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Midfield Monitor
Christine

Christine became an avid follower of Formula One after getting a taste of the action way back in 2003. Today, you'll find Christine putting her experience to good use as writer and producer of the news show F1Minute, and editor of community F1 site Sidepodcast.

Introduction // Tracking the midfield F1 teams

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There’s an age old debate in Formula One that focuses on whether a season is good because it's made up of individually exciting races, or because the overall championship story is a classic. Last year, we settled for enjoying each and every fascinating weekend, knowing that the title fight was over before it ever had a chance to get going.

There was, however, one section of the Constructor’s Championship battle that remained entertaining to the last. The midfield teams were fighting for points and for crucial positions in the standings table right up until the final few laps, and for those ever-so-slightly bored of Sebastian Vettel’s dominance, it made a refreshing change. With a significant increase in revenue resting on each position made in the middle of the standings table, there is a real desire, almost desperation, to do well. That can make for fascinating viewing.

Quite often, it is the midfield that provides the entertainment of any race weekend, and those teams are also the ones that are often overlooked. In 2011, the four teams that finished in the midfield were Lotus, Force India, Sauber and Toro Rosso and it is to them that we turn our attention as the 2012 season approaches.

Moving talent

Jean-Éric Vergne and Daniel Ricciardo during pre-season testing
Credit: Mark Thompson / Getty

Toro Rosso took the unusual decision over the winter to ditch both their drivers and turn to two new faces instead. The team have become firmly settled into the midfield, partly due to their mandatory switch to be less technically associated with Red Bull, but also because with their self-sufficiency comes more of the pressure to provide Red Bull with some new talent. Whether it is mechanics, office staff, or drivers, Toro Rosso’s mere existence hinges on the premise that talent can move through the system faster there than it otherwise would. We haven’t seen much movement at Red Bull over the last few years, whilst the staff turnover at Toro Rosso has been at a startling rate.

With such a domineering boss peering over their shoulders, it can’t be expected that Toro Rosso can move forward much. Their single victory, with Sebastian Vettel, will surely be the only time they are allowed to show any kind of competitiveness. The embarrassment of the B-team succeeding to a top-step trophy before their elders must have had a big effect on the way management view their setup. We can’t expect great things from the team, but as the drivers want to prove themselves as potential RBR candidates, we can expect them to try and outdrive the car at every opportunity. That in itself is worth keeping an eye out for.

Keeping up momentum

Sauber have taken the exact opposite tactic from their rivals, and retained the services of both their drivers for a second year. With a partnership rolling over two years instead of just one, there is chance for the team to really get their heads down and start moving forward. Many expected Kamui Kobayashi to be the star of the show, but Sergio Pérez raised eyebrows in 2011. If it wasn’t for his untimely accident at Monaco derailing the momentum he was building up, we might have seen a very different story unfold for the Hinwil outfit.

Pérez showed he has the potential to pull off some amazing performances

As it stands, the pair look set to do battle all over again. Kobayashi didn’t paint himself in glory, but didn’t particularly embarrass himself either. Pérez showed he has the potential to pull off some amazing performances, but found the confidence knocked out of him by that Monogasque barrier. Both have to prove themselves once more as the 2012 season unfolds, and both are still vying for the number one driver position within the team. Last year’s car was capable of handling the Pirelli tyres very well, but with new compounds for this season, and twelve months of tyre data on every clipboard, that advantage may well have worn off. If they can hit the ground running this season, they may be able to keep up momentum to prove a thorn in the side to some of their competitors.

Picking up points

The Force India squad present a united front but it’s easy to see that behind the scenes things are unravelling. Dr Vijay Mallya’s hold on the organisation is slipping away, and the new Sahara group investment looks like more of a sticking plaster than a long term solution. I hope they can keep it together enough to provide both Paul di Resta and Nico Hülkenberg with a semi-competitive car. The team have very obvious goals, and Mallya is often vocal about what he expects from his drivers, but I think they can’t expect to move very far forward this year. The inter-team battle is going to be more interesting at Force India for 2012.

