Both Heikki Kovalainen and Jarno Trulli finished the Japanese Grand Prix today on the same lap as winner Jenson Button, marking the first time that the newly formed Team Lotus have completed the entire race distance.
Although eighteenth and nineteenth places are by no means that best results that the team have scored in their 34 races, this latest milestone is a good indication that they are, slowly but surely, beginning to match the pace of their more-established rivals.
“What a great race for the whole team!” exclaimed Kovalainen. “I made an incredible start, no wheelspin, the perfect clutch slip and was suddenly past a load of cars and up into 14th. It looked like everyone else went into reverse and I even heard one of the engineers laugh and accidentally telling someone else how brilliant the start was, and I thought 'no! Don't mention it now, I need to get on with the rest of the race!' After that the first couple of stints were great. The car was working really well on the soft tyres and the stops were mega, and then the safety car came out and bunched everyone up so from there it was a race to the flag with Jarno and I stayed ahead until the last lap.
“The car has felt balanced all weekend so on the harder compound I was still able to push all afternoon, and even though I was held up a bit by the Virgins and the HRTs when they were being shown blue flags, I was still able to keep ahead of Jarno and as he's always been quick here that feels pretty good.
“Also – the fact that this is the first time this season we didn't see any blue flags is very satisfying. Every time you have to let someone pass you are artificially slowing up your own race, and it shows our car keeps improving, as does the whole team. Ok, the safety car helped us, but then you have to be in the right place to take advantage of whatever happens on track, and today we did just that. A great day.”
Trulli did not get such a great start, but he was still pretty pleased with how the race unfolded. “For me that was a good day,” said the Italian. “It didn't start too well – for once my start wasn't perfect but once we got under way I was able to put in a few good passes and was making up ground.
“After a few laps it felt like I had a problem with the gearbox that slowed me down, but it came back and almost immediately the safety car came out and I was able to make up the gap to Heikki and we both had a good run to the end.
“For the whole team this is a pretty significant result. We completed every lap of the race, and while that might not seem all that important when there are guys winning championships up ahead, it still shows we keep on improving, and I'm really pleased for everyone, here at the track and back at the factory, that we can leave Japan on a high again and head to the next race in Korea.”
Chief technical officer Mike Gascoyne conceded that the safety car may have helped his drivers to stay on the lead lap, but still recognised this achievement as a great milestone in the evolution of the team. “That was a really pleasing race weekend for the whole team,” he said. “For the first time both cars finished on the lead lap and even though we were helped by the safety car our level of performance was still the best we have ever seen relative to cars around us. Both drivers pushed throughout the whole race, right up until the last lap and I think we managed to extract every ounce of performance we could from the cars.
“Heikki made an amazing start, by some way the best of the year and that made a three stop strategy the obvious choice, running the option for the first three stints, and that worked out pretty well. With Jarno we managed an issue he had in the first stint, and to see him pushing Heikki hard at the end of the race was exactly what we wanted from him and his team mate.
“They were also both helped by some tremendous pitstops from the guys in the garage so all in all this was a very professional job right across the board and I want to thank the whole team for the work they have put in here, and give my congratulations to everyone.”
Team Lotus team principal Tony Fernandes seemed to feel inspired by the celebrations of Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull after the race, and hailed this Japanese Grand Prix as one of the best since his team entered the spot at the beginning of last season.
“Firstly I'd like to wish Sebastian and all our friends at Red Bull Racing huge congratulations for an incredible job this season,” he said. “They still have a job to do, and I know from firsthand experience that they will not let up in their pursuit of the constructors' title this year, and many more titles in the future. They set the standards that we must aspire to and I am very proud that we are part of their extended family and can keep being inspired by them as we grow to, one day, take the fight to them on track.
“For us, I know I keep saying it at every race but this really was the best race we have ever had. As soon as I came in this morning I had a feeling that everything in the team is beginning to come together as we had planned, and to finish on the same lap as the world champion is a huge step forward for us. The drivers both drove their hearts out today and the pitstops were excellent all afternoon. Our race pace was strong and we were bold with the strategies on both cars and that gave us the reward of not seeing a blue flag throughout the whole race. A great team effort.
“I think that this is a turning point for us. Suzuka is a quick circuit, not an easy place to take steps forward, so to have performed as well as we have done all weekend means I leave here absolutely thrilled, knowing our hard work is starting to pay off. The strategy that we have employed, of being patient and not rushing into the wrong decisions is paying dividends, and this is a clear sign that next year, and especially the year after, we are going to see more big steps forwards from our team.”