MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Last year Lotus won the Australian Grand Prix. This year the team is wondering if its cars will even be on the starting grid.
The team arrived at this weekend's Formula One season opener after what driver Romain Grosjean frankly describes as a "disastrous winter" in which the cars suffered a litany of technical problems with the new Renault V6 hybrid turbo engine.
The team was so preoccupied with solving the software-controlled engine problems that it barely got a chance to work on the new aerodynamics, tire management or other vital parts.
That means this Friday's testing sessions will not be the standard fine tuning so much as learning from scratch how the car should work.
"It's not frustrating, it's just a little bit of a strange situation, because we don't really know what the car is," Grosjean said.
"It adds a little bit of pressure because we have to learn all this on the race weekend."
Asked what the goals are for his car at the Albert Park circuit, Grosjean grinned and replied: "It can be on the grid on Sunday."
Can, not will.
He laughed off reports of a temper tantrum at the Bahrain test sessions, saying the photos that showed him in an apparent rage were actually staged, and that the team cannot afford any fractures or discord during the difficult early races.
"I am not interested in blaming anyone, getting angry and running away," Grosjean said.
The engine problems are only the latest challenge for Lotus, having lost top driver Kimi Raikkonen — last year's winner in Australia who has decamped to Ferrari — and team principal Eric Boullier, who has moved to McLaren. The collapse of a proposed takeover also prompted a slew of reported redundancies at the Enstone, England factory.
Such financial problems meant the team was eager to hire Pastor Maldonado as a driver. The ex-Williams pilot brings with him a lucrative sponsorship from Venezuelan state oil firm PDVSA.
Maldonado could be forgiven for searching for an escape clause in his newly-inked contract given the problems the team has encountered since his arrival, but he was optimistic things will improve soon.
"It's quite complex and it's going to take some time to solve all these problems," Maldonado said.
"Renault is the champion team, the champion engine, and they have a lot of experience, and I hope to have a solution quite soon."
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