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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.

Opportunity knocks // McLaren's midfield appearance gives hope to surrounding teams

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Button makes some headway in Malaysia
Credit: Vodafone McLaren Mercedes

McLaren aren't a team that you would expect to feature in this Midfield Monitor column, but they have got their 2013 season off to a shockingly poor start and find themselves only seventh in the constructor standings after two races. With just four points on the board, McLaren have given themselves an awful lot of work to do as Formula One takes a three week break before heading to China.

The Australian weekend was one to forget for the Woking team. The two-part qualifying was unsettling and ultimately a disappointment, as Button qualified 10th and Pérez down in 15th. As 2012 winners in Melbourne, McLaren left Albert Park this year with just two points on the board. Button, Pérez and team principal Martin Whitmarsh were open enough about the issues, but you could see their heads drop just a little bit.

We're lacking downforce, we're lacking stability. It's not only one thing. I think we've got a lot of problems. The car is not quick enough and this is our reality.

- Sergio Pérez, F1 driver, McLaren

Things looked slightly better in Malaysia with Button in the fight for points and maybe even a podium, before a mistake in the pitstop cost him a significant amount of time. Button dropped down the order, and eventually pulled out of the race - the car called into the garage for retirement just a couple of laps from the chequered flag. Pérez, meanwhile, finished ninth, for the team's sole points in Sepang, an improvement from his eleventh place finish the previous weekend.

Kick a man while he's down

With McLaren surprising almost all by being down in the midfield, and then taking it one step further by scraping just four points so far this year, there is room for their near rivals to capitalise on the troubles. Force India, Sauber and Toro Rosso need to grab this opportunity to take as many points as possible from the top ten, whilst McLaren are out of it. When they are back on form, which they no doubt will be by the time we get back to Europe, the major players have the potential to lock the midfield out of the top ten.

The surprising pace of Mercedes, the inconsistent speed from Lotus, plus the ongoing dominance at Red Bull and fiery starts from Ferrari, already have a hold on the points positions. Throw McLaren into the mix as well, and there is little room for anyone else. As deputy team principal at Force India, Bob Fernley, explained after the Australian race, they need to grab their chance now.

McLaren will obviously come back, so we have to try and capitalise while we can. It is not going to last for a long time, but once we have done that hopefully we have a bit of a buffer. Once McLaren are back in their normal slot it is going to be very hard for the other midfield teams to actually get points this year. I think it will be tougher than last year.

- Bob Fernley, Deputy Team Principal, Force India

Unfortunately for Bob, and Force India as a whole, they scuppered another chance to take home points with a double DNF at the Malaysian Grand Prix. The tyres on offer at Sepang meant most drivers opted for a three or four stop strategy. The increased number of pit visits meant we were bound to see fun and games in the pitlane, but no one could have predicted the problems Force India would have.

A wheelnut failure saw Adrian Sutil stationery for far too long, enough to have Paul di Resta stack up behind him. The Brit then had his own failure which delayed him, ruining what had been a good run up to that point. Both cars developed their own reliability problems, in part due to overheating from the length of time spent at a standstill. The pair retired within a few laps of each other.

Although Adrian Sutil made a good start to his comeback by leading the Australian Grand Prix, he finished the race 7th. Paul di Resta was held up behind, unable to overtake due to team orders, bringing home a double points finish for the Silverstone-based squad. Two cars in the points is the way to maximise on the problems at McLaren, but following it up with two cars in the garage is not.

You first have to start

Force India can take some heart in that they are not the only midfield team struggling with reliability. Sauber were forced to run just one car in Australia, after a fuel system problem saw Nico Hülkenberg sit out the race on the sidelines. The team narrowed the problem down to “several issues” causing a vacuum in the fuel cell that caused it to collapse in on itself. This seems like a fundamental issue that shouldn’t really happen once the teams are out of testing and on to the racing.

Nico doing what he does best for Sauber
Credit: Sauber Motorsport AG

It was the first race of the year, and Hülkenberg tried to be pragmatic about the situation, saying that it was merely missing out on the start procedure he was concerned about. However, as with Force India above, this is the time to grab as much of a buffer as you can to the teams around you. It may be the start of the season, but every race counts and every single point is going to make a difference come the end of the year.

For two or three seasons we have seen Force India and Sauber battle it out for championship points and thus extra revenue as the year draws to a close. It seems a long way off now, but all too soon Force India will be cursing their double DNF, and Sauber will be wondering what they could have done to sort the fuel cell issue out sooner.

Sister act

Meanwhile, there is one other team who are making some headway in the midfield. Yes, Toro Rosso have had two retirements of their own, both from Daniel Ricciardo. Yes, Jean-Éric Vergne continues to fail spectacularly on a Saturday and be one of the drivers dropping out in Q1. However, on Sunday in Malaysia, we saw some sparks of hope from the Red Bull B team. Eyebrows were raised when each of the Toro Rosso drivers took a fastest lap, and although the times were tumbling due to the drying circuit, it was a testament to small improvements at the team that they featured in such esteemed company at all.

Toro Rosso have been all but invisible over the last few seasons, in part because of their sister team status to the championship defenders, but equally because their car hasn’t had the pace to make any dent on the midfield at all. Now, despite a worrying unsafe release in the pitlane, the team have one point thanks to Jean-Éric Vergne, and they are hungry for more.

Vergne makes his point in Malaysia
Credit: Paul Gilham/Getty

Just like their midfield counterparts, though, Toro Rosso need to conquer their reliability demons. Ricciardo has suffered with broken exhausts, again a problem that should have been shaken down in testing. These three teams have a limited amount of time before McLaren start powering through their ranks, and end up muscling forward to play with the bigger outfits again.

There’s a glimmer of hope for the trio, knowing that Sergio Pérez may take longer to get up to speed than his teammate. We saw in Malaysia that Jenson Button had already improved from the previous weekend, whilst Pérez was still scrabbling to get to grips with his new machinery. The learning curve for the young Mexican is still very steep, and once his team find their pace again, this may be the only way in for the remaining three teams.

Relying on a driver’s inability is not going to cut it. As Bob said, this period is “not going to last for a long time” and all at Force India, Sauber and Toro Rosso need to get their own acts together so they can bring anything like a fight to their unexpected midfield companions.