Quicksilver Hamilton shines in Singapore

The result couldn’t have been much better for Lewis Hamilton in Singapore. Pole position on Saturday was followed by a race win on Sunday. That win, coupled with his Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg’s retirement, meant that Hamilton also took the lead in the world drivers’ championship; for only the second time this season.

Last time out in Italy it was Hamilton who had electronic problems at the start of the race, but in Singapore it was Rosberg who had his own electrical problem, a problem far more severe than the one his team-mate experienced in Monza. Rosberg’s issue started before he even left the pit lane and once he made it to the grid the team worked frantically on the steering column of his car, switching steering wheels and hoping for the best.

Rosberg's stricken Mercedes is pushed away from the grid

Rosberg’s stricken Mercedes is pushed away from the grid

As it turned out, despite all the team’s efforts, Rosberg’s problem was far from fixed. The German couldn’t pull away on the parade lap and although he did manage to start from the pit lane, the problem with his car was far from resolved. Rosberg had no control over his car’s systems. No ERS, no engine mode control, no DRS. Indeed, nothing at all other than the ability to change gears, and even that was severely hampered.

Rosberg struggled at the back of the field

Rosberg struggled at the back of the field

As Hamilton streaked into the lead from pole position, Rosberg struggled to pick his way through the Marussias and Caterhams at the tail of the field. When his first pit-stop came on lap 14 of the race, he didn’t even have an operational pit lane speed limiter, meaning he was forced to crawl into his pit box at a snail’s pace.

As it turned out, he couldn’t even manage to pull back out again. Even gear selection finally failed and as a result Rosberg was going absolutely nowhere. The team was forced to retire the car and Rosberg was forced to watch on while Hamilton took complete control of the race, pursued, at an ever-increasing distance by Red Bull Racing’s Sebastian Vettel and the Ferrari of Fernando Alonso.

Despite Hamilton’s iron grip of the race in the opening 32 laps, his victory turned out to be far from plain sailing in the end. Reliability was not the problem for Hamilton, though, the safety car was. Force India’s Sergio Perez suffered a front wing failure after contact with Adrian Sutil’s Sauber on lap 31.

The safety car disrupted the race in Singapore

The safety car disrupted the race in Singapore

The resulting debris triggered the safety car and put Hamilton and Mercedes in a difficult position. Both Red Bulls and Williams cars had already used both tyre compounds and would not stop again. Alonso decided to stop under safety car conditions and switch on to the softer compound tyre, meaning that he, too, had run both compounds. Hamilton and Mercedes, though, didn’t, meaning that they would have to stop again in the closing stages of the race.

The safety car finally returned to the pit lane on lap 38. Hamilton would have to build a gap of around 30 seconds over his rivals to be able to pit again and emerge in the lead. It was a massive ask, but Hamilton set about his task with relish, building a 3.3 second lead after just one lap. By lap 51 the gap was over 25 seconds, but his super soft tyres had had enough. He pitted on lap 52, emerging from the pits on fresh soft tyres behind Vettel, but crucially ahead of Ricciardo in third and Alonso in fourth.

A clearly delighted Hamilton celebrates his win

A clearly delighted Hamilton celebrates his win

Just two laps later, Hamilton wasn’t even behind Vettel. The Briton took maximum advantage of his far fresher tyres to make the move on the reigning world drivers’ champion at turn seven, with DRS assistance. And that was pretty much that. Hamilton once again pulled away from his rivals at a staggering rate of knots. In the remaining few laps – one less than the scheduled 61 due to the safety car period – Hamilton built an impressive lead over Vettel, with Ricciardo and Alonso close behind. The Stevenage-born racer eventually finished 13.5 seconds clear as he took his seventh victory of the season.

Second was a great result for Vettel in the end.  The quadruple world drivers’ champion has endured a miserable 2014  so far, watching on as Ricciardo managed three wins and usurped the German as the lead Red Bull driver.  In Singapore, though, Vettel beat Ricciardo fair and square.  It’ll be interesting to see whether this marks a shift in the Red Bull pecking order this year.  Ferrari were also much improved at Marina Bay, with Kimi Raikkonen looking fast all weekend and unlucky not to supplement Alonso’s fourth place finish with more than an eighth place finish.  But behind Hamilton the star of the race was undoubtedly Jean-Eric Vergne in the Toro Rosso.  The Frenchman has lost his drive for next season to rising star Max Verstappen, but he made a great case for a drive elsewhere with sixth place in Singapore, matching his best ever result in Formula 1.

