The team that some are calling ‘Lotus Renault GP’ have a weak claim to both names.
The self-consciously prominent ‘Lotus’ branding on the R31 is at present down to little more than a sponsorship deal.
Renault have sold their remaining share in the team, but the car continues to use their engines and carries their name.
Sadly, this means we’ve lost the distinctive yellow-and-black cars of last year – the only time in their modern incarnation that Renault raced in their traditional colours.
They are replaced by a rendering of Lotus’s classic black-and-gold John Player Special livery which is attractive if not quite perfect (blame Total for that).
But the real substance of the car looks promising indeed. The team made rapid progress with the R30 last year.
Their aerodynamic division, shored up in numbers following a too-hasty reduction in the latter days of the Flavio Briatore years, excelled in bringing rapid updates to the car which generally worked as intended.
For 2011 they’ve pushed the envelope further with a radical exhaust solution which blows hot air out around the front of the sidepods with the aim of increasing downforce.
It was starting to look promising for Renault when Robert Kubica set the fastest time in the final day of the Valencia test shortly after the car’s launch.
But just three days later came the blow that may derail Renault’s entire season. Kubica suffered serious injuries when he crashed while competing in a rally in Italy. If and when he might be able to return to racing remains to be seen.
This presented a problem for team principal Eric Boullier. None of the team’s five reserve drivers including new recruit Bruno Senna was considered experienced enough to take Kubica’s place.
The loss of Kubica exposed the weakness in the team’s driver line-up.
Vitaly Petrov’s debut season last year was patchy at best. There is little doubt that his continued presence at the team owes more than a little to the sponsorship he has helped attract.
Boullier reacted quickly by installing Nick Heidfeld as Kubica’s replacement and there is little doubt he was the most qualified driver available for the job.
The question now is what Heidfeld can make of the car that was made for his former team mate. The pair were often closely matched while at BMW together from 2006-2009.
And can he and Petrov raise the team above the fifth place they finished in last year?
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