Sunday, June 20, 2010

Assessing the Backmarkers

Ferrari's Luca Di Montezemelo thinks that they have no business being in Grand Prix racing, remarking in the aftermath of the Canadian Grand Prix that "cars who perform at GP2-level should not be allowed to participate in F1 races because they are supposed to race on Sunday mornings." He was referring, one presumes, to the three new F1 teams, Lotus, Virgin and HRT. Di Montezemelo, though, might have his own reasons for feeling aggrieved, as Fernando Alonso's shot at victory in Montreal foundered when he was slowed by Trulli's Lotus on his in-lap before his second stop and he then lost second when Button took advantage of a moment's hesitation when he came up to lap Karun Chandhok's HRT. And that's before we consider that Di Montezemelo might rather like the idea of running a third Ferrari to make up the numbers, or perhaps even of selling a customer version of the car to another team. Ideas which, I suspect, would fill Force India or Williams with as much horror as any of the new teams. From a less partisan perspective though, how are the new teams faring this year?

This might come as a surprise, and to be somewhat counter to the prevailing wisdom on the matter, but I think they're doing about as well as anyone could expect. They may be four or five seconds off the pace at some circuits, but to assess their performance fairly, it is necessary to consider how they compare, not with Sauber or Toro Rosso or Williams, but with other new F1 teams over the last fifteen or so years. I'm not thinking about Brawn, who took over a large, well-resourced F1 team as a going concern, nor Red Bull, for much the same reasons. Even Super Aguri cannot really be classed as a true start-up team in the sense that Lotus, Virgin and HRT are. They started our running an updated 2002 Arrows chassis which was a long way off the pace (though perhaps not quite so far off as one might have expected a four year old chassis hacked apart to fit a 2.4 litre Honda engine where it had been designed for a 3 litre Cosworth) but later got their hands on discarded 2006 BARs which proved an altogether more competitive proposition, especially when engineering and financial support from Honda is thrown in to the mix.

The last team to enter F1 with a car that they had designed from the ground up, using a completely new team, was Japanese car giant, Toyota, back in 2002. They had a budget which dwarfed that of even the sport's biggest players, and the benefit of an entire year spent pounding around the test tracks of Europe in 2001 (with the truly awful, overweight test-car, the TF01). And yet still they found in their first season that their car was not a great deal faster than Paul Stoddart's desperately underfunded Minardi PS02, or at least the one with Webber at the wheel.

Three years before, in 1999, with a similarly stratospheric budget courtesy of British American Tobacco, BAR arrived with great fanfare and talked, rather foolishly, of winning races in their first season. They had 1997 champion Jacques Villeneuve on the payroll, and the Supertec (nee Renault) engines might not have been the equal of Mercedes or Ferrari's units but had won the title a couple of years previously with Williams. And yet they failed to score a single point all season, something even Minardi managed to do. Yes, the team eventually, slowly pulled itself into competitive shape, and they might have done better had they hung on to more of the Tyrrell squad after they bought it to gain an entry, but their experience went to show that getting a completely new F1 team off the ground is not a simple task, no matter how much money you have to do it with.

The fair comparison, though, I would argue, is not between 2009's crop of new teams and the mega-budget efforts of BAR and Toyota, but between Virgin, HRT and Lotus on the one hand, and Forti, Pacific and Simtek on the other. For these, if we disregard Lola's disastrous and abortive attempt at F1 in 1997 were the last three genuinely new teams to enter Formula 1 without the benefit of either a vast corporation or a car manufacturer behind them (pedants might argue that Virgin is a pretty big corporation, but I'm yet to be persuaded that they are really anything more than title-sponsors of Manor Grand Prix, and Lotus has not insubstantial backing, but were on the other hand the last of the three teams to get established and are not directly connected with the car-maker.)

And the comparison is pretty favourable. Some years ago, the FIA introduced the so-called 107% rule to discourage chancers and those whose hearts were not really in it from turning up, running around at the back and making the sport look less than professional. The rule fell by the wayside as the F1 qualifying rules have got steadily more unnecessarily complex in recent years, but it is interesting to note that, in Canada, all bar Karun Chandhok's HRT, which had gearbox maladies, were comfortably inside the 107% rule. Indeed, the fastest of the new boys, Heikki Kovalainen's Lotus, was just 3.1s and 104% or so away from the pole time. Compare and contrast with Forti's first run Canadian Grand Prix, back in 1995, when the quicker of their two cars, that of Roberto Moreno, was some 6.3 seconds off the pace and the wrong side of the (then not yet introduced) 107% rule. A year earlier, the quicker of the two Pacifics, driven by Bertrand Gachot, a man whose career never really recovered after he lost his Jordan drive in 1991 to a spell in prison, was 6.6s away from pole and missed out on the 107% cut-off. The Simtek, which, like this year's Virgin, was the brainchild of Nick Wirth, was a fundamentally better car, but was still much further from the pace than the Lotuses or Glock's Virgin were the other weekend, being 5.5s away from Michael Schumacher's pole time.

In fact, for all Di Montezemelo's bluster, when it comes to single lap pace, at least, the new teams are really not so far away from the pace of the tail-end teams of recent years. To go back to the Minardi's final year in the sport in 2005, and again referring to the qualifying times, Kovalainen's Lotus was quicker, relatively speaking, than either of the two Jordan-Toyotas, Patrick Friesacher's Minardi or, perhaps most surprisingly of all, new boy Christian Klien's Red Bull.

There have been ways in which the new teams haven't exactly shined. Costly pit-stop fumbles, their seeming inability to get on top of the complex hydraulic systems which all modern Grand Prix cars rely on (leaving them with a finishing record which looks like it comes from an earlier age when a 60 or 70% attrition rate was the norm) and perhaps most embarrassing of all, Virgin's miscalculation that left them with a car whose fuel tank was too small to get them to the end of most of the races without slowing to a crawl. But let's remember that 12 months ago, these teams had only just found out that they had a slot on the grid (indeed, Lotus would not be given its place until September). They have had to cope with a ban on in-season testing which, while it might help them in the long run (by negating some of the advantages of the vastly greater budgets the front-running teams have to spend) is really hurting them in the short term, forcing them to do all their development work at race weekends, and learn their lessons in public.

But the new teams are hardly in the same class as some of the embarrassments of yesteryear of whom I remember far less criticism. Even at their greenest, with a car they had spent Friday building in the paddock, HRT were never as awful as Life Racing Engines or Andrea Moda. And unlike those two teams, they have come on in leaps and bounds as the season has progressed so that, whatever the ultimate limitations of Dallara's first F1 car since 1992, they are at least able to lap within a second or so of the Lotuses and snap at the heels of the Virgins. Though they've still got the daftest name I've ever heard given to an F1 car (a doctor friend of mine speculated that they were running on evening primrose oil after seeing their qualifying efforts in Bahrain).

So yes, it's fair to say that none of the new teams have managed to make quite the same impact as Jordan or Sauber did in their first years, though in both cases, they went on to have very trying sophomore seasons, but Lotus at least, look like they're in it for the long haul and are arguably doing a better job given what is at their disposal than a certain Italian team I can think of...

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