Sunday 9 March 2014

F1 2014 Season Preview: Marussia - Making the leap?

It says something that Marussia and Caterham are still sometimes referred to as the 'new' teams in F1. We are in fact about to start year five of their F1 existences, and the lingering perceptions of their newness is likely related to their being unfulfilled. Four full seasons down the line and the questions still swirl: when will they score their first point? When will they get on the pace of the midfield pack?

Photo: Octane Photography
The sneering that they face is rather unfair though. After all, both entered the sport promised a swingeing budget cap and technical freedom as a consequence, which subsequently were reneged on. And in F1 more than in most things you get what you pay for, and Marussia's budget continues to be around a third of the level of those further ahead. And what would we rather have, that the team spends money it doesn't have and thus encounters problems à la Lotus?

Yet even with these considerations there is evidence that Marussia might be poised to answer at least one of the questions outlined in the opening paragraph. Perhaps both.

A consequence of the new rules for 2014 is that reliability is no longer the given that we've grown used to, therefore many have speculated that if a Marussia (or Caterham) can make the finish in Melbourne it'll probably end the team's points drought. Moreover, this combined with the vagaries of establishing the order of the constructors' table means that a single strong finish while all this is going on could likely ensure tenth place in the final rankings (and the millions that go with it) in itself, with the season barely started. Indeed this is something that Marussia last year played for and got: focussing on reliability rather than performance in pre-season, and the P13 finish of Jules Bianchi in round two in Malaysia was what ensured the team's tenth placing ahead of Caterham in the ultimate standings.

Yet it didn't look in this pre-season that Marussia was poised to repeat the trick. The team was rather overwhelmed with car troubles in the first two tests, with the MR03 completing but 55 laps in the first eight days, a total that lagged way behind even those of Lotus (who missed the first test of course) and Red Bull (whose woes were well-documented). A few in response started to hypothesise that the new engine regulations and the associated complexities of the units must be a particular challenge for the small teams. Perhaps it would get the better of them.

But the team seemed to pull the iron out of the fire in the final Bahrain test, achieving a total of 258 laps which is testament to clearing many of the reliability problems. A few still linger, such an electrical problem that manifested of the final day, but things certainly look a bit more promising. Even more encouraging is that the car looks handy. Many commented upon the MR03's launch that it appeared neat and tidy, the sort that a team with its more modest resources would look to produce ideally, as well as well-balanced on track (though perhaps still a little short of downforce). And once it started to run properly too it looked quick: Jenson Button for one commented that in high-speed corners it appeared a major advance on previous Marussias, while Max Chilton in the final test set an impressive 1m 36.8 mark, good for the 14th best time of anyone, and better than the quickest times of Button, Vettel and Gutierrez (as well as was within 0.6 seconds of the best Marussia time from Bahrain Q1 last year, despite the various restrictions since). Some have even started to whisper that we could be set for the long-awaited advent of Marussia genuinely being on the pace of the midfield; of bridging the chasm that has gaped for four seasons.

If this is indeed so perhaps it shouldn't surprise us. While Pat Symonds left the team mid last season to some regret, he left behind a strong and restructured outfit. The team now has a Ferrari power unit finally, which has delighted the team as a massive improvement on the cumbersome and underpowered Cosworths. It also means that the squad gets Ferrari gearboxes, freeing up resource to be used elsewhere, as well as benefits from full manufacturer backing for the first time. And Marussia has long since been preparing for 2014 and its regulation changes: a team of four has been devoted to it entirely since mid-2012, and gradually the number of staff focussing on it increased over time, to become close to singular attention for the team by mid last year.

And most broadly of all the Marussia squad is one of a committed collection of real racers, those who can be counted upon to fight hard and make the maximum of its relatively meagre rations, as well as display a healthy willingness to think out of the box, something that could well serve it well in a new formula wherein much will be unexplored.

Look out for Marussia this year. The old certainties may not be so certain after all.

Max Chilton - Car #4
Photo: Octane Photography
We all know the one about Max Chilton, his father's money and its many implications. But while this backing definitely has assisted his move up the ladder, on one level there's been something of the double-edged sword about it. Throughout his motorsport career it has tended to be that Chilton has been in formulae rather ahead of time, often the youngest competing therein which has had a detrimental impact on results, at least initially. This was the way of it for him in F3, and then in his first two years in GP2 he was an also-ran. But in his third year he became a consistent front-runner, only champion Davide Valsecchi was a better qualifier and he won two feature races in fine style (the one at Singapore particularly so).

