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Caterham quo vadis - Is the Leafield based team getting closer to the midfield?

Published by Carlos E. Del Valle

Among the Formula 1 teams that debuted in 2010, Caterham not only became the strongest one but also maybe the most popular. Caterham is also different from the others because they promise results, and he who promises, must deliver. They have a bigger budget, they have Mike Gascoyne, and their owner Tony Fernandes is a well respected businessman and leader.

Caterham are the only new team to have a grand prix winner as a driver (Heikki Kovalainen). Their promise in this case is to join the midfield, this ethereal entity which means “neither the top teams, nor those hopeless backmarkers”. Or you could define midfield as "teams which score points every now and then".

For good measure

Caterham under the spotlights of Singapore
Credit: Glenn Dunbar/LAT

Well, Fernandes was close to eating his Chapman cap after Marussia almost got the much wanted tenth place in the Constructor's championship, so maybe the fight in 2012 was more to stay tenth than to join the midfield. My objective here was to determine how good the CT-01 is, particularly in comparison with last season. There are lots of variables, so I tried to remove as many as I could. Besides torturing data, statistics is also about removing confounding variables.

I don’t think it’s useful to merely measure the gap to the last midfield car, since that poor 18th car that was ejected in Q1 has often been struck by mechanical or driver problems, thus it’s not a true representative of the midfield. So I decided to compare the best Caterham lap time with the best Toro Rosso lap time. I was planning to compare Caterham with the average midfield lap time, but I thought that would be too harsh on the poor old Caterham. That's because Both Williams and Sauber were podium contenders for much of this season, and even Force India produced a quite good car, especially in the second part of the season, when the Hulk managed even to lead the Brazilian Grand Prix for quite a lot of laps. So Toro Rosso is clearly the target here, being ninth in the Constructors Championship, and really struggling to score points for the most part of the season.

I chose Q1 qualifying lap times for this evaluation, because it translates the raw pace of the car better than race lap times, and also because Toro Rosso is full throttle in Q1 anyway. The big teams often manage to go through Q1 on a harder tyre compound, but this confounding variable is fortunately absent here, as Toro Rosso are always fighting for their lives in Q1. As I said before, I refused comparing Caterham's best lap time against a broken Toro Rosso or a struggling Sauber or Force India, so I picked the best Caterham against the best Toro Rosso in every Q1. I also removed tracks which were absent in either 2011 or 2012, like Istanbul, Austin and the German tracks, for the sake of removing the biggest amount of variables.

Little less conversation, a little more action

A couple of spreadsheets later, and we have the million dollar answer: is Caterham getting closer to the midfield in 2012? Caterham, quo vadis?

Percentage against Toro Rosso 2011 x 2012

The answer is yes and no. Caterham improved from 101.6% of Toro Rosso’s best lap time in 2011, to 101.3% in 2012 - a pretty marginal improvement. This explains why there was so little hope of scoring points in this season. And we must also take into account that Toro Rosso looks worse this year than in 2011.

Let’s suppose you don’t like this percentage rationale, and rather prefer thinking about seconds and tenths. That’s easy, from my mighty spreadsheet (tap to view larger):

Lap time deficit against Toro Rosso (tenths)

It looks more or less the same: Caterham had been one and a half second behind Toro Rosso in 2011, and managed to shave 0.3 seconds off this year, bringing it down to 1.24 seconds. Not surprisingly, it is said that KERS means approximately three tenths per lap, and that was their main upgrade for this season. This can be worrying, because there is no KERS to be added for 2013, and Toro Rosso is being told by their owner to up their game too.

That’s the cruel side of being a constructor in F1: you improve, but your enemy usually does the same. Any given reasonable car usually gets two seconds per lap quicker during the season, so gaining ground over that is an uphill battle. That can unfortunately be a message for the Hamilton/Mercedes combo, too. Without any significant change in the technical rules, Caterham may have a hard time in 2013, but there is hope for the shake-up in 2014. It's the same for Lewis and his new Silver Arrow.