Friday 24 August 2012

Teams' half way report

In some ways it's just as well that this season features a five week summer break. For unpredictability and competitiveness it's difficult to think of a previous F1 season that matches it. The mid-year moratorium is a good opportunity to take stock of who's hot and who's not, and what may be likely to happen next. Here's a team-by-team rundown.

Red Bull
Credit: Ryan Bayona / CC
Top of the constructors' table and 53 points clear of the nearest challengers after 11 races; yet in Red Bull land this counts as a disappointment. Perhaps that tells us something.

Red Bull is still top of the class overall, but not in 2012 the clear A star performers of 2011. There have been three wins in 11 races (half the level of this point last year), but only in a couple of rounds has the Red Bull been the clear pace setter. And both drivers trail Fernando Alonso in the drivers' table by the region of 40 points.

The RB8 didn't have the most successful of births, and all of a sudden we had to get used to the unaccustomed sight of the Bulls being near, but not quite at, the front. Technical Director Adrian Newey had admitted that the severe restriction of blowing (and of off throttle blowing) of diffusers has disproportionately impeded his cars. It also didn't help that the Bulls' initial 2012 exhaust solution didn't work and had to be abandoned. Interestingly, Newey also admitted recently that stricter policing of wing flexing has further given the team difficulties.

But a few things helped them nevertheless. One is that the team's operational side remains as strong as ever; pit stops and strategies are sharp and the team rarely drops the ball. Plus gritty drives from both of the drivers have maxed out the results. And, as the controversy over its exploitation of loopholes in the engine mapping regulations showed, the squad is still perfectly capable of pushing the boundaries in the name of performance. And gradually as the season progressed things have improved for the team - it has always been excellent at in-year development. In Valencia it even looked like it had a clear stride on everyone else.

It didn't quite work out that way in subsequent races, but the Bulls are right in the mix. And remember that this time last year after a period of relatively fallow results the team simply accelerated away from the pack, taking a string of wins which won the team both world championships. The same again this year would suit it just fine.

Credit: Morio / CC
The Saturday evening after the qualifying session for this year's Malaysian Grand Prix must seem a very long time ago for all at McLaren. Then, the Woking cars had just locked out the front row on the grid for the second time in two races and, having finally started a year at the head of the pack for the first time in a long time, many talked of a season of domination akin to Red Bulls in 2011.

All a long time ago, as I said. Rain on Malaysia's race day delivered a rude awakening, and things were never quite as simple again. Now, the team lags far behind Red Bull in the constructors' table, in the mix of Lotus and Ferrari's team of one in the fight for second. And Lewis Hamilton, by a long way the team's points pace-setter, is 47 points shy of Alonso in the drivers' table.

The McLaren car is aerodynamically excellent and has been very quick on tracks on which that is rewarded such as Barcelona and Sepang (Lewis Hamilton qualified on pole by half a second in the former), over a lap at any rate. But the Malaysian race struggles betrayed a car with a rather narrow operating window, not so good when it gets wet or cool, or through slower corners, and not always the gentlest on its tyres. And its characteristics appear to have particularly spooked Jenson Button.

Worse, the team failed to make hay while the sun shone in the season's early part. Frequent botched pit stops precluded better results, as did grid penalties for Lewis Hamilton in China (for a gearbox change) and in Spain (for running out of petrol on his slowing down lap). Thus the Woking squad didn't have much to fall back on when the going got tough. Oddly the team was then outdeveloped by others, and at Silverstone it reached its nadir, both drivers complaining there that they could not even keep pace with the likes of the Williams and Saubers on race day.

However, at Hockenheim it all switched again for McLaren. A major technical upgrade brought both cars back to the sharp end; Button nearly won there and then Hamilton did win in Hungary. It was a reminder that, for all of 2012's flux and the Woking team's mini-slump, the McLaren could well be the fundamentally quickest car out there. And the pit stop problems now look sorted. The Woking cars, particularly that under Hamilton's command, will be worth watching for the year's remainder.

Credit: Morio / CC
Without doubt Lotus has been the year's highest climbers. Following on from a traumatic 2011 wherein its blind alley forward facing exhaust concept left it a sitting duck, it has bounced back and then some this year. The Lotuses have been consistent front of race challengers, the team sits right in the mix with McLaren and Ferrari in the constructors' table, and Kimi Raikkonen has shown sufficient consistency to remain in outside contention for the drivers’ title.

