But that will involve beating some rivals with better equipment and more resources than they have.
The team are reaping the benefits from upgrading their wind tunnel to a 60% model and improving their Computational Fluid Dynamics capabilities in the last two seasons.
The effective E20, aerodynamically sound and kind to its tyres, should have won more races last year than the single victory that came the team’s way in 2012.
But with the benefit of stability in the driver line-up, and Raikkonen having fully acclimatised to life in F1 again, Lotus should be ready to compete from the off. The fine-tuning of the new car to his driving preferences, particularly in the steering department, will also help.
In testing the E21 has looked swift but flaky, particularly in Raikkonen’s hands. The team believe the cold weather had a lot to do with its early gremlins, which included at least two gearbox failures, and they won’t be repeated once the season begins.
The team expects to make some gains with its Coanda exhaust, which was still in an early and unoptimised form when they won the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix with it last year.
But technical director James Allison said that alone won’t transform the E21: “I think that there’s a reason why every car on the grid has a similar-ish system on the car, that’s because there’s a lump of lap time to be had from it. It remains a very small proportion of what we used to be able to do in 2011 and it will therefore remain, relative to that, a much less important thing.”
“Whether or not it’s going to be a big story in the year, I doubt it. The rules have been steady for a year and a bit now and most of what’s to be had is already being had. So I don’t think it will be a big thing.”
“It’s a better system to use a well-developed Coanda system but it’s not like 2011 where if you didn’t have a blown floor you would have been off the pace by more than a second per lap and up to about two and a half. Whereas as you know our car wasn’t bad at all without such a system [last] year.”
Allison added he isn’t concerned about the FIA’s ruling on Renault’s engine maps over the winter, which led to theories its customer teams could be disadvantaged.
A key weakness for the team last year was its qualifying pace, though team principal Eric Boullier saw some improvements in that area late in the season: “I think Kimi’s second part of the season was delivering much in qualifying than at the beginning.”
“So I think he’s going to be ready from race one and I think both drivers will be ready from race one in better [fitness] and better race condition than last year so we should be able as a team to deliver better from race one.”
However he admitted the car’s one-lap pace is an area where they still “need some good progress”.
Boullier added he will reserve judgement on the car’s capabilities until he’s seen it in action on a race weekend, but believes they are in a more competitive position this year: “My personal belief is we are getting closer to what we want to achieve, yes.”
“We need to see now in real conditions, in the proper temperature and weather conditions for the tyres, how the car performance will be. And it looks like it’s going to be very tight. All the teams getting definitely closer to each other.”
Car 7: Kimi Raikkonen
Raikkonen and Lotus has the makings of a great partnership. He is a driver who demands to be treated a certain way, shielded from the politicking of the paddock. Lotus’s no-nonsense ‘real racers’ attitude complements that well.
Their reward was a driver who delivered points more consistently than anyone else in the field last year, and who will surely be in the hunt for race wins and even the championship crown if the E21 is at least as good as last year’s car.
A couple of years on the sidelines appears to have done nothing to diminish Raikkonen’s abilities, and any suggestion he lacks the motivation to compete at the top level gets short shrift from the man himself.
But the biggest question mark over Raikkonen remains whether he can muster the self-discipline to meet his talent with the level of application his rivals do all season long. Some of that was absent at the end of last season, but had he still been in the hunt for the championship you expect it would have been different.
Car 8: Romain Grosjean
He ended last year with just 46.3% of his team mate’s points total. That wasn’t the worst of the season (step forward Felipe Massa) but it goes some way to explaining why the team kept him waiting until December before confirming his 2013 seat.
Grosjean’s number one priority for this year has to be staying out of trouble. Though he wasn’t the most reckless driver last season (step forward Pastor Maldonado) he was all too often a magnet for unnecessary incidents.
This was a problem at times in his junior career as well and if he can’t kick the habit it will wreck his chances of competing at the top level.
Grosjean says he’s benefitted from having a season of F1 behind him. His potential is unmistakeable – any driver who can hold a candle to Kimi Raikkonen on sheer pace is worth putting up with a bit of trouble for. It’s just that he’s caused an awful lot of it.
Lotus championship form
Having been used by the original team from 1958 to 1994, the Lotus name returned to F1 in 2010 with the outfit which is now Caterham. It was adopted by the current team last year.
Lotus in 2013: Your view
Can Raikkonen mount a challenge for the championship with Lotus this year? And will Grosjean get his act together?
Have your say in the comments.
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Images ?é?® Lotus/LAT