Will Gray

Gray Matter: New teams mid-term report

Will Gray

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The three new teams entering Formula One this season had a tough task ahead of them at the start of the year - so as the sport completes its summer break how have they performed and what does the future hold?

All three teams made their entries on the understanding Formula One would be capped to a tight budget - only to discover soon after being accepted that this would no longer the case. Once that decision was made, it was always going to be a struggle for Virgin, Lotus and HRT to get close to the established teams. Few expected any of them to make the finish of the season-opening race in Bahrain let alone come anywhere near a respectable. But that depends on how you define respectable.

There was a time when teams that were 15 per cent off the fastest time in qualifying would not be allowed to race - and back then some were slow enough to be booted off the grid. Not so this year. Although the fastest of the newcomers was some 5.116 seconds off the top qualifying time, that equated to just five per cent of the fastest car on the grid, which really is not too bad after all. In the race, meanwhile, early teething problems did hit two outfits - Virgin and HRT - but Lotus actually saw both cars classified as finishers - again, not a bad achievement given the preparation time available. Ever since then, there has been a real battle to be the best of the new teams.

In terms of grid positions, Lotus is now averaging a best of 18.5 while Virgin is at 20 and HRT 22. Lotus is also on top when it comes to race results, with an average finishing position of 15.8 and only two races where they have failed to get a car to the finish. HRT are next best with an average finish of 16.8 and, again, only two instances when neither car has made it home. Virgin comes in last with an average of 17.25 and four races with a double DNF.

Reliability is still an issue for the new teams, however, and from a possible 24 car finishes Virgin have managed only half with 12, Lotus little better on 13 and HRT the best on 15. Of the established teams, most of the midfield are much more reliable, with Toro Rosso finishing 18 of the possible 24 and Williams and Force India both 20. Sauber, however, has a poor reliability rate with just 11 finishes - worse, in fact, than any of the new teams. But unlike the new teams, when they finish they are usually in a competitive position.

With the limited resources the new teams have, it is a delicate balance between achieving good reliability and pushing for pace - and it seems Lotus have found the best balance.

Lotus and Virgin were close at the start, with just a tenth of a second or so between them in Bahrain as Virgin took the upper hand. Lotus moved ahead in Australia by more than six tenths but it was just a wobble for Virgin and in China they were back ahead.

But Virgin dropped off the pace after they were forced to re-design their car's fuel tank having made the astonishing mistake of not making it big enough. Blamed on an alteration to the fuel efficiency of the engine, it was demonstration that the Virgin designers - under the eyes of Nick Wirth - were thinking like a top team, trying to optimise packaging and minimise weight to gain the best performance: but they left their margins far too tight. Not only that, the fragility of this approach was also showing in their reliability.

The change in Virgin's design, introduced in Spain, solved the fuel problem but altered the wheelbase and thus changed the entire handling characteristics of the car - and the effect can clearly be seen in their performance. At the same time, Lotus brought in a substantial development upgrade, and it opened up a significant gap.

Since then Lotus has enjoyed a comfortable pace advantage averaging about half a second, up to 1.4 seconds at the European Grand Prix, and although Hungary saw Virgin move back ahead of Lotus, that circuit is unique so it does not necessarily mean they are back on the pace.

In the background, the slow and steady approach taken by HRT has failed to inspire much confidence in the team. Despite the arrival of Geoff Willis and the decision to ditch Dallara and build the car themselves, the lack of development through the season suggests a lack of money and they are already focusing what little they have on the 2011 car.

With no testing at all before the start of the year, they started off well behind and although they moved forward a little, a lack of investment in design progression has meant they have remained around 1.75 seconds off the pace of the leading new team all season.

They won't be moving anywhere but backwards in the rest of the season - and they can only hope more money comes their way soon.

But things could still change at the front of this group, in the chase for the coveted top new team spot. Lotus has already established solid respectability while Virgin's early mistakes have left a slight mark of unprofessionalism on their name. But Lotus has now stopped developing their car to concentrate on 2011 and Virgin haven't. If they can find some successful developments, and they can take the top newcomer title, then respect will return...

Graph showing percentage of time off pole position for new teams:

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