The man of the moment was definitely Hamilton, though.  His 25 point haul in Singapore means that he wiped out his 22 point deficit in the world drivers’ championship in one fell swoop. He now takes a three-point lead into Japan and, with two consecutive wins from pole position, the momentum is very much behind him. There are still five races to go, though, and with double points in Abu Dhabi, Hamilton, and for that matter Rosberg, will need no reminding that the championship battle is far from over.

The championship is as close as it’s ever been, though. It looks like it’s going to be a thrilling climax to the season. I suspect that there are twists and turns yet to come…

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Pitlane to podium for Hamilton in Hungary

A dejected looking Lewis Hamilton walks away from his smoking Mercedes in qualifying

A dejected looking Lewis Hamilton walks away
from his smoking Mercedes in qualifying

After another dreadful qualifying session for Lewis Hamilton in 2014, the Briton looked certain to lose even more ground to Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg in the fight for the world drivers’ championship. Hamilton failed to set a time in Saturday qualifying, after a fuel leak on his Mercedes caused a huge fire putting Hamilton out and giving his Mercedes team a gigantic task to rebuild a car that was almost a total loss.

In contrast, as we’ve seen so many times this season, Rosberg had a trouble-free qualifying session. The German cruised to pole position by around half a second from the Red Bull Racing of Sebastian Vettel. It looked very much set fair for another win for the world drivers’ championship leader.

Sadly for Rosberg, though, the weather certainly wasn’t set fair. A huge downpour around 40 minutes before the start of the race threw a spanner in the works and added a huge amount of spice into the race mix. Nevertheless, though, Hamilton started the race in the worst possible position – the pitlane – and Rosberg in the very best starting spot. It would need a mighty drive from Hamilton, and some of the luck that had been so sorely missing from his season so far, if he was not to fall further behind in the championship race.

The race didn't start well for Hamilton, either, as he spun on the opening lap

The race didn’t start well for Hamilton,
either, as he spun on the opening lap

It certainly looked like luck was against Hamilton in the opening laps. The 2008 world drivers’ champion spun on the very first lap, on just the second corner of his race. Hamilton scraped the barrier, but crucially didn’t cause much damage to his car. Rosberg meanwhile, serenely streaked clear in the lead of the race. By lap eight, though, Hamilton had clawed his way up to 13th position, ahead of the Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen, and then the safety car came out after Marcus Ericsson slammed his Caterham into the wall at turn three – a 20G impact.

Not only did the safety car wipe out Rosberg’s substantial lead over the second placed Williams of Valtteri Bottas, but it fell at an awful time for the German. Rosberg was unable to pit immediately as he’d already passed the pitlane meaning he, as well as Bottas, Vettel and Fernando Alonso in the Ferrari all had to do another lap while the rest of the field streamed in to change from intermediate tyres to, for the most part, soft option slick tyres.

Still, though, Rosberg was in fourth position while Hamilton was 13th as the restart was further delayed by Romain Grosjean crashing his Lotus with the safety car about to release the cars. All was not well with Rosberg, however. Smoke was coming from the left rear brake on his Mercedes and as the race restarted on lap 14 Rosberg fell like a stone.

Perez climbs from his wrecked Force India

Perez climbs from his wrecked Force India

Hamilton on the other hand, was going very much in the opposite direction. By lap 17 the two Mercedes cars were running fifth and seventh, with just the Red Bull of Vettel separating the two Silver Arrows. Another safety car came out on lap 23, however, as Sergio Perez slammed his Force India into the pit wall after spinning coming out of the final turn.

As the safety car came in on lap 27, Alonso led, while Rosberg was up to third and Hamilton fifth. There was no further progress for either driver until Rosberg pitted on lap 33. Almost immediately, Sebastian Vettel had an almost identical accident to Sergio Perez, but managing not to hit the pit wall as he spun out of the final corner. That let Hamilton through and straight onto the back of the out of position Toro Rosso of Jean-Eric Vergne, who had done a tremendous job to hold up Rosberg before the latter pitted.