The E20 turned heads from the moment it appeared on track in Jerez pre-season testing. It is well-balanced, quick on just about all types of tracks, and best of all for 2012-spec F1 is probably close to being the class of the field in getting life out of the Pirelli tyres for longest. Indeed, the only frustration for the team is that it hasn't yet won a race this year. There have been plenty of opportunities: but time after time something got in its way, be it strategy errors, driver errors (particularly by Romain Grosjean in the early laps of races), and drivers perhaps not quite stepping up to the plate sufficiently when some of the opportunities have arisen. Further, the flip side of the car's excellent tyre life in races is that it doesn't always get the most out of them on a single qualifying lap, leaving its drivers often with a lot to do on a Sunday.

And the best for Lotus may be yet to come. In the past two meetings it's tested its much-vaunted 'double DRS' system in practice, which team principal Eric Boullier reckons could result in the team challenging for wins every time out for the year's remainder. Of course, there is likely to be some blarney in there, but with nine races in 13 weeks following the break it could be very difficult for its rivals to claw back any advantage gained now. Plus the system could help Lotus in its very weak area of qualifying, and plenty of the tracks left will likely allow such as system to stretch its legs. And remember that the next race is in Kimi country. A championship charge, while a long shot, cannot be ruled out.

Credit: Morio / CC
Stand McLaren's year on its head, and you loosely have Ferrari's. The F2012 didn't so much look bad as disastrous in pre-season testing and in the opening round in Melbourne (and not just aesthetically). Following on from a difficult 2011 it looked for all the world like this year would be more of the same for the Scuderia. Some trembled in anticipation of what the likely fallout in Italy would be to all of this.

What the team did have though was a magical driver in Fernando Alonso, who produced something close to alchemy in keeping the car in the championship mix early in the year (including a wet weather victory in Malaysia). And then, all of a sudden, Ferrari got things right.

Between the mid-season test in Mugello and the Montreal round reconfigured exhausts and sidepods and new front brake ducts were introduced and as a result the F2012 started to be going somewhere near where its drivers were pointing it. And Alonso took full advantage, challenging for wins just about everywhere, coming out on top a further two times and bringing it home high up elsewhere, and thus establishing a 40 point championship lead by the summer break.

And while Alonso has been given a lot of the credit for this the team should share a lot of it too. For all many talk of 'Ferrari International Assistance' the strict testing restrictions have impeded the Scuderia especially, and only now is the team, under the guidance of Pat Fry, beginning to sharpen up its act in the simulation tools which are now vital. Also, the wind tunnel correlation problems which dogged the team so much last year appear to have receded for now.

However, Ferrari's weekend in Hungary, when it was the fourth fastest car at best and was plagued by understeer through the Hungaroring's long corners, was a gentle reminder that, even with Alonso's currently handsome championship lead, the F2012 still has a way to go before it is the class of the field. There can therefore be no complacency in Maranello in the year's remainder.

Credit: Morio / CC
Early this year it looked like Mercedes GP was finally going to start to live up to its considerable potential. Nico Rosberg won the Chinese Grand Prix, taking the marque's first win since its return as a constructor in 2010. And this followed on from the opening two rounds in which the Mercs had looked genuine contenders for pole position, as well as pre-season testing in which they were among the star performers, with a W03 which boasted most of the design features that turned pit lane heads.

But it was all an illusion. Eleven rounds in the team is but fifth in the constructors' table, nowhere near the leading four teams and only 26 points clear of sixth-placed Sauber.

The Brackley squad has once again produced a car with fundamental flaws, just as it did last year. The W03 chews its rear tyres and appears to have an extremely narrow operating window both in terms of track layout and temperature. If the circumstances come together, for example cool temperatures and/or a track requiring quick tyre warm-up, plus a layout with short corners needing good direction change, as broadly was the case in China and Monaco (also two tracks on which rear tyre wear is less of an issue than usual), then the car can be devastating. But if these things don't come together - which has broadly been the case everywhere else - then the W03 tends to fade down the order.

And the team also looks to be falling behind in the development race: since the promising early rounds, Monaco aside, even the qualifying pace has faded and the tail end of the top ten seems to be around its place now.

