Season in Review – Sauber – Reverse Gear

After the heroics last year at Hinwill where drivers Kamui Kobayashi and Sergio Perez claimed multiple podiums between them, it was back to reality this year for Sauber. Sergio Perez was snapped up by McLaren (before being dumped after a single season) the team moved to secure the services of Nico Hulkenberg who has been the midfield star over the past few seasons. Kamui Kobayashi couldn’t be retained despite being a fan favourite as the teams independent status means they have to look for sponsors and pay drivers. The Telmex sponsorship is a little of both, with Carlos Slim happy to part with cash for any driver as long as they are mexican thus Esteban Gutierrez was promoted from GP2 to partner the hulk for 2013.

Unlike 2012 the car was no match for the Pirelli’s and in the first part of the season it chewed its way through rear tyres like a Mercedes, however after the tyre change and a clever upgrade in Hungary the season turned around but the team couldn’t catch their rivals and well back to 7th place. Nico Hulkenberg scored the lions share of points as Gutierrez looked like a fish lacking copious amounts of water, the Mexican would turn things around somewhat in the latter part of the year claiming a single 7th place to put some points on the board. At this time however his team mate was scoring faster than anyone in the midfield recording a 4th, 5th and two 6th places in the final half of the year.

However despite this up turn in form, it was looking like the bank balance was heading the other way. It was revealed that Hulkenberg had not been paid at all during the season and the team were in serious trouble at one point with winding up orders asked for from various suppliers. The team have taken on some wealthy Russian backers but it may lead them to having to place Sergy Sirotkin in the car next season, which could be a disaster as he has little pedigree in even the traditional feeder series for the top flight. However this hasn’t discouraged Adrian Sutil from signing up in a straight swap for Nico Hulkenberg and will lead the team next year. His team mate is still a mystery and could depend on which set of foreign investors have the deeper pockets.

Season in Review – Toro Rosso – Purpose Fulfilled

While Toro Rosso began the season with much chest pounding that they were aiming for 6th place in the constructors it was not to be, however after many years seemingly without purpose arguably they have fulfilled it this year. The team made aggressive hiring over the close season with the recruitment of Sauber’s technical director, James Key, however the car still was at the rear of the midfield battle. However it was still capable of being squeezed into Q3 by Daniel Ricciardo on a few occasions. Furthermore the team increased their points total from 2012 and moved up one place in the constructors, although much of that was down to Williams failures than their success.

Retaining their driver line-up from the previous season the car struggled with the fragile early season Pirelli’s and the pairing went relatively unnoticed until Mark Webber announced that he was retiring from the senior Red Bull team at the end of the year.  This meant there was an opportunity to move to the World Champions over in Milton Keynes and it was Daniel Ricciardo who delivered enough to be selected, mostly on his raw pace showings on Saturdays.

His team mate who will be retained alongside GP3 champion Danill Kyvat still struggles come Saturday and needs to sort out this flaw if he has ambitions of greater things, however for now Toro Rosso have produced their second Red Bull driver. There were factions inside the Red Bull organisation that wished to see Kimi Raikkonen in the team but they were drowned out in favour of using a current driver.

Interestingly the team have cut back their young driver program to only 3 drivers for the coming year alongside the two drivers in Toro Rosso. Depending on how well Ricciardo does it could be a long time before STR are required to blood any more serious contenders. Weirdly with the team so far away from the main team its difficult to use it train staff, while a switch to Renault power trains next year will allow them to borrow more Red Bull technology they still have develop a large portion themselves. Furthermore in 2014 we will see the return of in-season testing so the arguments for running two separate F1 teams is growing weaker by the minute.

Season In Review – Marussia – New Lowly Highs

Continuing the season in review with the team who after 4 seasons of trying finally reached the lowly heights of 10th place in the Constructors Championship – Marussia

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Marussia had in previous seasons been the last of the serious efforts on the grid but had managed to finish behind the shambolic HRT outfit in their previous guise as Virgin GP. With the team now folded it meant that the worst they could was finish 11th and 2013 was a season to be optimistic for the team. Charles Pic had been poached by rivals Caterham, leaving a hole in the budget rather than the talent department but this was to be easily filled by perennial GP2 challenger Max Chilton and his large chunk of his fathers Aon money. The team had also now long ditched its attempts to use only CFD to design their cars and had former world champion technical director Pat Symonds on the books.