He couldn’t do the same up against Lewis Hamilton, though, with the Englishman executing the pass of the race on lap 34 to pass the Frenchman around the outside of turn four. Hamilton was now second, with Rosberg 13th, but moving swiftly back up the field after his pit stop. Crucially, though, Hamilton was now a full pit stop ahead of his team-mate. When he eventually made his second stop on lap 40 – from the lead – and fitted the slower, but more durable medium compound slick tyres, we was able to emerge ahead of his team-mate in fifth position.

Rosberg was able to close up to Hamilton, but not close enough to make an overtaking manoeuvre. The team-mates were on different strategies. Rosberg was on the fast option tyres and due to stop once more, while Hamilton was on primes and due to run until the end of the race. Hamilton was asked by the team to let his team-mate through, but Rosberg was simply not close enough and Hamilton was unwilling to lose a significant amount of time to wave his championship rival through.

Ultimately, the decision to put Hamilton on an alternate strategy cost both him and Rosberg the chance to win the race. Hamilton was unable to close in on Alonso and Rosberg was unable to pass Hamilton, with Daniel Ricciardo leading the race by a significant distance from the Spaniard. Ricciardo pitted again for Fresh option on lap 54, rejoining behind Rosberg, with the latter making the same change on lap 56, emerging in seventh.

Alonso, Hamilton and Ricciardo battled for victory in the closing laps

Alonso, Hamilton and Ricciardo
battled for Victory in the closing laps

Alonso – on soft option tyres – led from Hamilton, but Ricciardo was closing rapidly on them both with his new rubber. Similarly Rosberg was catching the leaders at an alarming rate on his fresh tyres, but it was Ricciardo who was in the best position to win the race, and he duly did.

First of all he moved ahead of Hamilton around the outside of turn two on lap 67 and just a lap later overtook Alonso in turn one. The Australian was gone, but Rosberg was now on Hamilton’s tail. The Englishman was just able to hold his team-mate off to claim the final podium position and reduce the championship deficit to 11 points. An almost unthinkable result after their contrasting fortunes in qualifying.

It was Ricciardo who took his second win of the season, though. The Australian will be hugely satisfied with his performances at Red Bull, which have put his four-time world championship winning team-mate, Vettel, in the shade. As we head into the mid-season break, though, it’s Rosberg with the championship lead, albeit slightly reduced. Hamilton, though, may well think that the luck may now be turning in his favour.

One in the eye for Hamilton in Monaco

Having grabbed the lead of the world drivers’ championship with victory in Barcelona – his fourth straight win – Lewis Hamilton promptly surrendered it back to Nico Rosberg, who took a lights to flag victory in Monaco. All quite straightforward, you might think, but that would be a massive over simplification.

The tensions between the two Mercedes team-mates, which had been bubbling away under the surface prior to Monaco, finally erupted this weekend. The battle between the two drivers has been close all season and, going in to the final Q3 run in qualifying the pair were separated by less than six hundredths of a second. But it was what happened on that final qualifying run that has ramped up the tension at Mercedes to such an extent that come the podium in Monaco, the two team-mates couldn’t even look at each other, let alone congratulate each other on another 1, 2 finish.

Rosberg's qualifying error actually guaranteed him pole position

Rosberg’s qualifying error actually
guaranteed him pole position

The flashpoint was the mistake from Nico Rosberg on Saturday, which saw him lock up at Mirabeau and go straight on down the escape road. The error ruined Rosberg’s final run and opened the door for Hamilton, who was half a lap behind him and going quickly. However, the problem for Hamilton was that Rosberg’s error also brought out yellow flags; yellow flags that Rosberg guaranteed would continue to be waved as he reversed backwards onto the track.

There was talk that Rosberg deliberately went off to guarantee himself pole position, but I don’t agree that was the case. Indeed, the stewards didn’t think so, either, having examined the TV footage and telemetry as part of their post-qualifying investigation into the issue. The issue for Mercedes is, though, that many in the paddock, including, crucially, Lewis Hamilton thought otherwise. Hamilton’s mood would not have been helped by Rosberg’s pole celebrations, which I would say were over the top, particularly so given the circumstances.

