With Manor's announcement last October that it will be using Mercedes engines for the 2016 Formula One season, the team finally has the potential to compete with—and perhaps beat—some of the more established teams on the grid.
"Potential" because the team still has some distinct disadvantages compared to others in the sport—most glaringly, its financial situation. Manor's estimated budget in 2015 was €20 million less than the next lowest-spending team, Sauber, according to Business Book GP's figures, as published in the Spanish newspaper El Mundo Deportivo (h/t Crash.net). Some teams spent more than five times as much as Manor's estimated €83 million.
However, the Mercedes engines have been the most powerful and most reliable on the grid since the new hybrid power unit regulations came into effect for 2014. Last season, Manor used year-old Ferrari engines, so the difference in performance will be huge—but no one knows exactly how much faster the team will be.
Fortunately, there is one relevant point of comparison: For 2015, Lotus switched from Renault power units to Mercedes and immediately vaulted up the grid. But before we analyse the gains Lotus made with its Merc engines, let's revisit how Manor arrived in their current situation.
It seems odd to still refer to Manor as newcomers, but it is the last remaining team from the three that joined the sport in 2010. In those six seasons, Manor (previously Marussia and, before that, Virgin) has not had much success.
Jules Bianchi scored the team's first (and so far only) points with a brilliant performance at the 2014 Monaco Grand Prix. Sadly, that achievement was overshadowed by the Frenchman's ultimately fatal crash at the Japanese Grand Prix later that year.
Manor missed the final three races of the 2014 season and entered administration before the new Haas team bought its factory in Banbury, per Crash.net. Team principal John Booth and sporting director Graeme Lowdon were determined to keep their team alive, though, and found a saviour in Ovo Energy founder Stephen Fitzpatrick, who invested £30 million of his own money to get the team on the grid in 2015, according to the Telegraph's Daniel Johnson.
Although the team made it to all the races in 2015 (neither car started in Australia), it did not come close to scoring any more points. By the end of the year, tensions between Fitzpatrick, Booth and Lowdon caused the latter two men to resign from their positions, per Autosport's Ian Parkes. They were quickly followed by technical consultant Bob Bell, according to F1 reporter Adam Cooper's personal blog.
And that is where the team stands: In the best financial position since its entry into F1 (thanks to both Fitzpatrick and the prize money earned with the points from Bianchi's Monaco finish) and also its best competitive position but with plenty of uncertainty, as well.
In addition to the high-profile departures, Manor has not announced who will drive for the team in 2016. There are several possible candidates, as outlined by my colleague, Neil James, but the team has offered few clues as to who will be chosen.
With Mercedes engines, the Manor seats are highly desirable. But exactly how much better will the team be this year?
In 2014, Lotus used Renault engines that were under-powered and unreliable, which, combined with the team's own financial struggles, left it eighth out of 11 teams in the constructors' championship. Romain Grosjean scored two eighth-place finishes and Pastor Maldonado was in the points just once, with a ninth-place finish in the U.S.
Last year, with Mercedes engines, Lotus vaulted from 10 to 78 points and finished sixth in the constructors' standings, highlighted by Grosjean's surprise podium in Belgium.
Likewise, the Lotus drivers experienced a significant improvement in their qualifying performances from 2014 to 2015:
|Lotus Qualifying Comparison|
|Romain Grosjean (2014)||Romain Grosjean (2015)||Pastor Maldonado (2014)||Pastor Maldonado (2015)|
|Average Qualifying Position||15||9.84||17.83||12.42|
|Eliminated in Q1||6||0||15||3|
Notwithstanding some unlikely apocalyptic scenario, Manor is not going to finish on the podium at any race this year. There are, after all, three better-funded Mercedes-powered teams on the grid, in addition to several other teams figured for a strong season, including Ferrari and Toro Rosso.
But the quantum leap taken by Lotus from 2014 to 2015 hints at what is possible for Manor.
Of course, Manor is starting from much further back than Lotus were last year, so even a comparable jump in performance will still leave the team close to the back of the field—but maybe, just maybe, not at the very back.
Writing for motorsport.com last October, Adam Cooper suggested, "With a new chassis coming from a design group led by former Williams and Jordan man John McQuilliam, it appeared that the team had the potential to make a huge step from the 2014-based package that it has run this year." That performance boost, along with the prize money, Cooper suggested, could allow Fitzpatrick and his business partner, Abdulla Boulsien, to sell the team for a profit.
"The difference in next year's car compared to this should be like night and day, offering Manor no excuses regarding its competitiveness for 2016," wrote Autosport's Ian Parkes after the Mercedes agreement was announced.
In the same article, Lowdon said of the Mercedes deal that, "It's a definite step forward because it's going to be a few seconds the aero guys don't have to find."
At the 2015 season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Will Steven's Q1 qualifying time was 5.323 seconds slower than the quickest time, set by Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton. Stevens—who was more than a second clear of his team-mate, Roberto Merhi—was also 2.459 seconds adrift of Sauber's Marcus Ericsson, who qualified directly ahead of him.
In the race, Stevens' fastest lap was 5.093 seconds slower than the fastest lap overall, set by Hamilton, and 2.101 seconds slower than McLaren's Jenson Button, who had the slowest non-Manor fastest lap, per the FIA's timing data.
So Lowdon's "few seconds" are clearly not going to put Manor anywhere near the front of the grid but could allow them to challenge some of the midfield teams. So, what would a successful year for Manor look like?
It would probably include the team making it into Q2 on several occasions, along with maybe three or four points-scoring finishes.
That may not seem like a lot with the best engine on the grid, but considering the team has just one top-10 finish in six years, anything more than that in 2016 would be cause for some major celebrations in the team's new factory in Banbury.
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