So, yet again it's jam tomorrow rather than jam today for Mercedes, and it's no wonder rumours about the marque's willingness to continue as a constructor are swirling. Ross Brawn has made lots of personnel additions and changes in recent times, and these have not yet had their opportunity to make themselves told on track (so it could well be that the 2013 car flies). But the continued underperformance raises the possibility that there is something fundamentally amiss at Brackley.

Credit: Morio / CC
'When you look at the Sauber, it looks just like any other Sauber of the past few years. It's very nicely built, but the aerodynamic detail lacks the sophistication of the bigger teams' cars. Yet it flies in races...'

Christian Horner sums up the mystery that surrounds the C31. On a race day there are few, sometimes no, cars that can match it. Yet to look at it there does not appear to have been any Eureka moments on the aero front at Hinwil. The mystery is most likely related to the black art of managing the Pirelli tyres. Either by luck or by judgement it appears that Sauber, over a race stint at least, has hit the sweet spot. And, as if to underline how 2012 is different to what we'd got used to in previous years, it's brought them right into the mix for strong results.

It behaves rather like a Lotus in extremis: perhaps less good in qualifying than the E20 (thus giving the drivers plenty to do on a Sunday) but also perhaps even better in race day tyre life. At times this year, while its rivals have dived in out of the pits repeatedly for new boots, the Saubers have defied the laws of physics it seems with continuing strong lap times on old tyres. It's all added up to 80 points and two podium finishes for the squad. Indeed, it could have been even better. The two high tide watermark podium finishes, in Malaysia and Canada, might well have been awarded with the uncharted territory of victories. This especially applies to Malaysia when Sergio Perez easily had the legs of Fernando Alonso's victorious Ferrari, but was impeded by a late error plus a couple of doses of some old-school Sauber strategy caution.

Another bum note is that the suspicion lingers in certain quarters that the C31 might be an even better car than its drivers are making it look. Indeed, in Hockenheim rumours spread like wildfire that the team isn't happy with Kamui Kobayashi's performances at least.

Credit: Morio / CC
We should have known better, shouldn't we? Rewind to the start of the year and on the subject of Williams the air was heavy on talk of decline. Some thought it was terminal; it had been upwards of seven years since its last win and the overall trajectory had been downwards for even longer than that. And 2011 was embarrassing for the sport's former standard bearers - the FW33 was a lemon of a car and two ninth places were its best results.

The doom-laden predictions all reckoned without Sir Frank Williams though. Managing declines is not what he does, and over the past year or so there has been various changes in key personnel as well as root and branch reform of how the team is doing things. Then technical director Sam Michael and head of aero Jon Tomlinson handed in their notices shortly into the 2011 season, and in came Mike Coughlan as technical director, Mark Gillan as chief operations engineer and Jason Somerville as head of aero. And before it seemed that Williams had not adapted to the demands of modern F1. There was a lack of control at the factory (it's not for nothing that Coughlan's role is factory-based largely) and the factory tail was wagging the race team dog, taking a scatter gun approach to producing new parts for the race team to use up its Friday running testing without much coherence or broad understanding of what the car needed, and also burden the team operationally.

And the benefits of all this change looks like they've been felt all the way to the set of wheels itself. The FW34 is a fine car producing plenty of downforce, and in Barcelona it did the unthinkable and won a race, in Pastor Maldonado's hands. And this was no smash and grab, nor a topsy turvey race due to weather or other variables. Maldonado took the pole and never sank lower than second place aside from pitstops. Indeed, in wresting the lead using aggressive strategy the team showed that the knack of winning races has never completely left the Grove collective (and compare and contrast with Sauber's actions in a similar situation in Malaysia).

The 53 points Williams has collected this year already dwarfs the five from the whole of 2011. And it could have been even more than that, had Maldonado been able more often to use his undoubted speed all the way to the finish line without scrapes (indeed, late accidents at Australia and Valencia alone have deducted 22 from the team's potential points haul), or indeed were the more cerebral Bruno Senna able to keep up with him with any regularity. Bruno looked more on it in Hungary though, helped by a system of using the brake ducts to heat the front tyres more quickly, via the wheel rims.

But overall it's slide arrested, and reversed, for Williams.