It’s in a situation like this where the media like to stir the pot. Hamilton fell into the trap of saying that he’d deal with the situation like Senna in a post-qualifying interview, which ramped up the tension another notch. The Prost/Senna comparisons, already prevalent in the media, were brought out again. All the talk was of a potential incident at turn one.

Rosberg leads the field into Saint Devote

Rosberg leads the field into Saint Devote

As it happened there was no such incident come race day. Rosberg got off the line brilliantly, unlike in other races this season, and led Hamilton and the rest of the field into turn one. Given the nature of the Monaco track – tight, twisty, and with limited opportunities to overtake – the start was the first of two big chances for Hamilton to overtake Rosberg; one which he couldn’t take.

The second chance would come through strategy, with Hamilton hoping to use the single pit stop that both drivers were scheduled to make to his advantage. Unfortunately for him, the second of the two safety car periods, caused after Adrian Sutil crashed his Sauber heavily coming out of the tunnel, fell in the ‘window’ for making that pit stop.

The safety car all but ended Hamilton's chances of beating Rosberg

The safety car all but ended
Hamilton’s chances of beating Rosberg

We heard over the radio that Hamilton was irked that he hadn’t stopped immediately, before the deployment of the safety car. Instead Mercedes took the safe option and stopped both drivers on the same lap, following the deployment of the safety car. That decision, while completely understandable, meant that Hamilton had to wave goodbye to his second big chance to overtake his German team-mate.

With Hamilton questioning the decision and his frustration levels rising, he resumed the fight after the safety car in the wrong frame of mind. Not that it mattered at the time, though. Hamilton could never quite get close enough to Rosberg to attempt to pass, even when the latter was forced to save fuel for several laps. The fight was over long before Hamilton suddenly and alarmingly dropped back several seconds from Rosberg after dirt became lodged in his eye.

Ricciardo celebrates his podium finish after the race

Ricciardo celebrates his podium finish after the race

In the end, Rosberg won the race comfortably, by over nine seconds from Hamilton who did well to hold off the hard charging Daniel Ricciardo who took third for Red Bull Racing. Once he’s had a chance to calm down and reflect on the situation Hamilton may feel differently, but he was certainly not happy post-race. The body language between the two team-mates at Mercedes suggests that they’re on the verge of meltdown; a consequence of the team’s decision to let their drivers race each other on an equal footing.

Jules Bianchi scored his, and Marussia's, first points in Monaco

Jules Bianchi scored his, and
Marussia’s, first points in Monaco

While meltdown might be on the cards at Mercedes, there was delight for one of Formula 1’s smaller teams. Marussia, through 24-year-old Frenchman Jules Bianchi, finally scored their first point in Formula 1 in their fifth year in the sport. Bianchi’s ninth place finish (he actually crossed the line eighth, but had to take a five second penalty) resulted in the Banbury-based team scoring not one, but two world championship points.  This means that they’re now ahead not only of fierce rivals Caterham, but also Sauber in the world constructors’ championship. A massive achievement.

There’s no chance of them, or anyone else for that matter, overhauling Mercedes, though. That is unless the Brackley-based squad shoot themselves in the foot by going into a full-scale meltdown. The Silver Arrows have now amassed 240 world championship points. Their nearest rival, Red Bull Racing have yet to break into three figures, thanks, in part, to an early retirement for Sebastian Vettel in Monaco.

All eyes will continue to be on Mercedes as we head to Canada in two weeks’ time. Lewis Hamilton will be desperate to reassert his authority, and retake the championship lead, in Montreal; a track he loves and has had great success at in the past. Nico Rosberg will be equally keen to ensure that the momentum remains with him. The battle between the Mercedes team-mates looks set to be a season long one.

Cruise control in China for hat-trick hero Hamilton

The thrills and fireworks that we saw last time out in Bahrain were sadly lacking at the Chinese grand prix. In that respect the two races couldn’t have been more different, but in another they couldn’t have been more alike. Once again, we saw Mercedes very firmly on top yet again, as Lewis Hamilton led home his team-mate Nico Rosberg to take his first ever Formula 1 hat-trick of victories with his third straight win and the team’s third consecutive 1-2 finish.

Hamilton proudly holds his winner's trophy aloft

Hamilton proudly holds his winner’s trophy aloft

The manner of Hamilton’s victory was akin to his first win of the season in Malaysia; completely dominant, with an 18 second margin of victory to his team-mate. In some ways, the race in Shanghai was even more impressive from Hamilton. The Englishman was severely hampered in Friday free practice because of suspension troubles which limited his running in FP1.

