Testing for the 2013 Formula One season begins on 5 February, which is just 22 days away. All of the teams will be quite far into their pre-season car development and anticipation for the new season is no doubt building in team factories all over Britain and parts of Europe. But at Caterham, a crucial part of pre-season preparation has yet to be completed – the all-important driver line-up.
Caterham signed Charles Pic towards the end of last year, after the Frenchman impressed during his debut season at Marussia. But the identity of Pic’s team-mate is as yet unknown. Caterham’s 2012 drivers were Heikki Kovalainen and Vitaly Petrov, and between them they delivered tenth place in the Constructors’ Championship, but it now looks possible that neither will feature on the 2013 grid.
Kovalainen is unusual in a back-of-the-field team in that he was paid a salary by Caterham (formerly Lotus) for the past three seasons – most small-budget teams look for drivers who provide funding from their personal sponsors. Kovalainen has resisted the “pay driver” label and is determined to find a race drive without having to secure his own sponsorship. Unfortunately for the highly regarded Finnish driver, budget is king in a developing team and it therefore comes as no surprise that he is not even in the running to retain his seat at Caterham.
Petrov, on the other hand, has been a pay driver from the start of his Formula One career. After two seasons with Renault (now Lotus), Petrov lost his seat to Romain Grosjean and moved to Caterham, where he was expected to be outpaced by Kovalainen. Instead, the Russian had an impressive 2012, in which he scored a vital 11th place in Brazil to secure tenth place in the Constructors’ Championship for the team. Petrov is expected to remain with Caterham if he can find sufficient funding, but that plan seems to be stalling at the moment as Petrov’s management struggles to secure the necessary sponsorship.
Caterham are reportedly looking at three possible alternatives to Petrov – 2012 Caterham reserve driver Giedo van der Garde, 2012 GP2 runner-up Luis Razia and 2012 Williams driver Bruno Senna – all of whom are expected to bring larger budgets than Petrov. The Russian does have the advantage of three years of Formula One experience, and has completed a full season with Caterham. Whether or not that experience will outweigh the larger budgets of his rivals remains to be seen.
At the end of 2009, Heikki Kovalainen left McLaren, where he had won a race and featured on the podium three times, to join the all-new Lotus team, and suddenly found himself at the back of the field in a car that was not capable of points.
Fast forward to now, and the team has changed its name to Caterham, but has still scored no points and does not look likely to do so this season, unless the cars in front prove to be particularly unreliable. Significant progress has been made in closing the gap to the midfield, but for the time being the gap remains. Nonetheless, Kovalainen has spent his time at Caterham pushing to the limit, extracting every last bit of performance from the car in an attempt to get results. And his efforts have not gone unnoticed – as the Finn approaches the end of his contract with Caterham, there are rumours that he may be signed by a big team, perhaps McLaren or Ferrari.
Kovalainen left McLaren on good terms, and so a return to Woking is not impossible. With Lewis Hamilton looking more and more likely to leave the team, the probability of there being a seat available is steadily increasing, and Kovalainen’s name has been mentioned in the media as a possible replacement.
No seat has been the subject of more speculation than that of Felipe Massa at Ferrari. Every driver wants to race for the famous Italian team, and it has looked likely for some time that Massa will be replaced. Last week, Finnish television company MTV3 claimed that Kovalainen’s management had been summoned to Maranello to discuss a 2013 drive.
Whatever happens for Kovalainen next season, his efforts are clearly paying off. He is easily the most talked about driver in a “new” team (Caterham, Marussia and HRT), which is a direct result of his performance on the track. When he was at McLaren in 2008-2009, he was perhaps lacking a bit of experience. Three years developing a team like Caterham have given him time to mature as a driver. It is about time he had a chance to get back in a quick car and show what he can do.
Heikki Kovalainen: “Silverstone is a great track to race at, both because it’s one of our two home races and because it’s a proper driver’s track. Even with the changes that have been made over the years it is still what F1 is all about – high speed corners that really push the performance of the car. The new section is probably the least exciting bit of the track from inside the cockpit but the classic corners from Copse and Maggots to Beckets is right up there with some of the best corners on the calendar.