Di Resta and Hülkenberg both came through the ranks, completing a full season as test driver before being granted a racing seat. Di Resta has one year at Force India over his German teammate, but Hülkenberg has completed a season at Williams. Experience of different types of machinery may help The Hulk, but equally it may take him some time to settle in at the squad. Watching these two squabble their way towards points, and perhaps even the odd podium, is something I am particularly looking forward to. Many rate Hülkenberg as a future talent, and even more suggest that his one-off pole position in Brazil 2010 is something we should expect to be repeated at some point in the young driver’s future. Whether it is this year or not very much depends on the car, but with the competition as tight as it is at the front, I think all at Force India would settle for picking up as many points as possible at as many venues as they can.

A high profile star

Kimi exits the garage in Barcelona
Credit: Andrew Ferraro/LAT

We had barely begun thinking about the 2012 season before Lotus started grabbing all the associated headlines they could. We’ve seen news item after news item chronicalling Kimi Räikkönen’s return to Formula One. From a visit to the factory to his first seat fitting, from his first turn of the wheel to his very next breath, the much-heralded comeback has been covered via many column inches. His return is a spectacle I want to see, but even that can’t overshadow some of the problems Lotus have had. Their naming row may be over, but there are still many question marks over who owns what at the team and who really is in charge.

Their pre-season testing was cut a little short by a chassis issue. They handled it well - cool, calm and professional - and were fixed up enough to only miss three and a half of a possible twelve days. They are not the worst team on that front by a large margin. It will put them on the back foot though, and with such a high profile star as Räikkönen and such scrutiny over their every move with the Finn, any issues such as the testing one will be monitored closely and analysed to the highest degree. It’s a pressure the team have chosen to put on themselves in the hope of gaining momentum, but whilst it may be a motivating factor, it is also a very high wire they are crossing. What they achieve in 2012 will be a marker for the future of the team, and it’s a squad that haven’t had a solid forward-thinking plan for too long.

Mercedes and more

On the periphery of the midfield, Mercedes spent 2011 battling mostly with themselves. Not fast enough to catch Red Bull and McLaren, but not slow enough to be caught by Lotus and Sauber, it was a lonely season for the team. Demotivating as it might be to have little competition to butt heads with, everyone at Brackley needs to keep focused to make sure they don’t fall into the clutches of the following pack. It would be all too easy for Mercedes to drop into the midfield, promoting another team up and out.

Williams are going through a period of change as they try and haul themselves out of this recent performance slump

At the other end, the relegation zone features Williams and Caterham. The two appear to be in roughly the same position but couldn’t be polar opposites from each other. With a massive history buoying them along, Williams are going through a period of change as they try and haul themselves out of a recent performance slump. They’ve been falling backwards for the last few years, and now it’s time for that to change. They’ve had a shakeup of drivers, they’ve got new personnel in the factory and garages, and even the Board of Directors have been switching seats to keep things fresh. Most would like to think there is only one way for Williams to go, but the simple truth is that there are three. Up, down, or along the same path. Some of that may depend on what those around them achieve.

Meanwhile, Caterham are on their ascendancy and after two years of hard work, they have TV revenues in hand and are ready to start pushing for points. They need to start getting those points and soon. Their last minute switcheroo between Jarno Trulli and Vitaly Petrov caused some concern in the F1 world. Petrov may be a relatively decent driver, but he is still a pay driver. If Caterham are in need of the funds, you have to wonder where they would be if they hadn’t managed their two consecutive tenth place finishes and if they weren’t expecting a nice cheque from Bernie Ecclestone. Still, the what ifs don’t matter. They have the money, they have the driver lineup, and they have the potential. Now all they have to do is use it.

Many to monitor

Whilst those at the top gain headlines and fans due to their speed and outright incredible performances, and those at the rear grab attention due (usually) to their crashes or inability to compete, it’s the midfield where the real challenges and excitement lie. If 2011 was anything to go by, the coming season could be the start of some really engaging battles. These teams don’t always have the corporate world telling them what to do, they don’t always have to let team orders affect the racing. For them, although championships may not be on the cards, the stakes are still high. Scraping into the points can be a make or break situation for a struggling team, and it is that intensity that will make for a captivating 2012.