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!

The case for Kovalainen at Ferrari

Probably the most talked about of the potential driver moves come the end of the season is Felipe Massa’s expected departure from Ferrari.  Despite Massa’s recent improvement,  it seems unlikely that the Brazilian will stay at the Scuderia beyond the end of his current contract, which expires at the end of 2012.

Given that Massa’s departure has yet to be confirmed – team boss Stefano Domenicali recently said that Massa “knows that he has in front of him some very important races”, perhaps indicating that there’s a chance that he might be retained – the question of which driver might replace him as Fernando Alonso’s team-mate in 2013 cannot yet be answered.  That hasn’t stopped the speculation, though, with various drivers having been linked to a Ferrari drive in 2013, including Mark Webber, Jenson Button, Kimi Raikkonen and Sergio Perez.  Also linked recently with the Ferrari drive has been Heikki Kovalainen.  Here’s why I think that the Caterham driver might be the perfect solution for Ferrari.

One important factor is that Kovalainen is available, with his contract at Caterham coming to an end at around the same time as Massa’s at Ferrari.  Kovalainen said, when asked about his future last month “I think everyone knows my contract is coming to an end at Caterham but I haven’t spoken to my current team and I haven’t spoken to any other teams yet”.  That’s certainly not a clear statement of intent from the Finn, but until a decision is made and a contract signed you wouldn’t really expect one.

Heikki Kovalainen. 2012 Hungarian Grand Prix
Copyright: Charles Coates/LAT Photographic

The contract situation does, of course, mean that Ferrari wouldn’t need to buy Kovalainen out of his contract, but the same could be said of many of the other drivers that have been linked with the Ferrari hot seat.  More importantly, though, Kovalainen is the only driver out of the many linked with Massa’s drive that is not currently driving a car that’s capable of winning races.  Having driven around at the back of the grid for three years with Caterham (in its various guises), Kovalainen would presumably jump at the chance of driving for one of Formula 1’s top teams.  Race wins wouldn’t be guaranteed, but fighting for podiums would be, as would scoring points on a regular basis; something that Caterham have been unable to achieve after three years in the sport.

I think that it’s fair to say that the lure of Ferrari itself is a pretty big draw for any Formula 1 driver, but for a driver in Kovalainen’s position the motivation to join a top team must be particularly strong.  This is a plus for Ferrari who will certainly want a motivated team-mate for Alonso, someone with the desire and ability to compete at the front and score points regularly, something that Felipe Massa has been failing to do in recent seasons.

Ferrari can also be confident that Kovalainen has what it takes to drive for a top Formula 1 team.  Kovalainen is now 30 years of age and has spent six seasons racing in F1.  Although, as I’ve already mentioned, the most recent three of those years has been spent at the back of the grid with Caterham, 2007-2009 were spent at two of the sports front running teams; Renault (now Lotus) in 2007 and McLaren from 2008-2009.

So, in Kovalainen, we have an experienced Formula 1 driver who has already driven for two of the sport’s top teams.  If that’s not reason enough for the Finn to be of interest to Ferrari, Kovalainen also has a Formula 1 victory to his name, having taken the chequered flag at the 2008 Hungarian grand prix, in doing so becoming the 100th Formula 1 race winner.

Despite all of these points in Kovalainen’s favour, I don’t think that these would necessarily be enough to land him the drive with Ferrari without one crucial final factor.  So what is the vital missing ingredient?  Kovalainen also has experience of being the ‘number two’ driver – having spent two years in just such a role at McLaren, alongside Lewis Hamilton – and I suspect that he would be happy enough to play this role again at Ferrari.

In any other team I think that this particular factor wouldn’t necessarily be all that important, but at Ferrari I think that it’s crucial.  As we know, in the recent history of Formula 1 Ferrari has been built around one dominant lead driver, with a capable number two in support.  We first saw this when Michael Schumacher joined the team in 1996.  Schumacher’s first team-mate at the Scuderia was Eddie Irvine, who played the supporting act to Schumacher for four years before Rubens Barrichello joined the team in 2000.  Barrichello himself played the number two role for six years at Ferrari.

Fernando Alonso. 2012 Malaysian GP
By Morio (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The same sort of driver pairing was recreated at Ferrari in 2009, when Fernando Alonso joined Massa at the Maranello based team.  Like Schumacher, Alonso joined Ferrari as a double world champion and quickly asserted himself as the clear lead driver with Massa forced to play the role of the number two.  Perhaps the clearest example of this pecking order was at the 2010 German grand prix when Massa was told by his race engineer “OK, so, Fernando is faster than you. Can you confirm you understood that message?” and two laps later dutifully pulled over to let his team leader pass him.

Given Ferrari’s recent history, and the fact that Alonso remains with the team, clearly established as the number one driver, Ferrari will want a driver that can play the same number two role.  Indeed, the only reason that it looks like Massa himself will not continue in this role is that he is not doing it well enough.  Kovalainen would, I think, be the perfect replacement.

As I mentioned earlier, though, Kovalainen is certainly not the only driver to have been linked to the possible vacancy at Ferrari.  Before announcing that he had extended his contract for another year at Red Bull Racing, Mark Webber admitted that he had spoken to Ferrari.  Jenson Button has also been linked, but given that he is under contract at McLaren this seems to be one of the least credible rumours.  He certainly wouldn’t fit the ‘number two’ criteria either.

Slightly more credible were the rumours linking Kimi Raikkonen with a return to the team that he won the world drivers’ championship with in 2007.  Raikkonen is out of contract with Lotus at the end of the season, but given the breakdown of his relationship with Ferrari chairman Luca di Montezemolo by the time that he left the team, and Formula 1, to go rallying at the end of 2008 I suspect that a return to Ferrari is not one the cards.  Furthermore, like Jenson Button, I would think that as a championship winner in his own right, Raikkonen wouldn’t want to go to Ferrari to play second fiddle to Alonso.

The most credible option of the other drivers that have been linked with the Ferrari drive is Sauber’s Mexican driver Sergio Perez.  Indeed, I’ve previously written that I thought that Perez was the most likely replacement for Massa at Ferrari.  He’s young, quick and undoubtedly talented and what’s more he will be out of contract with Sauber come the end of the season and he is a Ferrari development driver that drivers for a team using customer Ferrari engines.

Sergio Perez. 2012 Australian GP
By parepinvr4 (DSC_5420) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

However, there is a good case to be made against Perez being the right choice for Ferrari at the current time.  Perez is, as I mentioned, still a young an inexperienced driver and he might not be the right option for Ferrari to fill the role of solid, consistent support act to Fernando Alonso.  Indeed, Ferrari have themselves intimated that the time might not be right for Perez, with Ferrari Driver Academy head Luca Baldisserri saying earlier this season that  the Mexican was “too aggressive”.  Even more importantly, when asked about the possibility of Perez joining Alonso at Ferrari in 2013 Luca di Montezemolo responded by saying “to drive a Ferrari you need more experience”.  This may well be a smokescreen, however, and I suspect that Perez will end up at Ferrari, just not quite yet.

The lack of suitable alternatives does, therefore, strengthen the case in support of Kovalainen joining Alonso at Ferrari next season, especially when considered alongside the other factors in the Finn’s favour.  We might have to wait a while for our answer;  Stefano Domenicali stated last week that “There is no rush on our decision”, and as with everything else this season, the final outcome remains hard to predict.  It’s quite possible that we’ll end up with a surprise team-mate for Alonso at Ferrari in 2013 – there’s certainly no shortage of drivers that would love to drive for the Prancing Horse.