Welcome to Race Chaser Online’s preview of the 2014 FIA Formula One World Championship! Over the course of the next two weeks, we are going to preview all of the teams and drivers competing for the title this season. There will be one preview each day leading up to next weekend’s season-opening Australian Grand Prix! Make sure to check Race Chaser Online all season long for all of your stateside-based news from the Formula One world!
March 4, 2014 — story by RaceChaser open wheel correspondent Joel Sebastianelli — photo credit Caterham F1 — As a new season of Formula One racing waits on the horizon in Australia, so too does a new era, a return to V6 turbocharged engines that will shatter the sport’s status quo. Although several years and stars have rolled off the grid since turbochargers were banned following the 1988 season, there are still parallels between then and now, namely that as regulations force an overhaul in the approach teams take, the rich get richer and the poor literally get poorer. For smaller teams like Caterham, the potential negative impact cannot be understated.
The Leafield-based team first entered F1 in 2010 under the Lotus Racing banner, before relocating to its current headquarters and changing its name. Although the title changed, the lack of success did not, as Caterham now enters another season as a financially unsecure back-marker that has yet to score a point in a Grand Prix.
The Drivers: While the “big three” of F1—Red Bull, Ferrari, and McLaren—all added talent to their rosters, Caterham may have landed the most fan friendly acquisition, welcoming Japanese driver Kamui Kobayashi to the lineup after a one year hiatus.
Kobayashi spent three seasons with Sauber, including an electrifying campaign in 2012 which included 3 top 5 finishes and a podium at his home Grand Prix at Suzuka. Ailing from a lack of big money sponsorship, the aggressive favorite was dropped from Sauber following his best season and left Formula One all together, taking a forced one year hiatus in sports car racing while slightly more successful and significantly better funded teammate Sergio Perez graduated to a ride with McLaren.
Aside from his brave driving style, Kobayashi earned even more fans heading into 2014 before even hitting the track. Although the fan-driven “Support Kamui” campaign to raise money to keep their favorite F1 hero on the track failed in 2013, approximately $11 million was raised with additional help from Japanese companies to fund another season. Furthermore, Kobayashi passed on an FIA Endurance Championship ride with Ferrari to pursue a second chance in F1 for free, saving the team money and making clear the devotion he has to making the most of a new and perhaps final opportunity.
In the adjacent garage, 23 year old Swede Marcus Ericsson will pilot a machine with the big boys for the first time. Ericsson collected three victories in four seasons in GP2, paying his dues in the F1 farm system and finishing sixth in the driver’s championship with French team DAMS in 2013.
To young drivers, sponsorship is key to moving up the ranks, but so are the connections that have an influence on his or her development along the way. Ericsson’s big break came by the attention he attracted in karting, causing former Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar champion Kenny Brack and former F1 driver Eje Elgh to take notice and lend their support to boost the fledgling talent. Ericsson is one of three rookies in the paddock, along with McLaren’s Kevin Magnussen and Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat.
The hire came out of left field amid minimal speculation implicating the Swede as Caterham’s next addition, but for a team desiring young talent with potential and sponsorship money to boot, Caterham made a right choice.
The Car: Caterham unveiled the CT05 at the season opening test at Jerez in January. New regulations stipulate that the tip of the nose must be no more than 185mm above the ground, compared to the standard of 550mm in 2012. This has resulted in an anteater/dustbuster/finger nose effect on most cars, but the CT05 turned heads for the unsightly fact that it appears unfinished. Like a middle school project turned in at the last minute, the front looks hurried and inadequate, as though the team of designers either ran out of time or resources to complete the job. Unfortunately for Caterham, it drives the way it looks…
The Challenges: The biggest hurdle for the team to overcome in 2014 is speed—or the lack of it. In each test, Caterham has finished near the bottom of the timesheets, logging over 2000 miles but failing to reach the speeds necessary to compete with their bottom-dwelling counterparts. Kamui Kobayashi slammed the machine following the first Bahrain test.
“We are not in race conditions here, but if we were in race conditions I think I should bring a GP2 car,” he told reporters. “The lap time is still quicker in GP2. We need to work, but in this moment if we were to race, I think it’s not Formula 1.”
Worse yet, with reliability expected to play such a deciding role in this year’s world championship, Caterham is powered by Renault, whose troubles have been well-documented throughout testing and is well behind the pace set by rival manufacturers Mercedes and Ferrari.
The Strengths: If you look hard enough for a silver lining, at least the point-starved team has one of the most vicious and bold drivers on the grid in Kamui Kobayashi coupled with young gun Marcus Ericsson. At 27, Kobayahsi knows he must impress to keep his chances of staying in Formula 1 alive. Bottom-tier teams provide solid starting points for young drivers, but relegation to the uncompetitive echelon for a more experienced driver can also be a kiss of death.
Kobayashi and Ericsson will be two of the hungriest drivers in the field this season, shooting for the stars and a top tier ride at two very different stages in their careers. If the team can get the car to move faster, this tandem is capable of picking up spots. Also, even though car reliability may haunt them, it can just as easily help them pick up spots even with a slower car if they simply stay alive.
Projected finish: Once again, the driver lineup has been altered and Team Principal and CEO Cyril Abiteboul has pushed hard for improvements in the offseason, but the issues are less about the driving talent and more about the product rolled out onto the track. Even with the reliability wildcard across the paddock, it’s hard to envision Caterham finishing anywhere else but the bottom of the points table, especially when rival Marussia is fueled under the bodywork by Ferrari firepower. Final Position – 11th.