Despite finishing FP2 on top of the timesheets, Hamilton wasn’t happy with the car and made some big set-up changes for Saturday. Saturday free practice and qualifying were wet, however, which meant that, even though he claimed pole position, going into the race, however, he had no idea whether those changes would actually work. They clearly did, showing yet again that Hamilton’s detractors are wrong; he has the intellectual capacity to go alongside his undoubted natural speed and racing skills.

Indeed, the 2008 world drivers’ champion proved his critics wrong again during the race in China. Some said Hamilton would struggle with having to manage fuel consumption as a result of the 100 kg per hour fuel flow limit imposed in the new regulations. However, as we have seen in the previous two races, Hamilton’s fuel consumption was excellent. In China it was easily better than anyone else.

Hamilton was way out in the lead for the majority of the race in China

Hamilton was way out in the lead
for the majority of the race in China

Hamilton has also been criticised for using his Pirelli tyres too aggressively in the past, resulting in higher wear rates and faster degradation than his rivals. In China, while the likes of Red Bull Racing’s four time world drivers’ champion Sebastian Vettel complained about tyre wear over the team-radio, Hamilton declared “Surprisingly the front tyres still feel really good, as well as the rears.” He pitted some three laps later than team-mate Nico Rosberg on lap 17, after a brief off track moment as his soft Pirelli tyres finally gave up.

Hamilton, as in Malaysia, led every lap of the race, but to be fair to Nico Rosberg things might have been closer than the 18 second margin of victory suggested. Rosberg had a poor start and fell backwards as his team-mate got the perfect launch off the line to lead Vettel into turn one. Rosberg on the other had dropped down to seventh place, after heavy contact with the Williams of Valtteri Bottas in turn one.

Rosberg did well to recover from his disastrous start, to finish the race in second place. This was even more the case given that the German – the race winner in Australia – had to race without his car’s telemetry being communicated to the pit wall. This meant that Rosberg had to provide his team with fuel consumption data from his steering wheel’s LED display – an annoyance and a clear source of frustration.

Vettel seems to be struggling with his Red Bull

Vettel seems to be struggling with his Red Bull

Rosberg’s troubles pale into insignificance compared to those of Sebastian Vettel, though. Vettel, so dominant in winning four consecutive championships wth Red Bull, is clearly struggling with the 2014 RB10 and the change of regulations. Vettel has been out qualified three times in four races by his new team-mate Daniel Ricciardo, and although he leads the young Australian in the fledging championship table he is not having things all his own way.

For the second time in two races, Vettel was asked to let the faster Ricciardo through. In China, he refused to do so, questioning his race engineer about the tyres the Ricciardo was on and the reason why he was being asked to move over. When told that Ricciardo had fresher tyres he replied simply “tough luck”. A couple of laps later Ricciardo moved ahead of his team-mate into turn one and although the official line from Red Bull was that Vettel had let him through, it certainly didn’t look like that was the case.

Ricciardo leads Vettel, who eventually finished 20 seconds behind his team-mate

Ricciardo leads Vettel, who eventually finished
20 seconds behind his team-mate

Vettel eventually finished the race in Shanghai a very distant fifth, only one place behind Ricciardo, but a massive twenty seconds adrift of his team-mate. Sobering stuff for the defending world drivers’ champion. He’s not the only one unexpectedly struggling, though. Kimi Raikkonen is having a torrid time on his return to Ferrari. The Finn finished down in eighth place in China, over 50 seconds behind his team-mate Fernando Alonso who drove brilliantly to claim Ferrari’s first podium of the season with a third place finish.

There are a few other teams and drivers that are worthy of a mention. Despite Romain Grosjean’s retirement following gearbox trouble it clearly looks like Lotus are finally getting their act together in 2014. The Frenchman did brilliantly to qualify in the top 10 and had been on course for a points finish before retiring. McLaren, though, seem to be on the opposite trajectory. After a hugely promising start to the season with a double podium finish in Australia, the Woking-based team now appear to be struggling. In China, they were the least competitive of all of the Mercedes powered teams, finishing in 11th and 13 positions, both cars having been lapped.