Force India
Credit: Morio / CC
Last year Force India had its best season ever under that guise. Sixth in the constructors' table with 69 points, thus continuing a tangible upward trend since Vijay Mallya purchased the team four and a half years previously. Indeed, the team ended the year as consistently the best of the rest behind the 'big four' teams, outperforming better resourced teams as it did so.

This year the team has accumulated 46 points after 11 of the 20 rounds, so on the face of it is well on the way to beating last year's total. But the problem is that the team has sunk from sixth to eighth in the constructors' standings.

This is despite this year's car being a tidy machine, and the team having a driver line up that must be the envy of much of the pitlane. But the suspicion is that while the Force India has made a forward step, those around them in the midfield (such as Williams, Sauber and, especially, Lotus) have made a bigger step. Perhaps part of it is that in the latter part of 2011 Force India's exhaust blown diffuser worked better than that of most of its midfield rivals, so had most to lose from their restriction.

Things have improved a little bit in recent times, and the team has consistently been represented in the final part of qualifying in latter races. And in Valencia the car looked particularly strong, some thought a front row start for Paul Di Resta was possible. Nevertheless, the tendency has been for the Force India to sink back in races. And more broadly, there is the possibility that Force India is somewhere near its glass ceiling, and with Mallya's business empire still in trouble and Sahara's role unclear it's also not clear where the investment required to move forward is coming from.

Toro Rosso
Credit: Morio / CC
In a year of midfield runners making a forward leap, Toro Rosso's year can only be filed under 'huge disappointment'.

The season started well enough: Daniel Ricciardo scored points for ninth in the opening round in Australia (and Jean-Eric Vergne only just missed out on a point) while Vergne then took points of his own by finishing eighth in the next round in Malaysia. But since then there's been nothing, the team has pretty consistently been at the back of the midfield, and the parent company has had its say.

This year has now in effect been written off by Toro Rosso, and team principal Franz Tost - inspired by Dietrich Mateschitz of Red Bull making his dissatisfaction known - has set in train a technical reshuffle, designed to coincide with a factory upgrade. Technical Director Giorgio Ascanelli was moved to one side (which - given he is known to be an expert in getting the most out of a team and car - cannot be a good thing as far as most are concerned), and the word is that James Key, highly rated and once of Sauber, is to step in, among other changes.

The reasons for Toro Rosso's struggles aren't clear. To the team's credit, no one has sought to point fingers at the inexperience of its pair of drivers. Instead, Ascanelli cited a relative lack of ideas from the aero team (perhaps the transition from a team essentially receiving its designs from the 'A team' at Red Bull to a team with its own design team isn't a complete one), as well as that it all may simply reflect that Toro Rosso has a smaller number of staff and fewer resources than do the other midfield runners.

So sadly for the team the remainder of 2012 is counting down the days to the season's end. Ricciardo has admitted that even further points are out of reach without attrition.

Credit: Morio / CC
F1 is difficult of course, and perhaps the story of Caterham (nee Lotus) is the most graphic demonstration of this.

From the outside the team is doing everything right since it entered the sport in 2010. It has its own factory, everything's under one roof and it has just completed its move to Leafield in F1's 'silicon valley', it has its own design office and aero programme, its number of staff (around 250) is creeping up on the sort of numbers as at the midfield teams, it has the same engine and gearbox as the champion constructor (which dictates a similar rear end of the car) and it has fine brains in the likes of Mike Gascoyne and Mark Smith (among others). And all of this is backed by a substantial budget and investment provided by Tony Fernandes. In many ways Caterham is a world away from Virgin/Marussia and HRT, who entered F1 at the same time as it.

But, even with all of this and with KERS added to the mix this year the midfield pack remains significantly and maddeningly beyond Caterham's reach.

On lap times the Caterhams look a little closer to the midfield than in 2011, but it remains the case that one does not expect to the Caterham to get among even the Toro Rossos at the back of the midfield. Indeed, only twice (in Malaysia and Valencia, both times for Kovalainen) has a Caterham made it into the second part of qualifying. So far in 2012 there has been two rounds in which a Caterham has bothered the midfield, in Monaco and Valencia. In the former Kovalainen ran ahead of Jenson Button and Sergio Perez for much of the way and could have finished 12th but for a late nose change, while in Valencia it was a similar story for Vitaly Petrov. Indeed he ran as high as 10th in the late laps, and was on for 12th until a nose change of his own.