The first stumbling block was the realisation that either they hadn’t got enough money for the season or that the real challenge would come in 2014 so it was worth covering their costs with a pay driver. The team sent Timo Glock off to DTM (in fact Charles Pic is the only driver to survive in F1 after driving for the team!) and managed to sign up GP2 runner up Luiz Razia. A risk surely but with a good junior pedigree he should of provided some speed and a stern test to Chilton. However it was not to be as the Brazilians sponsors didn’t pull through so despite testing the car the team were still on the lookout for another driver with support to pilot the MR-02 for the season. At this point an offer came along from the other more famous red team: Ferrari.

Jules Bianchi was offered to Marussia in exchange for what we believe to be a greatly reduced costs for engines in 2014 (as no other stickers appeared on the car) which would tick the boxes the team were looking for. Increasinly it seems the top teams are funding the really talented drivers and finding them births lower down the grid. Red Bull have Toro Rosso (and even got the wallet out again for Daniel Ricciardo to toddle around in an HRT for half a season), McLaren attempted it with Kevin Magnussen and now Ferrari have Marussia. But what a turn up for the books that deal would be.

With the team later confirming that the last real update they brought to the car was the Barcelona the business was done early with Jules Bianchi gaining a 13th place in Malaysia to seal 10th place in the Constructors and a nice little boost of prize money. However they will need to repeat the feat in the next two seasons to really reap the rewards and become a Category 2 team.

Max Chilton on the other hand didn’t posses the raw speed of Jules Bianchi but did manage to finish every single race of the season, a first in the history of the sport. Despite having the luxury of doing the complete testing programme he was regularly shown up come Saturday and a deficits of over a second were not uncommon, some progress was made in the latter half of the season but the Briton didn’t shine too brightly against the Ferrari back Bianchi. An average deficit of +0.585 (The worst apart from Esteban Gutierrez who did manage to overcome his issues during the season) over the season in qualifying and an average finishing position of 21st (compared to 19.89 for Jules) do not suggest he is the next World Champion.

Next season will see the team running Ferrari power and continue with Jules Bianchi, the strong indication that for the first time Marussia will stick with its driver pairing and give Chilton another season – and Marussia financials some stability. Its a big year for the two teams at the back of the grid as the new regulations present an opportunity to get on terms with the established teams, it really could be make or break in 2014.

Season In Review – Caterham – New Lows

We start off the traditional end of season look with the last placed team – Caterham.

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In a first for the team in green after finishing ahead of their young team contemporaries, Caterham found themselves last in the standings after the wheels stopped turning in Brazil. With no HRT to create a rolling road block at the back of the pack, Jules Bianchi’s 13th place in Malaysia sealed the deal for the other 2010 entrant still surviving. At the back of the grid this year development was halted very early due to the massive shake up next year in the regulations so there was never going to be much hope for Caterham to really progress despite years of promises otherwise.

The team decided to release Vitaly Petrov and Heikki Kovalainen to replace them with Charles Pic from Marussia and rookie Geido Van Der Garder. In a change to the teams principles this saw no real experience in the garage (apart from Pic’s lone season at rivals Marussia) but plenty of cash to fill the coffers at Leafield. But it was telling that the team had to re-recruit Heikki to drive in FP1 to help develop the car throughout the year as the in-experience of their drivers showed.

Unfortunately for Caterham a slow start hampered them and although they were generally faster than Marussia throughout the year the “other car in red” was definitely the faster package out of the box. The drop to last place wont harm Caterham’s financials too much as to stay a category 2 team (which Caterham have become bringing much more prize money) you have to finish 10th or higher in 2 of the last 3 seasons. This leaves it imperative that the team can outscore Marussia next year and could see Heikki return to the car.

As for the drivers Geido Van Der Garder’s heroics in Spa spring to mind and by the half-way mark the Dutchman had certainly turned the tables on his more experienced French team mate and looks the better of the pair. However how good either are is up for debate as neither provide a good yard stick.

