The battle at the back

While Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso battle it out for wins, points and the glory of taking the 2012 world drivers’ championship, it’s easy to forget the battles further down the grid. I’m not talking about the battle between Mark Webber, Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button for a distant fourth in the drivers’ world championship or even the contest between Mercedes and Sauber for fifth in the constructors’ world championship. I’m looking even further back than that, at the battle to finish a race in 11th place and, who knows, maybe even score a single world championship point for a 10th place finish. There are two races left to run and three teams battling to finish 10th in the world constructors’ championship. Will it be Marussia, Caterham or HRT?

All three of the teams battling away at the back of the grid entered the sport in 2010 and in each of their first two years in Formula 1 they have finished in the same positions in the world constructors championship: 10th for Caterham (previously Lotus Racing and Team Lotus), 11th for HRT and 12th for Marussia (previously Virgin Racing). At the start of the season, the only change to this pecking order that looked likely was Marussia finishing ahead of HRT. Few would have bet against Caterham being the best of the new teams yet again, and there was a fair degree of optimism that Tony Fernandes’s team would even score a point or two.

Heikki Kovalainen, Caterham CT01
Abu Dhabi, 4 November 2012
via CaterhamF1.com

Caterham seemed to be moving forward. Their dispute over the use of the Lotus name was now behind them and they had signed a deal to use Renault engines; seen as a step forward from the Cosworth power units that the three new teams had all used in their first two seasons, and which Marussia and HRT continue to use in 2012. Not only were Caterham benefitting from the same engine used by world constructors champions Red Bull Racing, but they also were the only one of the ‘new’ teams to race with the KERS power boost system on their cars in 2012 (HRT also tried the system in Australia, but having failed to qualify for the race they soon removed it from their cars). Although the value of KERS varies depending on the circuit, over the course of the season this should be a great advantage for Caterham over their immediate competitors.

With 18 out of 20 races in the 2012 Formula 1 world championship having now been run, however, things don’t seem to be turning out as we, and perhaps Caterham, might have expected. While it’s true that Caterham have clearly been the pick of the bottom three teams in qualifying, with Heikki Kovalainen the only driver competing for the those teams who has managed to make it out of the first part of qualifying in 2012. Indeed, Kovalainen has not only managed this once, but seven times, even managing to qualify in 16th position on three occasions: the races in Bahrain, Valencia and Germany. Given that the best that any of the four Marussia and HRT drivers have managed in qualifying is a single 18th place start for Timo Glock at the Japanese grand prix, it is perhaps even more surprising that Caterham are not in tenth place in the championship.

Narain Karthikeyan, HRT F112
Singapore, 23 September 2012
By suran2007, via Wikiemedia Commons

As we’re frequently reminded, though, there are no points for qualifying in Formula 1. If there were, perhaps things would look very different for Caterham, and maybe others, in the championship. What counts in Formula 1 are performances on Sundays, in race conditions. Even on Sundays, though, Caterham have consistently come out on top against their main rivals. The team have finished 13th on three separate occasions in 2012, twice for Kovalainen (in Monaco and at the last race in Abu Dhabi) and once for his team-mate Vitaly Petrov (in the European grand prix at Valencia). In comparison, HRT have managed their best result of 15th in just once race this season; the European grand prix, through Narain Kathikeyan. The Indian’s team-mate at HRT, Pedro de la Rosa, has a best result of 17th.

Despite finishing just behind Caterham in the constructors championship in 2010 and 2011, it is not HRT that are Caterham’s main rivals for 10th place in the constructors’ championship in 2012, however. In 2012 it’s Marussia that are making the biggest challenge and, indeed, hold the advantage with just two races to go. Despite Caterham usually managing better results than Marussia, it’s the Anglo-Russian team that currently sits in 10th position in the constructors’ championship thanks to the single 12th placed finish achieved by their experienced German driver, Timo Glock, in Singapore.

That 12th place finish, in the Singapore GP, bettered the team’s previous best of 14th place, which Glock has managed on three occasions this season (his French team-mate Charles Pic has a best result of 15th, which he’s managed twice), and could potentially provide a prize money boost for Marussia at the end of the season. It looked possible that Caterham and Kovalainen might have equalled that result at last weekend’s Abu Dhabi grand prix. The Finn was running in 12th place at certain stages of the race, but eventually finished in 13th place, just under 13 seconds behind Torro Rosso’s Jean-Eric Vergne.

Despite, as expected at the start of the season, looking like the fastest of the three new teams, Caterham find themselves needing at least a 12th place finish in the last two races of the season to finish ahead of Marussia in the 2012 world constructors’ championship. With the funding – through the prize money boost that finishing 10th in the constructors’ championship in each of the last two seasons brought – and technical advantages that a Renault engine and KERS would have brought them, Caterham will be extremely disappointed if they do not finish ahead of Marussia come the end of the season.

