll head into this season happier than you were last year?
PM: For sure yes. Last year we were unable to make any laps, big problems always around the power unit. This season we are having more time to go out with the car and to do different tests and keep more information for the factory. It’s completely different and especially when you have this kind of new project, you need to see the real competitiveness of the car.
At the moment, we’ve been always jumping on the track for long runs, never for short runs, so we really want to check all the things in the car at the moment. Then next week is going to be more active. For sure, we will try different setups and different things, and hopefully be as good as yesterday. Let’s see. We are not confident. We know there is a lot of potential in the other teams. Mercedes is going to be very strong. Red Bull has a great car. Ferrari looks a very competitive. Williams is very strong as well – so we’ll try to catch them.
Are you quite wary of potential improvement from Ferrari in particular?
PM: Ah I’m not worried, but it is clear that they had a jump. It’s difficult to say about the fuel level and things, but normally they usually don’t run with an empty tank. We’ll see. We should have similar fuel. They didn’t put the soft tires on yesterday. We should be quite close to them. For sure they, at the moment, seem to be quicker than us but not that far – a few tenths. We can deal with that. We can recover. Let’s see Mercedes, let’s see Red Bull. But I think it’s a better point to start with.
And what about your best run yesterday [P1 on Thursday]? Was that more towards a qualifying simulation?
PM: No, we’ve been doing long runs always. 10 lap runs all the day.
This car is clearly a step forward compared to last year. How much of this progress is because of the engine?
PM: I think a lot is because of the engine, it’s clear. But a lot is even because of the team. The car is completely different. If you go into the car, it has a completely different suspension geometry, different roll points – it’s very complex and completely different to last year. The rear suspension as well. It’s quite interesting to test and to see new things in the car, and a new philosophy which is working quite well at the moment.
Do you think you learned a lot from last year and that the team has also learned some lessons?
PM: For sure, we learned a lot. We started to work on this car early in the season, so we’ve been trying to learn from the car last year to put the best into this car and even from the negative things of last year’s car, trying to avoid that and try to recreate something better. These things happen, so it’s not that difficult to understand where to work.
For sure, we will not be the strongest one at the beginning of the season. We need to be honest with ourselves. We don’t have the resources to win all the races. We need to go step by step. I think already this is a very good step, and let’s do our best to keep going like this.
Do you take encouragement from what Williams did by changing to the Mercedes engine and jumping up the order in 2014?
PM: It’s not only the engine, you know. For sure, the engine is very important these days, but you need to make the whole package work together. It’s very important. The cars are heavier than the previous V8s and very complex with these kind of electronic devices with ERS and turbo. You need to try and make everything work together, which isn’t easy even with a Mercedes. You need to transfer the engine power to the ground. It’s not easy, but we’re trying to put everything together.
Is it easier to work with this engine compared to the Renault?
In what terms?
PM: In terms of managing the settings, it’s much easier. The engine performance for sure, there is more power in the engine, but it’s not only about the power. It’s how the engine delivers the power. We need to get used to this, with the car and the setup, and from my side as well with the driving. We will need some time. I hope for the first race we’ll be nearly ready; more ready to deliver a good package. I think it’s going to be a good start to the season. For sure we need to wait and be there, but we’re going to be more competitive than last year.
So what would be a realistic target for the first half of the season?
PM: It’s difficult. It’s difficult because as I mentioned before, it’s not a continued history of last year. We’re starting from zero. For sure, what I saw and what the team saw, we have a better material. More reliable. It’s easy to work with, which give us some more time and we feel more comfortable working. The wind tunnel is quite happy, the people in the factory are quite happy. We need to keep working, that’s it. For sure, for us, it’ll be very important to start in the top ten, fighting always for the points.
You mentioned that there’s not much time until the first race. Is it frustrating that Jolyon [Palmer] is in the car today or are you happy to let the youngsters have a run now?
PM: For sure I want to be in the car for all four days! I don’t care to be honest. There is a good team behind us that is following the plans, and maybe he’s not experienced but he’s a good driver. He showed that last year. Maybe he can contribute with the development. He’s a GP2 champion, he’s a fast guy.
It’s too soon to set any firm target, but do you think there is any chance of winning at least one race this year?
PM: We hope so, but it’s difficult to say. It’s all mathematics. It’s even about the racing situation – you never know what’s going on. We need to see the super-powerful Mercedes and what they have. Let’s see. Let’s start by doing our best to achieve the best. For sure, we want to win. We want to deliver our best. It’s not easy but we are working to achieve that.
What do you think about the new plans for F1 becoming more radical, having a 1000BHP engine and a ‘meaner’ sport?
PM: It’s good and not good. For sure, as a driver, we want even more than 1000BHP. That’s good! Maybe, for the smaller teams, it’s going to be very painful or very hard for them to deal with the cost it creates, because it’s not only that you put in a new engine. You need to redesign everything. We’ll see.
So perhaps F1 should look at what it has at the moment instead of looking too far ahead?
PM: It’s maybe a difficult one from my side. As a driver, I want developments and to go forward in the future. For sure we want more horsepower. We want much faster cars every year. But at the same time we are living in very difficult times. I don’t know if it would be the right moment to introduce these kind of new engines.