So, tangible progress continues at Caterham, but whether the progress is happening quickly enough depends on exactly how difficult you think F1 is. At the very least, the progress is not at the rate that the team has set out for itself, the talk from it at the season's outset was about joining the midfield this year. You wonder if Tony Fernandes's patience is beginning to wear.

Credit: Ryan Bayona / CC
On the exterior it's more of the same for Marussia in 2012; existing in the 'B class' of the three teams that entered the sport in 2010, clearly behind the Caterhams but also most of the time equally clear of the HRTs. But as is usually the case in F1 things aren't necessarily that simple.

As team principal John Booth has pointed out, it's to a large extent year zero for Marussia rather than year three. Last year represented a step backwards for the team, falling further off the pace of the front runners and of Lotus/Caterham. Partway into that year with the handcart threatening to run out of control the team decided to apply the brakes. Marussia facilitated the buying out of the Wirth half, and the deal allowed the whole team to move to one facility, at Wirth's base at Banbury in F1's silicon valley (previously the design had taken place there and the management of the team had been at Manor's base in Dinnington, Yorkshire). Further, the CFD-only policy of Wirth, an idea ahead of its time it seems (though Wirth insists the idea would have had more mileage had the budget cap promised when the team entered F1 held), was abandoned, and a technical tie-up with McLaren was announced which will ensure that Marussia cars will see a wind tunnel. And star technical brain Pat Symonds is feeding into the team as technical consultant, as well as led the design of the 2012 car.

With all this change this year for Marussia, self-admittedly, is about consolidation and building a base for future improvement, and to the team's credit it appears to be achieving that. Things didn't look promising at the year's outset, as the team was forced to miss pre-season testing due to failing a single crash test (on a component that had passed an unobserved test) and a last minute rule clarification from the FIA that had caught it out, as well as that all of the off-season change set it back a little.

Still, things came together at Melbourne, the Marussias were the most business-like out of the blocks of the 'new teams', finishing 14th and 15th on a day that the HRTs didn't get into the race and that neither Caterham finished. And in recent times Charles Pic has been a revelation, gradually as the year has progressed getting on terms with team mate Timo Glock, and latterly has been beating him. Pic's Hungary performance was especially impressive, completing genuinely midfield-like laptimes and leaving Glock in his wake.

Credit: Morio / CC
It's common for the F1 follower to sneer at HRT, as its cars continue to hang off the back of the grid. I often invite those that take this view to look at a few grids and qualifying times from the 1980s or early 1990s; then it was common for cars to start the race upwards of ten seconds off the pace over a qualifying lap (sometimes far upwards of ten seconds…). That the HRTs are routinely three to five seconds off the pace in the first qualifying session is chicken feed, frankly.

Rather like with Marussia, this is more year zero than year three for HRT. Having spent much of its existence stumbling from one crisis to the next it seemed in a battle for survival, much changed in the course of last year. Under the ownership of Thesan Capital a strategy emerged to mould more of a Spanish identity for the team. This has resulted in a wholesale move of the team to Madrid (previously, HRT's operations were scattered across Europe), among other things. Even if it's all a strategy by Thesan to build the thing up in order to sell it on, the establishment of a clear direction - and backed by a loosening of the purse strings - is encouraging.

Not everyone was happy with this though, and previous team principal Colin Kolles removed himself and his technical team as a consequence. Also, like Marussia, the amount of change set HRT back in its preparations for the season, and pre-season testing was missed following a failed crash test. New team principal Luis Perez-Sala has commented that '90% of the team has changed' since last year, and more recently that only half of the 2012 car's potential has been extracted, but the team is seeking to expand and is recruiting staff. And of course it's not easy: like the other two 'new' teams HRT entered the sport under the assumption of a strict budget cap for all teams, and F1 has a curious system of concentrating TV money only among the top ten outfits. And being based in Madrid, far from F1's silicon valley, will compound the difficulties. But the signs for HRT are better than they have been before; in the next year or two we'll discover what HRT are really about, good or bad.

This article was originally written for the F1 Plus website. The original article on F1 Plus can be read here.

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