Next season is going to be key with a huge spike in costs and without new sponsors or big money pay drivers expect there to only be 10 teams rolling into Australia in 2015.

Austin doing the Buisness

Its 5pm UK time and Free Practice has been delayed and shortened to 40 minutes after fog stopped the medical chopper from taking off (familiar Moto GP fans?) but in the build up to the second Grand Prix of the United States at the Circuit of the Americas its all been about business.

As expected McLaren announced that Kevin Magnussen will drive for the team in 2014, using the build up to the penultimate race of the season to dish out this news in the closest Sergio Perez comes to a home Grand Prix (for now) has been tough. The Mexican has also admitted that the timing has left him few oppertunities to find a seat for next year.

Lotus have revealed that Heikki Kovalienen will race for the team as the replacement for injured countryman Kimi Raikkonen in the last two races of the year. The rumblings from Joe Saward have been that Caterham have loaned their reserve driver in exchange for letting some engineering staff they poached leave without serving their Gardening leave. The Finn who last raced in Brazil 2012 but has had a few FP1 outings this year revealed that he is close to signing with Caterham next year.

Pastor Maldonado seems very up beat after leaving Williams revealing that he probably “gave the team more than they gave me” – an interesting one as there have been many a late night for a Williams engineer over Pastors career fixing his wrecked car. But the up beat mood appears linked to the fact that the Quantum money that has supposed to be arriving at Lotus all year may now not arrive at all meaning the Enstone team will plonk for Maldonado alongside Grosjean and the PVDSA money to prop up the balance sheet.

This is leaving one heck of a queue at the door of Force India with Paul Di Resta, Adrian Sutil, Nico Hulkenberg, Sergio Perez and Pastor Maldonado all in talks with the Silverstone based squad. It remains to be seen if anyone from GP2 will graduate into the premier class of open wheel racing this year with Danill Kyvat coming from GP3 and Magnussen from Renault 3.5. No word on Fabio Leimer, Sam Bird or James Calado (P1,2 and 3 respectivily in the GP2 championship this year) are in talks with any teams but James Calado is doing some FP1 outings for Force India and will look to secure that role next year I believe.

Finally we all wait with baited breather for the Austin crowd figures after last years 120,000 turn out, the hope is that many of that number will be retained for a second year after a stormer of a race. However this years event looks set to be duller with no title on the line and Sebastian Vettel romping home come rain, shine, hard tyre, soft tyre, classic track or Tilke track.

The Chopping Block 2013 Edition – The Jigsaw

With the title all but wrapped up in Japan, with Vettel only needing a few measly points over the next 5 races to clinch the championship, the main focus has turned to 2014. Most of the teams stopped developing their cars after the summer break with a complete rule change (a la 2009) coming into force next year. Alongside the new V6 engines with lots of energy recovery elements (KERS and ERS for you tech folk) there is a massive change in the aero regs that will see the huge front wings of recent years ditched in favour of a narrower wing like the cars of 2008. This will hopefully balance the look of the cars as well as cut back the aero and on paper could make a fascinating season after years of engine freezes.

Now the danger is that one or two teams get the aero and engine packages spot on and romp away with it, but with so many elements and the modern F1 calendar so varied (from the tight confines of Monaco and Singapore needing drivability, Monzas brutal power requirements, Aero tracks such as Barcelona and Hungary, through the multi faceted Tilke circuits that feature fast turns and long straights) I think the chances of a season of domination look slim. But the big issue facing the teams is that the weight limit looks tight, very tight so expect some teams who are struggling to make the limit plonk for small light drivers.

However with only the final 4 races left there are still many spots on the grid to be sorted out:

Winners

Romain Grosjean

Back to back podiums after the disappointment of the mechanical retirement in Singapore have all but sealed the Frenchmans place at Lotus next year. Many thought he should of made way for other talent at the end of last year and a sluggish start to year left Romain with little hope of being retained for next year. But with an upswing in form, especially his last outing in Japan will see Romain remain at Enstone for 2014, it is likely to be confirmed before India and will take him off the chopping block.

