Have Caterham and Marussia Closed the Gap to the Bigger Formula 1 Teams?

Matthew WalthertFeatured ColumnistJanuary 12, 2014

SAKHIR, BAHRAIN - APRIL 21:  (L-R) Mark Webber of Australia and Infiniti Red Bull Racing and Jules Bianchi of France and Marussia drive side by side during the Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix at the Bahrain International Circuit on April 21, 2013 in Sakhir, Bahrain.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
Clive Mason/Getty Images

For the 2010 Formula One season, the FIA allowed three new entrants to join the grid. With the addition of Lotus, Virgin and Hispania Racing (HRT), the number of constructors expanded to 12, the first time since 1995 that more than 11 teams participated in a season.

At the time, Virgin boss Richard Branson bragged that, "This will be the lowest-budget team in Formula One. Money's not everything," according to The Guardian.

Meanwhile, when asked how long it would take before Lotus could challenge the established teams, then-chief technical officer Mike Gascoyne told Formula1.com that, "A small, efficient operation has to look at doing so in three to five years, and that's our aim."

2014 will be the fifth season since the new teams joined. HRT folded after the 2012 season, Lotus changed its name to Caterham and Virgin was rebranded as Marussia.

Caterham's Giedo van der Garde and Marussia's Jules Bianchi.
Caterham's Giedo van der Garde and Marussia's Jules Bianchi.Clive Mason/Getty Images

In four seasons of racing, Caterham and Marussia have yet to score their first points and, to most outside observers, it may not look as though any progress is being made. But while the points have not yet come, there are other ways to measure whether the gap between the new(ish) teams and the more established constructors is closing.

One statistic worthy of examination is qualifying times. In Q1, when the cars are running on low fuel and the lower-echelon teams are scrapping to make it through to Q2, we can be fairly certain that drivers for those teams are registering the fastest times their cars are capable of.

With that in mind, the following chart shows the average gap between the highest-ranked Caterham and Marussia and the lowest-ranked car from the established teams in Q1, for the last four seasons:

Average Q1 Qualifying Gaps to Established Teams, 2010 to 2013
Team2010201120122013
Caterham+1.004 seconds+0.591 seconds+0.635 seconds+0.672 seconds
Marussia+1.353 seconds+2.037 seconds+1.859 seconds+0.918 seconds
Compiled by Matthew Walthert using results tables from Wikipedia.

While not perfect, these numbers do give us an idea of where the two teams stand relative to each other and to the sport's more-established teams.

Recently, Marussia team principal John Booth told ESPN F1 that:

I think we've improved operationally, year in, year out. We look like a proper F1 team, we operate like a proper F1 team. ... Although the positions throughout the year were not that different compared to the year before, percentage wise we were much closer to the front and I think we finished a couple of races on the same lap as the leaders.

Marussia team principal John Booth.
Marussia team principal John Booth.Mark Thompson/Getty Images

The qualifying numbers bear that out. After a significant regression between 2010 and 2011, Marussia has steadily improved. That improvement culminated with the team's first-ever finish ahead of Caterham in the 2013 Constructors' Championship.

In terms of race pace, for both Caterham and Marussia, the results are slightly tougher to decipher (at least without the teams' telemetry). Looking closely, though, improvements are also discernible on Sundays. This table breaks down the number times the lead car from each team finished on the lead lap or one (or more) laps down, by season:

Caterham and Marussia: Leading Cars' Gaps to the Race Winner
CaterhamLead Lap+1 Lap+2 Laps+3 Laps+4 Or More Laps
201006522
201117900
2012316000
2013311310
MarussiaLead Lap+1 Lap+2 Laps+3 Laps+4 Or More Laps
201002651
201103952
2012312410
2013310510
Compiled by Matthew Walthert using results tables from Wikipedia.

Like the qualifying statistics, these numbers demonstrate that, despite a lack of points-scoring finishes, Caterham and Marussia are getting closer to the more established teams.

However, from 2012 to 2013, in particular, Caterham seemed to lapse. In a telephone interview, the team's head of communications, Tom Webb, explained to Bleacher Report that:

Knowing realistically that our aim for 2013...was to finish 10th, we knew it was unlikely we were going to be in a position to bridge the gap to the midfield. ... So we took a gamble, which was starting the 2013 season with a very slightly revised version of our 2012 car. ... It was a risk that we knew we had to take. However, what it has done, is it has enabled us to be able to focus on the 2014 car. For us, Marussia and, I think, quite a few other teams out there, 2014 represents an opportunity to start afresh.

Indeed, 2014 should provide a big opportunity for Caterham and Marussia, not only because the new regulations will force each team to completely redesign their cars, but also because the reliability of the new engines has not been established.

Engine failure during 2013 preseason testing.
Engine failure during 2013 preseason testing.Paul Gilham/Getty Images

More retirements—which have become much less common in recent years—will give the back-markers more opportunities to score. Of course, as Webb cautioned, "We have to ensure the reliability is there for our cars, too."

Still, it is not a stretch to imagine a race early in the 2014 season where a few engine failures, perhaps a collision leading to a couple retirements, and Caterham and Marussia's increased pace combine to allow one of those teams to finally sneak into the top 10.

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