Heikki Kovalainen and Lotus won the battle to be best of the new teams in Melbourne qualifying, leading team boss Tony Fernandes to suggest that his squad can soon start looking at fighting with Toro Rosso and Sauber.
Kovalainen isn't quite that optimistic yet, but as he told AUTOSPORT after qualifying, he can see his team is progressing rapidly.
Q. Are you pleased to be on "new team pole"?
Heikki Kovalainen: Yeah, I'm happy. Happier now than I was after qualifying in Bahrain. I feel we've made good progress, and we've tweaked the set-up a little bit since Bahrain and I think it's the right direction. I felt I got everything out of the car today.
Q. Is it about getting the car balanced the way you like it?
HK: Yeah, in Bahrain, on low fuel I felt the car didn't feel exactly like it should do. It felt much better in the race – and actually I think the race performance was good, especially the last stint was really, really good.
Here I did a longer run yesterday in the first session and that still felt good. We were able to get more out of the car in qualifying now, so I think we've made a step forward. When you come to a race and pick up performance with the car, that's good.
Q. Is the target tomorrow to be best of the new teams again?
HK: If I have a chance to attack at the start tomorrow, I'll have a go. There are a few cars ahead of me that if I can get a good start I'll try to get ahead of – and then I'll fight if possible. Otherwise to get both cars to the finish I think will be great for the team. I'll try to carry on where I finished in Bahrain, try to start tomorrow with the same performance I had in the last stint there, and chip away.
Q. This is the sort of race where this is often a lot of attrition. Are you optimistic that if you finish tomorrow, you could be in the points?
HK: I'm not really thinking about points, to be honest. The cars are more reliable than they were a few years ago. Obviously this is a place where it's possible to expect anything – the safety car's been out here the last few years quite regularly. Strategies and accidents can happen, and everything can be messed up. I'll just try to react to everything accordingly, and otherwise just put our heads down from the first corner, try to drive our own race, do the maximum and not lose any time.
Q. Would rain give you a chance to fight with the established midfield teams, or would it be even harder for you with less downforce?
HK: I think the rain might make it worse. The less downforce you have, the more difficult it is to warm up the tyres and get them working, and if you don't warm up the tires into a window where they work, you might lose more time. I hope it's dry, but if it's wet then it's wet and we'll see what happens. Anything can happen then, but my feeling is it won't be easier in the wet, I think.
Q. You're about 5sec from pole, and in the winter Mike Gascoyne predicted a gap of about 3.5sec. Are you disappointed?
HK: I was never expecting the gap to be that low, I thought it would be more like 5s. That's not a surprise so I'm not disappointed. I'm happy that we have three aero updates on the car that are worth about 0.15-0.2sec, which is the kind of improvement that McLaren was doing from race to race last year. So in that sense we've been able to keep up with development.
Obviously with the overseas races it's not possible to do big updates. We'll have to wait until Barcelona to get the big update, and hopefully that will deliver more than the cars ahead of us. Ideally we'd like to see the gap with the bigger teams getting smaller, that's the target. But I'm not disappointed. It's pretty much what I expected. Maybe a bit better.
Q. So is your goal to be pretty close to the established teams by October?
HK: Yeah. I think we've made really good progress. Our target was to build a reliable car and finish races. So far we've done all those targets. Now, little by little, we've started to close the gap, and we'll put more performance on the car when we get back to Europe, then see how we can do. But I have no reason to doubt that we can do that. It should be good.