Marussia: Ahead of Caterham by a nose?

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So, the new 2014 formula 1 cars have been launched and the first test has been completed.  As always, the focus is on the teams expected to be at the front of the grid – Ferrari, McLaren, Mercedes and Red Bull – and their perceived successes and failures at this very early stage of the year.  But what about the teams at the back of the pack?

Marussia and Caterham are now entering their fifth year at the pinnacle of motorsport and the massive regulation change this year offers both teams their best opportunity to start moving up the pecking order.  Even if outright pace is still lacking, the expected reliability issues and higher rates of attrition in races will mean that those elusive points scoring finishes are finally a real possibility for both teams.  Which of these two, back of the grid teams stands the best chance of delivering in 2014, though?

The Caterham CT05 certainly can't be descibed as a 'looker'!

The Caterham CT05 certainly
can’t be descibed as a ‘looker’!

Let’s start by looking briefly at Caterham.  The Leafield based team certainly generated a massive amount of interest when their 2014 challenger – the CT05 – was revealed to fans and media at Jerez.  We expected some odd-looking cars this year thanks to the regulation change that requires the nose of the cars to be lower, the aim being that they are less likely to launch into the air in accidents.  The Caterham, though, is perhaps the oddest looking of all of the 2014 F1 cars, with an extremely aggressive nose solution that looks, frankly, hideously ugly.  The team won’t be too worried about that if their car proves to be quick, though.

As I’ve already alluded to, however, outright speed may not be enough to deliver a winning package in the brave new world of Formula 1.  Reliability is expected to be a major issue.  Formula 1 has turned its back on the 2.4 litre V8 engines used in recent years and moved to new 1.6 litre turbocharged V6 units paired with Energy Recovery Systems – ERS – which are more relevant to modern road cars.  This is a huge change for the sport, and making these packages work reliably is, on the basis of the first test proving challenging for one manufacturer in particular.

Renault's 2014 F1 Engine

Renault’s 2014 F1 Engine

Unfortunately for Caterham, that manufacturer is Renault, who supply the team’s powertrain.  Renault engine cars suffered badly at Jerez.  Over the course of the four-day test, Renault engines completed a paltry 151 laps, with world champions Red Bull Racing struggling the most with just 21 laps completed.  Admittedly, it’s much too early to write off Renault, but this doesn’t bode well for teams that use their power units.

This is where, perhaps, Marussia might have the upper hand on their rivals.  The Anglo-Russian team, based in Banbury in the UK, had used Cosworth engines in their first four years in F1.  However, the British engine manufacturer decided to drop out of the sport at the end of 2013, choosing not to produce one of the new breed of 1.6 litre V6 turbocharged units.  Marussia therefore were forced to switch suppliers and opted for Ferrari engines and ERS systems.  On the basis of Jerez testing, this looks like it will give Marussia an advantage over Caterham.  Despite Marussia missing the first couple of days of testing, with the new MR03 turning up on day three of the four day test, Ferrari engined cars completed 444 laps, nearly three times the number of laps completed by cars running Renault engines.

The Marussia MR03 is, at least, more aesthetically pleasing than the Caterham CT05

The Marussia MR03 is, at least, more aesthetically pleasing than the Caterham CT05

Marussia have also opted for a more conservative approach to the nose of their car.  If this is an indication of their general approach this, paired with a seemingly more robust power unit, might indicate that Marussia might have the edge in terms of reliability over Caterham.  With both teams unlikely to set the lap time charts alight, this might prove critical in 2014.  But, of course, that’s not the full story in terms of reliability.

As it turned out, Caterham proved to be the most reliable of the three Renault powered teams – Lotus were absent – at Jerez.  The CT05 completed 76 laps over its four days of running.  That’s just over half of the total number of laps completed by Renault cars at the entire test.  While that’s only just over half of the number of laps completed by Force India – the Mercedes powered car that competed the fewest number of laps at Jerez – it does at least indicate that the Caterham itself is probably pretty reliable.

In contrast, in comparison to the two other Ferrari powered teams, Marussia completed the fewest number of laps – just 30.  Granted, the team did (as I mentioned earlier) only run for half of the test, so that might not be significant, but it does indicate that reliability is something that Marussia won’t necessarily be able to count on to give them the advantage over Caterham, particularly as the former have to adapt to a new engine supplier while the latter does, at least have stability with Renault.

Caterham's 2014 driver line-up: Kobayashi (L) and Ericsson (R), either side of third driver Robin Frijns

Caterham’s 2014 driver line-up: Kobayashi (L) and Ericsson (R), either side of third driver Robin Frijns

While Caterham have stability in terms of their engine supplier where their rivals don’t, it’s Marussia that have stability in terms of their driver line up, while it’s all change at Caterham.  Marussia have retained Frenchman Jules Bianchi – an undoubted talent – and Englishman Max Chilton in 2014, while Caterham have gone for an all new pairing of Japanese driver Kamui Kobayashi – making a welcome return to F1 after a year out of the sport in 2013 – and rookie Marcus Ericsson, who makes the step up from GP2.  The pairings are probably fairly evenly matched, but because Marussia know their two drivers pretty well this might afford them a slim advantage, at least to begin with.

It is, though, unlikely that we’ll see either Marussia or Caterham making big steps forward.  Williams, who struggled in 2013 and were the team most under threat of being overtaken by Marussia or Caterham in the constructors standings, look to have made an inspired move by switching from Renault engines to Mercedes power units, meaning that the target for the two ‘newcomer’ teams is likely to be the Red Bull junior team, Toro Rosso.

A Minardi at Monaco in 2001, driven by future double world champion Fernando Alonso

A Minardi at Monaco in 2001, driven by future double world champion Fernando Alonso

Toro Rosso, the team that was formerly Minardi, one of F1s great minnows, have also swapped engines, but it looks like they’ve made the wrong choice in switching from Ferrari engines to the same Renault units used by ‘big brother’ Red Bull Racing.  Still, though, Toro Rosso probably has a bigger budget than either Marussia or Caterham, and let’s not forget that they are also grand prix winners, albeit at the hands of now four-time world drivers’ champion, Sebastian Vettel, way back in 2008.  They’re likely to retain the advantage over the new boys.

So, while 2014 presents a huge opportunity for Marussia and Caterham, their prospects don’t look all that promising.  If it proves to be the case that Marussia and Caterham are still battling it out between themselves at the back of the pack it’s a worrying situation for F1.  Indeed, unless the long mooted budget cap is agreed, the only opportunity for either team to make big strides forward might be to follow the Minardi example and sell up to someone able to inject a significant amount of cash.

Caterham Boss Tony Fernandes has threatened to pull out of F1

Caterham Boss Tony Fernandes
has threatened to pull out of F1

Caterham owner Tony Fernandes has already threatened to pull out at the end of the year if results do not improve for his team, and you have to wonder whether Marussia might be in a similar position.  It would be sad to see either team go the same ways as the other 2010 new entry, HRT, but unless either can take advantage of the opportunity afforded to them by the regulation change this season, that may well happen.

What do you think about Marussia and Caterham’s prospects for 2014 and beyond?  Will either team score points?  Will Marussia be ahead of Caterham by a nose?  Comment below!

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