When the Renault team unveiled its 2011 challenger, the R31, on the eve of preseason testing, the location of its exhaust exits was the main talking point for their rivals. Lotus Renault, now sporting the black and gold livery from the late seventies/early eighties when the two companies were last working together in F1 had took the most aggressive approach in the blown diffuser design. The front facing exhaust system saw the fumes exiting out of the front corner of the car’s side pod in an attempt to maximise the extra air flow through the rear diffuser.
There to present the car to the media was an unchanged driver line up with Robert Kubica once again being joined by Russian, Vitaly Petrov who had signed a new two year contract with the team over the winter. Shortly after the first test, Kubica sustained life threatening injuries whilst competing in the Ronde di Andora rally. The pole was trapped in the car for more than an hour before rescue workers were able to extract him. He had suffered partial amputation of his forearm, compound fractures to his right elbow, shoulder and leg, as well as significant loss of blood.
When it became apparent that Kubica wasn’t going to be in any fit state to compete, Renault handed a test to veteran German, Nick Heidfeld. The team were immediately impressed with his feedback on the car and was given the seat while Kubica recovered from his injuries.
Petrov enjoyed a flying start to the season (in every sense of the word). In Melbourne, he made an excellent start to get up into 3rd place on the first lap and in a repeat of Abu Dhabi 2010 he had his mirror full of Fernando in his Ferrari. Petrov drove a mature, faultless race to become the first Russian to score a podium finish in F1 in 3rd. He showed his ability to go from the sublime to the ridiculous in the second round in Malaysia. The Russian ran wide while running in 8th, he kept his foot on the accelerator pedal as he tried to rejoin the track only to be catapulted 5 feet into the air as he hit a grass ridge, breaking the cars steering column in the process.
It was left to his new team-mate to pick up where he left off in Melbourne and to achieve the teams second podium in successive races. The early season good form wasn’t to last, back at the teams factory in Enstone, Oxfordshire, they lost a considerable amount of wind tunnel time as they upgraded the facility from 50% scale models to 60%. The team soon fell off the pace of the Ferrari’s and were overtaken in the constructors championship by Mercedes to drop down to 5th. Heidfeld has also been hampered by his car catching fire on two separate occasions. During free practice for the Spanish Grand Prix flames engulfed the right hand side of his car, causing significant damage to the chassis. He suffered the same problem in Hungary during the race, as he exited the pits after a routine tyre stops, the left hand side of the car went up in flames. After he had jumped clear of the car part of the side pod exploded with debris hitting a fire marshal in the leg. Both incidents were caused by the front facing exhaust overheating, setting fire to the body work.
Heidleld isn’t concerned about this, his focus is firmly on the second half of the season and closing the gap to Mercedes, pinning his hopes on the upgrades the team are bringing to Spa, “If it doesn’t work, then we are in trouble,” Heidfeld told AUTOSPORT about the major update package coming for Belgium. “Let’s hope for the best. I feel it finally has to work because we have been saying for some races now that we understand the problem, and that we have moved forward. This will be the first time that we really have something big. Since we found out our problems we have made some small things. But we have made some big improvements in the wind tunnel now, and it was not that easy to bring all the parts to the circuit yet. So Spa is a very important place for us to go in the right direction.”