Sunday, 31 March 2013

Marussia versus Caterham: The Battle at the Back of the Grid

Interlagos 2012:  While the driver’s championship was being hotly contested between Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso at the top of the grid, another battle was being fought with just as much significance resting on the result between two teams at the bottom.  In the closing stages of the race in Brazil, Vitaly Petrov overtook Charles Pic to usurp eleventh place, his best all season, giving Caterham the vital tenth place in the constructor’s standings.  While they may have won the battle, it is Marussia who are winning the war as the 2013 season dawns.

Photo: Sutton images

Having guarded the precious tenth spot since Timo Glock’s twelth place finish in Singapore, losing it at such a late stage was particularly disheartening.  Missing out on the extra revenue carried by tenth place, economic troubles now became ominous for the team, forcing them to make tough decisions.  One such decision was to part ways with experienced driver Timo Glock.  Having already replaced Charles Pic with significantly funded Max Chilton, the looming cloud of economic instability dictated the need to have another driver with similar financial backing.  Initially announcing that Brazilian Luiz Razia would drive for them in 2013, Marussia headed into winter testing where it rapidly became clear that his career with the team was over before its inception, due to funding not being received.  Quickly benefiting from Force India’s decision to hire Adrian Sutil to fill their second seat, Marussia swooped in on Frenchman Jules Bianchi to drive alongside Chilton. 

Photo:  F1 Fanatic

Caterham’s preparations for the new season were slightly less tumultuous.  Charles Pic was signed from Marussia in November putting the seats of Vitaly Petrov and Heikki Kovalainen in danger.  Surrounding the departure of Heikki was lots of talk about the team needing to hire a driver who could deliver money, however his record of underperformance compared with his team mates may have had some bearing.  Despite earning the team their all important prize winning tenth place, Vitaly Petrov was also overlooked when signing for 2013.  Able to furnish the team with payment for his drive, rookie Giedo Van der Garde won the seat. 

While left to languish behind Caterham in the championship at the end of last season, the new season brings optimism and hope.  After the first two rounds, Marussia lie above their rivals in that lucrative tenth spot and have been the team to sparkle. 

Providing much of the sparkle is Jules Bianchi who is the leading light in Marussia’s invigoration.  Races in both Australia and Malaysia have been the settings for stunning displays of driving talent by the Frenchman, akin to those showcased by Fernando Alonso at Minardi and Ayrton Senna at Toleman.  Qualifying top out of the four Marussia and Caterham drivers, and achieving fifteenth place in Australia then bettering this by two places to bring the car home in thirteenth in Malaysia, has attracted attention and created luminosity around the team in a time when their success could be overshadowed by well publicised events further up the field. 

In comparison, Caterham have not had such a bright start to the season.  Indeed, the only thing to sparkle is their new livery.  In Australia they qualified in the lowest two positions, with Charles Pic failing to meet the 107% requirement.  Malaysia showed a slight improvement with Pic taking 20th position on the grid with Van der Garde in 22nd.  In the race in Melbourne the Dutchman finished last of the cars still running with his more experienced team mate two places ahead.  However, Caterham will have been pleased at finishing above Max Chilton in Malaysia.   While Max could be seen as a weak spot for Marussia, he is young and hungry, and with a team mate of Bianchi’s quality, has the ideal incentive to spur further improvement in performance. 

Photo: jamesallenon

In addition to having a promising driver such as Bianchi, Marussia have used links with other teams to bolster their aspirations for 2013.  Using a KERS system developed by Williams when they were running a Cosworth engine, Marussia have been pleased with its addition to the MR02 so far.  In conjunction with McLaren Applied technologies they have also been able to use wind tunnel technology to develop the design of the car, a significant move forward for them.  With Jules Bianchi being part of the Ferrari Young Driver Programme, links to the Italian team can also be made and could lead to a possible engine deal for the return to the turbo era in 2014, not to mention possible use of other Ferrari resources. 

So far 2013 is proving to be a season full of optimism and confidence, and instead of staring at the back of the Caterhams, they could be looking to battle the likes of Williams and Toro Rosso at the back of the midfield.  Finishing only three away from a point scoring position in Malaysia, attaining Marussia’s first point is almost guaranteed if Bianchi continues his electrifying form, and a contest for ninth in the Constructor’s championship is within the realms of possibility.   For the team with the smallest budget in Formula One, what an incredible story that would be. 

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