“Honestly, I can’t wait to get back in the car and see what we can do at this year’s British Grand Prix. At the last race in Valencia we clearly made improvements, enough to help me put the car into Q2 on merit and we have more upgrades coming for Silverstone. For this race it’s important that we carry our qualifying speed and good reliability through into Sunday as issues like the KERS problem I had in Valencia impact all the hard work the team is doing at the factory and in the wind tunnel to get us where we want to be. If we can do that I think we can have another very good weekend and I’m really looking forward to giving our home fans something to cheer for.”
Vitaly Petrov: “The British Grand Prix is one of the best races of the calendar for several reasons. It’s a fantastic place to race at because of the exciting atmosphere and the special love the British fans have for motorsport. As the UK is home to a lot of the teams, including Caterham F1 Team, the whole place is always full of fans, whether it’s raining or the sun is burning everybody! They are some of the most knowledgeable, passionate fans in the world and they give the whole place a special atmosphere all weekend.
“As we’ll be bringing more new parts to the British Grand Prix I think it’s another race where we’ll be able to take a step forwards. I’m sure everyone else will be bringing upgrades so we need to make sure that we don’t just make gains, but we improve more than our nearest rivals. That’s a big challenge but after seeing the gap to Toro Rosso shrink in Valencia we have a clear target just ahead and that gave the whole team a real boost. Hopefully we’ll be able to make similar levels of progress at Silverstone – if we do I think the British Grand Prix could be very interesting. The team made great progress in Valencia and I really hope that we will continue in the same manner at the next race.”
Mark Smith, Technical Director: “We left Valencia after a very positive weekend for the whole team. One of the most pleasing aspects for me was seeing that the numbers we had predicted for the upgrades we brought there matched what we did on track, and that gives us a lot of confidence that future upgrade packages should continue the trend we are seeing of the gap to the teams ahead shrinking.
“For Silverstone we will be bringing a number of new parts, including new rear bodywork, a revised exhaust layout and a number of smaller updates in other bodywork areas around the car. I do not want to make any predictions at this point on what they could be worth, but if we repeat the step forward we made in Valencia we should have another positive weekend.”
Tony Fernandes, Team Principal, Caterham F1 Team: “The European Grand Prix was a very significant race for our team as it was the first time we took on and beat an established midfield team in a straight fight on merit in qualifying. Yes, Heikki’s benefited from the issues Mark Webber had on Saturday, but we are now quick enough to take advantage of that sort of opportunity and knock one of the established teams back into the positions we have been filling since we started in the sport just over two and a half years ago.
“Our performance on Sunday was also extremely positive, with all areas of the team performing at 100% to help us record our best positions of the season, despite both cars being forced to change nosecones after contact with the Toro Rossos. We said at the start of the season that our goals for this year are to score our first point and to join the midfield and I think it is fair to say that we are achingly close to being able to achieve those targets.
“Silverstone will give us another chance to show that we can make good on those objectives and the upgrades we are bringing will give both Heikki and Vitaly the chance to repeat our qualifying performance in Valencia, and, more importantly, to be able to fight for their track positions from the moment the lights go out on Sunday, right to the end of the race. To see our cars racing a team who were 1.6 seconds ahead of us in qualifying for the first race this year is obviously a very good feeling, for me and my fellow shareholders, our partners and sponsors, our fans and the whole team.”
Heikki Kovalainen: “Next up it’s the European Grand Prix in Valencia. The track isn’t my favourite one of the season but it’s another great city to go to and another venue that makes the most of having F1 in town for the whole week so the atmosphere is around the whole event is great.
“The track itself is another temporary circuit, a sort of semi-street circuit. The track surface is very smooth and the kerbs aren’t really an issue but it is pretty stop / start, so you need to quickly find a good rhythm to manage the series of long straights that end in tight turns, and pay attention to brake wear rates and cooling. The brake cooling options we have for Valencia are similar to Canada but the track in Spain evolves much more over the race weekend than in Montreal so we’ll be looking closely at setup options that mean we can manage tyre degradation levels right through the whole weekend.”
Vitaly Petrov: “It’s always good to get back to Valencia. It’s a city I know well as I lived there for a couple of years while I was racing in GP2 and I have good memories of racing there as I took my first GP2 win in Valencia in 2007. My F1 results so far have not been quite that good, but it’s always a good challenge and one I’m looking forward to getting back to with Caterham F1 Team.