While he has been helped out by Kimi moving to Ferrari next year and the team needing a benchmark showing, I think on his recent form he would have stayed for next season regardless.

Esteban Gutierrez

The whole Sauber team have really come good at this point in the season, helped by the new sturdier tyres that Pirelli introduced and a driveablitiy that helps the drivers put down power early to defend on the DRS straights. Esteban finally put it all together in Japan after glimpses of promise and recorded the first Rookie drivers points of the season with a stellar drive to 7th, keeping on the coat tails of the ever impressive Nico Hulkenberg will do him a world of good as Sauber now possibly face the issue of having too many good drivers for next year.

Max Chilton

Finally a good Saturday for Max has put another check in the column marked retain for next year, however the race didn’t pan out so well and he finished behind the Caterhams. Bianchi is staying on next year and it could be a battle of the wallets to see if Max gets another crack at it in 2014.

Losers

Felipe Massa

Another poor week for the outcast Ferrari driver, after being told to move aside for Alonso to come through he decided to not heed the pit wall and raced on. Only for Alonso to promptly cruise up and pass him. While his Saturdays remain a strength its his Sunday performance that sees the Brazilian coming away empty handed time and time again. A solitary point after Jenson nabbed through the final chicane and to the line highlights why he may not be an option for many teams next year.

With an interview with Lee McKenzie on BBC before qualifying the Brazilian at first seemed very confident of a drive for next year before almost resigning himself to leaving the paddock after Brazil. I think the latter may be more likely.

Paul Di Resta

A 50/50 one for Paul, he made it to the end of the race on the lead lap after a series of non-finishes and he was ahead of his team mate all weekend. However again not scoring points with a painful 11th place is again an issue for the British driver.

Adrian Sutil

The other Force India driver has to also be feeling the heat. but there are rumblings that he could move to Sauber next season as he is friendly with Toto Wolff (Mercedes are providing engines to Sauber next year). Like Paul he could use a marquee performance in the run in to Brazil. Currently he’s 10 points adrift of Pauls total in the standings but much of that relates to mechanical issues early in the season.

We need to talk about Felipe

With Moto GP currently in turmoil with about every rider linked to any seat that’s not got a rider welded to it upon pain of death (even contracted seats seem to be being discussed as though the rider doesn’t stand a chance of retaining them) Formula 1 has had a leisurely silly season. Oh and Casey Stoner is doing 4 tests at Motegi on board a full Honda prototype and the new production racer for privateer teams:


Surprise bitches

So back to 4 wheels and Felipe Massa, ever the stalwart of Silly Season post his crash at Hungaroring in 2009 and yet this obvious drop has never happened. The man who was world champion in 2008 for around 38 seconds has fallen a long way from challenging Lewis Hamilton for race wins to his current in-ability to scrap to podiums in a car that Alonso can regularly win in.  If you think Ferrari are loathed to kick out a man who was so nearly world champion, the last 2 drivers that they got rid of (Badoer and Fisi excluded as they were simply subs) were World Champions including one 7 time World Champion.

Felipe’s lack of pace in 2012 could be excused as Ferrari produced a right wrong-un of a car that took most of the season to right and when they did Massa seemed to come on song and the folks at Marenello thought they had their man back. However it appears really that it could only of earned the Brazilian a stay of execution as his performances this year have once again been lacklustre. Ferrari do have the luxury of biding their time as it appears Nico Hulkenberg will be up for grabs alongside most of the back half of the field have clauses that let them accept a drive at a top team (for compensation to said team). They also have their own drivers in Jules Bianchi (who’s currently placed at Marussia and will come with engines next year for the minnow squad) and David Rigon (who completed the young drivers test this year for the Scuderia). Either must be a better choice to spike some interest in the team and I think both would be capable of grabbing more points than Massa.

Red Bull are going all out to replace Webber with shoot-outs and openly courting Kimi and this is for a team that has a young drivers program that starts with karts (or probably pedal karts for all we know!) and Ferrari have only ummed and ahhed about what they are going to do. Its a top seat with the greatest team of them all and its being wasted on a 32 year old driver that hasn’t come close to winning a race in 3 years.

Felipe as much as we love you, the rest of the grid is more deserving than you – do you understand?