Formula 1 2013 Progress Report: Caterham
Caterham finished the 2012 Formula One season in 10th place in the constructors' championship, but it was a close run thing.
After a promising start and some positive statements, they dropped the ball badly as the season went on and were almost overhauled by the financially weaker Marussia team.
In the closing months of last season Tony Fernandes stepped down from his role as Team Principle, and his replacement is Cyril Abiteboul, formerly of Renault Sport F1.
That can only be a positive. As good as Mr. Fernandes is in the business world, the role of team principle should be held by someone well versed in the sport and who can dedicate themselves to it full-time.
This year's car, the CT03, is an evolution of last year's CT01 (the CT02 is, confusingly, a road car). It's currently very similar to its older brother, so much so that Abiteboul described it as a hybrid car.
By that he means it's part 2012, part 2013—more so than the other cars on the grid.
There are a good number of changes from last year, but as it stands the CT03 is a work-in-progress—the team has major updates planned for the Bahrain Grand Prix, and the hope is that they'll make the car substantially quicker.
But as a snapshot of what it is now, it holds the distinction of being the worst car on the grid.
And it seems especially poor in qualifying. The CT03 was actually slower around Malaysia in Q1 a few weeks ago than the CT01 was last year. Every other car was quicker than its predecessor.
From their formation in 2010 as Lotus, Caterham have always fielded at least one race winner—Heikki Kovalainen and Jarno Trulli in 2010 and 2011, and Kovalainen alone in 2012. They weren't the best of the best, but they were experienced racers.
This season, they've taken the dual pay-driver approach.
The team is led by Charles Pic, veteran of 20 races prior to the start of the year. He's joined by Giedo van der Garde, who had zero race starts.
Pic did well from 22nd on the grid in Australia, using a two-stop strategy to come home in 16th, a minute clear of his teammate. In the battle with Marussia, he comfortably beat Max Chilton but couldn't really compete with Jules Bianchi.
Van der Garde was last after suffering minor damage and coming off second-best in a long battle with Chilton.
In Malaysia things were much closer. The two drivers finished around 10 seconds apart, van der Garde following home Pic. Both beat Marussia's Chilton, but again Bianchi was a good distance down the road.
It's difficult to say whether they're doing well, but on balance it looks a fairly encouraging start to the year for both drivers.
Pic is (as we would have expected) ahead at the moment, so it'll be interesting to see if van der Garde can close the gap in the next few races.
Before the start of the year, Caterham's team principle Cyril Abiteboul spoke to Formula1.com about the season ahead. You can read it here if you wish.
The general gist of the interview is that there's no longer talk of trying to bridge the gap to the midfield—rather, it's all about team stability and long-term goals.
While it's refreshing to see a bit of honesty and realism, the interview suggests Caterham wrote off 2013 before it even began. They have more than one eye on 2014, when substantial regulation changes come into effect.
But they really do need to beat Marussia this year to 10th for the financial benefits it will bring. The team finishing 10th will receive around $20m more from the teams' prize fund, and the importance of that amount can't be understated.
There are (as mentioned above) new parts planned to arrive in time for the Bahrain Grand Prix, and Caterham have a bigger development budget than their Russian rivals.
And for a backmarker, they have quite a strong technical team. John Iley, Mark Smith and Hari Roberts have been around a long time, and their experience should be helpful.
It all depends on the upgrades. If they don't have the desired result, Bianchi will be leaving them for dead all season long.
If they do work, the fight at the back will provide an extremely interesting sideshow.
Previously: Marussia Progress Report.
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