The turn one contact between Rosberg and Bottas

The turn one contact between Rosberg and Bottas

Williams are still looking competitive. But for first lap contact for both Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas and a truly horrendous first pit stop for Massa, the team might have had more than Bottas’s seventh place to take away from Shanghai. Given the right conditions, and a bit of luck, a podium finish would not look to be beyond Williams’s reach at some stage this season, especially if Massa can continue to make the same sort of lightning quick starts that we’ve seen in recent races.

It will be a big ask for anyone to catch Mercedes, though. Such was the dominance of Hamilton in Shanghai that the chequered flag was waved a lap early. A bizarre mistake, which fortunately didn’t alter the result of the race much. The only driver to miss out was Kamui Kobayashi in the Caterham, who had passed Jules Bianchi’s Marussia on the last scheduled lap of the race, which was officially classified as running for 54 laps rather than the planned 56, in accordance with the regulations.

Next we move to Europe for the Spanish grand prix. This is the race where traditionally the teams make big updates to their cars. On the strength of the evidence of the first four races, the others will have to make some massive improvements to get onto terms with the Silver Arrows.

Marussia: Ahead of Caterham by a nose?

Thanks to  Express Insurance for sponsoring this post.

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!

The class of 2013

As always, now that the first winter test has been and gone we’re none the wiser about the respective pace of the 11 teams on the Formula 1 grid. However, now that 10 of those 11 teams have confirmed their driver line ups – the exception being Force India, who have yet to announce who will race for them alongside Paul di Resta – we can be much more certain about who will actually be on the grid come the opening race in Australia in about a month’s time. Unusually, of the 21 seats that have been filled, nearly a quarter are filled with rookies.

Indeed, once Force India confirm their driver line up, the number of rookies on the grid may well increase to six – more than a quarter of the field – if, as seems quite likely, Jules Bianchi gets the nod. For now, though, I’m going to ignore Bianchi and instead look at the five confirmed Formula 1 rookies for 2013. Let’s focus on these F1 novices and assess their chances.

Valtteri Bottas, Williams FW34 , Hungaroring, Budapest, Hungary, 27th July 2012. Copyright:Glenn Dunbar/LAT

Valtteri Bottas, Williams FW34 , Hungaroring, Budapest, Hungary, 27th July 2012. Copyright:Glenn Dunbar/LAT

I’ll start with Williams’ young Finnish driver Valtteri Bottas. Bottas is unique among this year’s crop of rookies as he has never competed in Formula 1 feeder series GP2. The Finn was, though, crowned GP3 champion in 2011 and makes up for his lack of racing in GP2 with three years spent with Williams as a test driver. This will mean that Bottas will have had some considerable input into the design and development of the Williams FW35 – the only 2013 car still to be unveiled – and will know exactly what to expect from a car that, because of his input into its design and development, is likely to suit him.

Despite his lack of recent racing experience, GP3 aside, let’s not forget that Bottas does have a fair amount of Formula 1 experience. The 23 year old took part in 15 Friday free practice sessions in 2012, on top of his other duties as a test driver, and was impressively faster than race driver Pastor Maldonado in six of these free practice appearances. The Finn is certainly rated very highly by Williams and it will be interesting to see how he fairs against former GP2 champion, and Formula 1 race winner, Maldonado. I expect that the two will be closely matched and that Bottas may even outpace his more experienced Venezuelan team mate. I would be far from surprised if Bottas ends the season as top rookie.

Esteban Gutierrez testing the Sauber C32 at JerezBy Leo Hidalgo, via Wikimedia Commons

Esteban Gutierrez testing the Sauber C32 at Jerez
By Leo Hidalgo, via Wikimedia Commons

I expect that the other contender for the top rookie crown come the end of the 2013 Formula 1 season will be Esteban Gutierrez. Sauber’s new race driver, like Bottas, has been with his current employers for quite some time. The 21 year old Mexican first tested for Sauber, in their former guise as BMW Sauber, in 2009 and, again like Bottas, has been with his team as a reserve and test driver for the last three seasons.

