It’s about one year now since the Caterham F1 team moved HQ from Norfolk to Oxfordshire. As anyone who has ever moved knows (house, apartment, office, bedroom), the weeks, months, years after a relocation are utter chaos. That might explain Caterham’s early season dip in form this year when — in Australia, Malaysia and China, the season’s first three races — it could get neither of its cars past Jules Bianchi’s ‘flying’ Marussia. The same move might also have explained the team’s decision to continue to race last year’s car; one can only assume they couldn’t find the pencils and the French curves.
All the packing boxes must now have gone from the new Leafield base (that’s the old Arrows place, for the Sunday Afternoon Club hardcore) because in the last three races, Caterham have again found some kind of ‘form’ and finished ahead of Marussia.
Indeed, in Hungary both cars were a whole lap ahead of the Marussias in the jetwash of Hamilton’s flying Mercedes. Marussia, who are currently going through something of a divorce, appear to suffering from their own domestic discombobulation after a promising start to the season.
Two teams then, not a point between them and little likelihood of one either. Do we care? Yes, and we’ll come to the reasons why next week, once we’re finished with these half term reports in time for the racing to resume in Belgium in two weekend’s time.
Marussia has its motives to be in Formula One, surely, though they alone know what they really are. Caterham meanwhile has a brand to build, or rather a brand to bend into a different shape.
Caterham (and it is all the same group) also make quite fantastically effective — not to say evocative — specialist road-racers. A drive in a Seven should be on everyone’s bucket list. However there is very little shared ‘brand equity’ between the current activities of Caterham Cars and Caterham F1. Indeed, there’s more good stuff to be found in the DNA of the numerous Seven variants than in the green and yellow cars of Charles Pic and Guido van der Garde. However when the game moves on — and Caterham begins to sell its take on the Caterham/Alpine/Renault two-seater — then the performance of the F1 cars will become more important.
Right now, in their fourth season, they are again nowhere and I don’t see how it gets any better. Caterham, rather more obviously than the other teams, is concentrating on 2014 right now, not the remaining nine races of the season. It’s presumably been doing that all year in the hope that the gamble, and what must be something rather more than a simple customer relationship with Renault, will produce the car Caterham has been promising for four years now — a turbocharged, Renault-powered Caterham that will move them off the back of the grid.
Are Pic and Van der Garde the talent the team needs to take it forward? Van der Garde is something of an enigma, arriving in F1 with the least convincing CV of any of the rookies, and getting in everyone’s way in Canada. Yet grabbing the opportunity to make Q2 in Monaco and his 14th in Hungary, suggests the deficit to the rated Pic is not as great as you might imagined.
As for Charles Pic himself, well the team’s decision to re-employ Heikki Kovalinen as Friday boy says all you need to know about levels of faith in the Frenchman’s ability. He’s certainly more steady than many of the current generation of F1 freshmen, but if there is a major talent there, then the Caterham CT03 is an even bigger disappointment than we first thought.
Half term grades
Caterham: C plus
Pic: B minus
Van der Garde: C plus