Will Gray

Tech Talk: Can Caterham step it up?

Will Gray

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Caterham's technical chief Mike Gascoyne tipped the team to challenge the established runners last season but fell significantly short — so why should we believe they can make the grade this year?

The team, which was born as Lotus, has been in Formula One for three years and while now firmly positioned as the best of the three new arrivals on the grid in 2010 — comfortably ahead of Virgin (now Marussia) and HRT — they are yet to fulfil their initial target of stepping up to join the midfield runners.

Their hopes are now pinned on a major two-race mid-season upgrade introduced in Valencia and Silverstone but not yet truly proven.

Their early season performance coupled with the improvement promise, however, suggests strongly that the second half of 2012 could see them genuinely step into the lower midfield runners.

The big test for the lower teams is Q1 — and the performance statistics demonstrate Caterham's progress.

In the last nine races of 2011, the team's top car averaged 18th place (17th place gets you into Q2). That is the same as they have achieved in the first nine races of this year, but it is the time difference that counts - and that has seen a significant improvement.

Last year, the team was an average of 3.13s slower than the fastest Q1 time with their fastest car (over the last nine races). This year they are averaging just 1.93s second slower — an average improvement of 1.2s.

That is a big step, but it could be argued that much of that is down to the ban on blown diffusers, which has slowed the teams at the front and brought the field much closer.

Indeed, that is suggested by their relative position ahead of Marussia — the team seen as their closest rival from the 'new bunch'.

Marussia's average last year was 4.82s slower than the lead pace in Q1 but this year it is 3.82s — so they have improved by 1.0s on average.

That said, last year Caterham made it through to Q2 once in the last nine races but otherwise were an average of 0.69s away from the cut-off. This year they have also made it through to Q2 once and are still 0.57s away — but they have been within 0.3s of the cut-off on four occasions in the nine races this year compared with one in the last nine races of 2011.

Now is the time for the next step.

Caterham's developments over the last two races are almost significant enough to be classed as a b-car — with a new engine cover, sidepod and bargeboard turning vanes, re-packaged internals with radiators moved rearwards, new brake ducts and changes to the floor.

This type of major upgrade is at the level some top teams would have introduced in the days when upgrades came in step packages rather than the current trend of a continual drip-feed of new parts race to race.

For a small team like Caterham, however, this type of step upgrade — albeit so big it comes over two races - is still the best solution.

This season is all about getting the set-up right to manage the tyres, and while top teams can — and must — introduce and test new parts race after race to keep up with their rivals while also managing the set-up challenges, teams further back simply cannot cope with that.

Each new part must go through wind tunnel model design and testing, detailed full-size design, structural analysis and final construction before being put on the car. Ideally, it should then go through rig testing for reliability and have the figures plugged into a simulator for performance testing and set-up tweaking. Then it must be evaluated for real during the limited running on a Friday at the Grand Prix.

While top teams have resources to do that week-in, week-out, smaller teams don't — so combining updates into a package is a far more efficient use of resources.

The technical team at Caterham were all winning races when step development was the typical approach — technical chiefs Mark Smith and Mike Gascoyne both at Renault and newly recruited performance director John Iley with them there before a successful spell at Ferrari.

The technical team at Caterham is of undeniably high grade and although each leader is now in a higher-level role and no longer so focused on the specific area they were working on when they were winning, they all clearly have the experience needed to take the team forward.

The design group has now gelled enough (new arrival Iley aside) to have the level of trust, collective thinking and common design approach that is needed for a united drive in development.

At Valencia, the first step of the two-step upgrade produced around 0.3s per lap of performance improvement — and that was without perfecting the set-up.

At Silverstone, rain put paid to evolving that set-up and also limited the testing of the next step, but at the end of the weekend both drivers said they felt major improvements with far more responsive handling.

In Germany, the engineers will hope for dry weather to enable them to evolve the set-up and maximise performance — and only then we will be able to understand whether that promise of a regular Q2 spot and the occasional challenge for points can finally be fulfilled...

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