“I think the Valencia race and the next one at Silverstone could be pretty positive for our team. We have a few updates coming onto the cars at the next two races, and we keep seeing how the gap to the teams ahead is closing, little by little. That is the aim this year – work as hard as we can to get to the point where we’re racing a couple of cars ahead and then see where we go from there. We were closer than ever to Q2 on merit in qualifying in Canada, so let’s see what the upgrades we’re bringing to Valencia and Silverstone help us do.”
Mark Smith, Technical Director, Caterham F1 Team: “The Valencia circuit presents us with a few technical challenges that are similar to a couple of the other tracks we race on. As a temporary street circuit it obviously has big grip evolution over the weekend but the track surface is pretty abrasive, so deg levels are reasonably high throughout every session on track, particularly in FP1 when the surface is very dirty and what we call ‘green’. This means we not only need to manage tyre usage, so we have enough sets of new tyres for race day, it also means we have to work very closely with Renault Sport F1 on maximising traction and giving the drivers setup options that mean they can attack the traction zones after each braking point with confidence.
“With DRS engaged I suspect we will see similar levels of overtaking to 2011. The difference this year for us is that we expect to be much closer to the cars ahead than we were last year, giving us a chance perhaps to put one of our cars into Q2 and giving the drivers a real chance to race on Sunday. We have a couple of quite significant updates coming in Valencia and Silverstone – we will take a look at a number of new aerodynamic elements in Valencia as well as some minor modifications to the floor, and even though we will not know exactly what they will give us until we get out on track, we are cautiously optimistic they will help us keep edging ever closer to the midfield.”
Tony Fernandes, Team Principal, Caterham F1 Team: “These are very exciting times for everyone associated with Caterham F1 Team and the wider Caterham Group. At the next two F1 races, in Valencia and Silverstone, we will see the fruits of the hard work being done by everyone at the factory with a number of important upgrades on the cars. While we are honest enough with ourselves to know that these upgrades alone will not be enough to force our way into the midfield pack, we do know it is a statement of our intent to join the group just ahead that we are updating the car at the same rate or even more quickly than our rivals.
“We have the people and resources in place to achieve our goal of scoring a point this year, and we are edging ever closer to a group of cars that is now tantalisingly close. The F1 team can take inspiration from our GP2 team who had a slightly slow start to the season, but have forced their way into fifth in the teams’ championship and have helped to put Giedo van der Garde into third in the drivers’ standings after he became the first GP2 driver to record a podium in both races in Monaco. They are working incredibly hard in a similar fight to their F1 colleagues, taking on established teams in a series that reqards experience, precision and risk-taking, and their recent run of success is just reward for the efforts the whole team is putting in.”
Lewis Hamilton has topped the times in the first two practice sessions for the Canadian Grand Prix. The McLaren driver led almost the entire first session, and then set the pace early in the second session and stayed at the top of the times.
Behind Hamilton, the times were very close, as has become the norm in 2012. The top 13 drivers were separated by less than three quarters of a second in Free Practice 2, which suggests that we are in for a very close and exciting qualifying session tomorrow.
The day’s proceedings were dictated by the threat of rain. A few of the teams chose to use the supersoft option tyres in FP1, as they expected FP2 to be wet. In the end, although there were a few drops of rain in the first session, the running time remained mostly dry. The heavens opened shortly after the end of FP2, the promised thunderstorms finally arriving.
With walls so close to the track, it was inevitable that there would be one or two accidents. The first came in FP1, when Heikki Kovalainen lost the back end of his Caterham and hit the wall on the exit of turn nine. Although the suspension on the right hand side of the car was destroyed, the team managed to repair the car in time for Kovalainen to complete 24 laps in FP2.
Bruno Senna became the first driver to hit the “Wall of Champions” this weekend in FP2 when he carried too much speed into the final chicane and his car swapped ends on the exit. A big impact resulted in extensive damage to the front and rear of his Williams, meaning the team will have their work cut out to get his car ready for tomorrow morning’s practice session.
Although Hamilton appeared to have a comfortable Friday, Jenson Button had a nightmare day in the other McLaren. The team identified a problem with the gearbox early in FP1, which took until mid-way through FP2 to solve. Button completed only 14 laps in FP2, ending up ninth, just over half a second off the pace of his team-mate.
McLaren, Red Bull, Mercedes, Ferrari, Force India and Sauber all look quick. Lotus were surprisingly slow given their strong start to the season, but it is possible that they have yet to show their true pace. Qualifying tomorrow afternoon will reveal the pecking order. At this point, Hamilton is a good bet for pole position.