After Lotus' strong showing at the Korean Grand Prix, the team's Trackside Operations Director Alan Permane looks ahead to one of the highlights of the year at Suzuka.
What’s your feeling after the Korean Grand Prix?
"It was a very satisfying weekend. Our latest developments with the car clearly worked well, we had flexibility on strategy allowing us to make the right calls in the race, and we had our best pit stops of the year. We were the only team to have the pace to challenge Sebastian [Vettel] which is quite an achievement this season."
What do you think of Suzuka? "I think it’s pretty much everyone’s favourite track; particularly amongst the drivers. The first part of the Esses – also known as the ‘Snake’ – is one of the most rewarding pieces of track a driver can experience. In a strong car with a good front end it really does flow well, and it’s one of the highlights of the year. Then, there are a couple of very high speed corners. Turn 1 is almost flat-out on entry, with braking at the mid-way point for Turn 2. 130R is flat out at very high speed; a little more tricky with high fuel loads, but certainly flat in qualifying. Then you have the Spoon curve; a very long, double-apex, third to fourth gear corner leading onto the back straight and taken at reasonably high speed. There are plenty of challenges and I think we’ll have another interesting weekend."
Is there anything of specific interest in line with the circuit’s figure-of-eight layout? "In terms of set-up it’s not notable, but in terms of character it certainly is. The nature of a figure-of-eight configuration adds elevation into the mix, with the track heading downhill into Turn 1 followed by a reasonable climb uphill through the Esses in sector one. It then heads down and up out of the hairpin, down some more into Spoon and along the long straight, before rising up again through 130R and the chicane. There’s quite a long downhill stretch on the start-finish straight to wrap things up, so it’s certainly a circuit that’s full of character."
What could be the challenges? "It’s a reasonably high grip surface, so the hard and medium tyres should be well suited to it. Tyre degradation won’t be as significant here as we saw in Korea, but it’s a track which exposes any weakness in your car or setup so we’ll be working hard as always to get things spot on."
How do you need to set up the car? "Although there are high speed corners it’s actually a high downforce layout; a similar feel in many respects to Silverstone, but with the added feature of elevation. A car with a strong front end is essential as understeer really kills a lap time here, but everything else is needed as well; good braking, good stability and a car which can ride the kerbs, especially in the last sector."
Should Lotus be feeling confident after recent performances? "I think we can be quite confident. We saw in Korea that the car is working well, while Suzuka has some quick, flowing corners which are quite similar to those of sector two in Yeongam; the part of the track where we were most competitive last weekend. There are also some high speed changes of direction and long, medium speed corners which should all suit us. If we had a weakness in Korea it was the first sector, which combines stop-start corners with a long straight; neither of which are a feature of Suzuka."
Has the team managed to unlock additional qualifying pace? "There’s an element of having achieved a good level of understanding in terms of both the tyres and the car at this point in the season, but we’ve always favoured the softer compound rubber and of course the supersoft has been the option tyre at each of the last two races. Romain has done a particularly strong job in qualifying of late; coping admirably with the pressure of delivering a quick lap, even when we add to that pressure by challenging him to get through the first session using only the harder compound. We haven’t had many upgrades over the last few races as we’re concentrating on the challenges of 2014, so any gains in qualifying performance have come from the driver rather than improvements to the car which is very encouraging for him. Despite starting out of position in both Singapore and Korea, Kimi has managed to fight back superbly to make the podium in both races. We’ve clearly got two drivers at the top of their game right now, so our battle for championship position throughout these final five races could be very entertaining indeed…"