Was some of this at play too in Chilton's debut year in the sport's highest echelon last season? He was almost never near Jules Bianchi in qualifying; Chilton's deficit to him averaged out at close to a second over the piece. And while things were a bit closer in the races still Chilton only finished ahead twice when both made it to the end. Chilton also ended the year with the unlikely kudos of having finished all 19 rounds, and indeed it can be said that he didn't do a great deal wrong in terms of messing up (an egregious swipe of Pastor Maldonado in Monaco, triggering an accident that stopped the race, aside). But perhaps also it's something of a condemnation that this was his campaign's grandest attribute. The suspicion lingered that a more worthwhile compromise between not erring and going quickly should have been found.

But supporting the initial point, and as with most rookies, he showed signs of improvement as the season progressed and come Monza he was running close to Bianchi, while in Suzuka he had his crowning glory of the year by qualifying ahead of his team mate, albeit aided by various problems for the guy from across the garage. He gets another go this year at Marussia too, with a team keen to maintain continuity and which has expressed the belief that Chilton did indeed make great strides as 2013 progressed. The man himself sounds bullish too at the challenges that await in 2014, insisting that the complexities of the new formula and the requirements of the drivers to think on their feet will suit him. He has a highly-rated yardstick in Bianchi that if he matches, or even beats, with some regularity would reflect well on his own performances, as well as a car that just might let him fight with those further up the pecking order. Now it's over to Chilton to prove that the hypothesis outlined above is correct.

Jules Bianchi - Car #17
Photo: Octane Photography
Twelve months ago we seemed to have been waiting a while for Jules Bianchi to make good on his 'next big thing' status. Ferrari rated him highly, and had been carefully nurturing him, but things didn't quite seem to be coming together.

Two campaigns in GP2 added up to two third place finishes in the standings, which can be interpreted as good-ish rather than seizing the moment. Further, his form wavered somewhat in that time, and Ferrari had to be parachuted in at one point for emergency guidance. He then moved on to Formula Renault 3.5 for 2012, and while it is correct to say that he was unlucky that his championship rival Robert Frijns put him out in the last round, depriving him a shot at the title, some say he should have been in a stronger position going into the race, particularly as he spun away points in the round before. While despite Bianchi in the same year having been a test driver and sometime Friday practice runner for Force India the Silverstone squad passed him over for a 2013 race seat in preference to Adrian Sutil, admitting that it believed Bianchi could have done with another year of testing and practice.

But at the 11th hour Bianchi got his F1 break for 2013 after all: he was selected as a last minute super-sub at Marussia after first choice Luiz Razia's money didn't show up, and before anyone knew it the doubts were blown away as he won an awful lot of new admirers with his drives. Unlike most debutants he was right on the money right away and impressed his team - and most others - from the very off with his pace, intelligence and commitment. In Melbourne he left the rest of the B class far behind, and moreover bothered Maldonado early on in the race as well as (aided by a late tyre change) set a fastest lap that all but matched Vettel's. And then in Malaysia in his first ever dry qualifying session his effort resulted in a few jaws dropping around the Marussia garage. More importantly it set up him up for a thirteenth place finish that as it transpired guaranteed his team a lucrative tenth place in the constructors' table. His consistent pace in the Barcelona race was the result of another stellar effort - he was even held up by Vettel for a while (though again aided by varying stages of tyre life).

Bianchi last year looked to be a driver hard to fault: not only is he quick and consistent but his attitude is good, while his technical feedback was also considered especially strong by his employers. However, close observers of Bianchi's rise to the top note that perhaps he is one prone to 'pressure errors', particularly when challenged by a team mate. It remains to be seen if this will be exposed more in a season wherein his team mate presumably will be more up to speed and Bianchi might be fighting among other cars with greater regularly. But still - and despite the fact that a bigger team has yet to take a punt on him - he starts the year with his stock high, and with a more competitive car than last year is well-poised to demonstrate further that he is deserving a move up the order.

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