Unlike Bottas, though, Gutierrez has not had much Formula 1 free practice experience, appearing only once in FP1 in 2012, deputising for his unwell compatriot, Sergio Perez, in India. Gutierrez does, though, have the edge on Bottas in terms of recent race experience, having come home third in last season’s GP2 championship, ahead of his team-mate James Calado, the same team-mate that Bottas beat to the GP3 championship a year earlier. Gutierrez has big shoes to fill at Sauber, though. His fellow Mexican Perez was outstanding in 2012 and was rewarded with a move to McLaren to replace Lewis Hamilton. It remains to be seen whether Gutierrez can rise to the challenge. He was inconsistent in GP2, and I expect that 2013 may well be a tough year for him, especially alongside Nico Hulkenberg – a former GP2 champion and a Formula 1 pole sitter.

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Luiz Razia at Moscow City Racing 2011
By RusRayden, via Wikimedia Commons

The remaining three 2013 rookies fill three of the four seats at the two remaining ‘new’ Formula 1 teams – Caterham and Marussia. The first of these is Luiz Razia, who was only confirmed as the second Marussia race driver last week. Like Gutierrez, Razia competed in GP2 last season, finishing runner up in the championship with four race victories. The Brazilian also has some Formula 1 experience as a test driver, first with his current team in their former guise of Virgin racing and, more recently, with Team Lotus, which has now become Caterham. Like Gutierrez, his only experience of Formula 1, other than a young driver test, was a single free practice outing. For Razia, this came at the 2011 Chinese grand prix.

Max Chilton

Max Chilton testing the Marussia MR02 at Jerez
By Leo Hidalgo, via Wikimedia Commons

Going head to head with Razia at Marussia is another rookie, Englishman Max Chilton. Chilton, at 21 years of age, is a couple of years younger than his Brazilian team-mate, who he competed alongside in last year’s GP2 series finishing the championship in fourth place at the end of the season. Chilton has been with Marussia as their test and reserve driver since last year’s Japanese GP and, like both Gutierrez and Razia, he took part in a single Friday free practice session – for Chilton, this came at the Abu Dhabi GP. It should be an interesting battle between the two rookies at Marussia and it’s pretty tough to predict who will come out on top. It may well be the case that the one who loses out may also lose out on an F1 drive in 2014. One thing’s for sure, though, we’re highly unlikely to see either Razia or Chilton, battling with Bottas and Gutierrez to be the top rookie.

Guido van der Garde driving for Caterham in FP1 at the 2012 Japanese GPBy Morio, via Wikimedia Commons

Guido van der Garde driving for Caterham in FP1 at the 2012 Japanese GP
By Morio, via Wikimedia Commons

That leaves us with one more F1 novice to assess; Caterham new boy Guido van der Garde. Van der Garde is the fourth of our five rookies to have graduated from GP2 and, at 27 years of age, the Dutchman is the oldest and most experienced of the bunch, with Formula 1 experience as a test and reserve driver as long ago as 2007, with Spyker (now known as Force India). It is perhaps telling that van der Garde has not made his Formula 1 breakthrough before now. Despite his experience as Caterham’s test and reserve driver last season, the Dutchman did not take part in any Friday free practice sessions, which places him at a slight disadvantage in comparison to his peers. I doubt that this will prove crucial though, and it will be interesting to see how well van der Garde does in comparison to 2012 F1 rookie Charles Pic.

Of the five rookies, I feel that van der Garde is the one that’s most likely to struggle. Much will depend, of course, on how competitive his Caterham CT03 is in comparison to its rivals. Despite now entering their fourth year in the sport Caterham, and the other remaining new team Marussia, have failed to break through to challenge the more established teams. This places their drivers, and especially the rookies, at a distinct disadvantage. Unless one of these teams has made huge strides forward, I imagine that we’ll see van der Garde, Chilton and Razia competing for the wooden spoon at the end of the season.

As I’ve indicated, though, I expect more from the two rookies driving for more established teams. On ultimate pace I think that Bottas has the edge over Gutierrez, but it’s very tough to tell. We have to go back to 2009 to see when these two last went head-to-head for a full season and it was Bottas that came out on top in the Formula Three Euroseries. Whether it’s Bottas or Gutierrez that takes the rookie crown will depend largely on how good their cars are. The Sauber C32 certainly looks to be the most innovative of this year’s crop of F1 cars, but Williams have yet to show their hand. As always, though, nothing is certain in the unpredictable world of F1.