Timo Glock, Marussia MR01
Sepang, Malaysia, 23 March 2012
By Morio, via Wikimedia Commons

Certainly, Marussia are taking nothing for granted. Team Principal John Booth said last week that “We have to continue closing that gap and find the momentum to get ahead of them [Caterham] on track. We’ve come very close in recent races, despite their KERS advantage, and we’ll remain in dogged pursuit of this objective right up until the chequered flag in Brazil”. However, as Booth himself acknowledged, for the teams at the back of the grid their destiny is not completely in their own hands. Referring to the last race Booth said “Abu Dhabi had us on the edge of our pitwall seats at various points, as it reminded us that to hold on to 10th in the Constructors’ Championship, we cannot control what happens further up the field”.

Indeed, a race of high attrition in Austin or Interlagos could prove to be the deciding factor in the race for 10th in the world constructors’ championship. It’s a shame that, three seasons into their Formula 1 journey, none of the new teams are yet in a position to compete with the more established teams in terms of outright speed.

Maybe that will come next year, but for now they’re all relying largely on outside factors to enable them to move forward in races. What is clear, however, is that despite moving forward in terms of the gap to the frontrunners, HRT are falling further behind their immediate rivals in terms of their performances on the track. Outside factors are one thing, but it’s going to need divine intervention for HRT to finish anything other than last in this years’ constructors’ championship. It’s looking like a straight fight between Marussia and Caterham for 10th place in 2012.

Moving on from Gherkin-gate

Probably the biggest talking point from the recent Malaysian Grand Prix was the coming together between Narain Karthikeyan and Sebastian Vettel. The contact, which occurred as the Red Bull attempted to lap the HRT, resulted in front wing damage for the Indian and a left rear puncture for the German, with the resulting pit stop for fresh rubber dropping Vettel from 4th to 11th position; out of the points.

After the race Vettel called the HRT driver a “gherkin” and an “idiot”, placing the blame for the coming together squarely at the Indian’s door.  The stewards agreed that Karthikeyan was at fault and handed him a post race 20 second penalty.  Some disagreed with this verdict and judged that the contact was a “racing incident”, while others thought that the clash was actually Vettel’s fault.  I’m of the view that the incident itself was Vettel’s fault.  The Red Bull appeared to clip the HRT rather than the other way around.  Yes, as the driver being lapped Karthikeyan is responsible for moving out of the way to let the faster cars through, but in this case I don’t think that he was given anywhere to go by Vettel.

However, given that the penalty for Karthikeyan had no impact on the race result – and, should the stewards have decided the opposite way, a similar penalty for Vettel would have been just as meaningless given his finishing position – the controversy has centred on Vettel’s post race comments rather than the incident itself.   A case can clearly be made that the double World Champion’s comments were harsh and, some would say, ungentlemanly.  Certainly Karthikeyan would agree with this assessment calling Vettel a “cry baby” and labelling the German’s comments “shameful”.  So were Vettel’s post race comments fair or justifiable?  Putting aside the fact that Vettel clearly felt that he was the aggrieved party, the short answer to this question is no.  Remember, despite Vettel’s own views, and indeed those of the race stewards, fault for the clash was far from clear.  In his heart of hearts, Vettel must have realised this.

So, then, why was Vettel so vocal in his criticism of Karthikeyan?  My answer to this question can be summarised in one word: frustration.  Looking at the situation from the outside, it certainly looks like Vettel is far from happy that the Red Bull RB8 is not, at least at this stage of the season, the fastest car on the grid.  It’s possible that, after dominating in 2011 in a car that was the class of the field, Vettel is finding it hard to adapt to a situation where he needs to fight and scrap for race wins and podiums.  Throwing away what would have been a valuable 12 points for 4th place, through what I believe was his own carelessness, must have been particularly galling given the current situation.  I think that this could be a real test for Vettel, who needs to focus on helping his team out develop McLaren, rather than wasting his time and energy on a spat with a backmarker.

Although he’s a double World Champion, it’s easy to forget that at 24 years of age Vettel is still a very young driver, with a degree of maturing still to do.  You could argue that this lack of maturity can be further evidenced by the fact that he didn’t retire the car in Malaysia, seemingly ignoring his team’s orders – through the “emergency” message from his race engineer, Guillaume “Rocky” Rocquelin – to do so.  Red Bull have since claimed that Vettel didn’t hear this, or other similar messages, due to an issue with his radio, but as an outsider, with no inside information, it’s hard to know whether this is true or not.

Don’t count Vettel out yet, though.  A fighting win from behind in 2010, where he won the championship despite having never lead the standings until he crossed the line in the final race in Abu Dhabi, should serve as sufficient warning to his competitors that he remains a threat.  He’s currently 6th in the championship, 17 points behind the current leader, Spain’s Fernando Alonso, but only 7 points behind the winner in Australia, Jenson Button, who is 3rd in the championship.  A race win for Vettel in China, would see him, at worst, draw level on points with the Englishman.  If results go his way Vettel could even be leading the championship after China.  It’s going to be a great season; there are still 18 races left to run…