Caterham comparisons… Why they’re doing well.

I think Caterham will do well this year – better than last year. A lot of people have compared them to new teams in the past, saying that other teams have achieved points-finishes and podiums much faster, but they seem to forget a lot of key differences.

1) Buying a team versus starting one from scratch – If you buy a team, you have all the key people in place, and you can evolve from a design that’s at least finished races. You don’t have to build everything from the ground up.  Red Bull got Jaguar as a starting point; Mercedes had Brawn, who had Honda, who had BAR, who had Tyrrell; even Ferrari had Alfa Romeo way, way back in the 1950’s (they even ran Lancia D50s when their own cars weren’t competitive against Mercedes!); the only “take over” that Caterham (nee Lotus Racing, then Team Lotus) did was to buy the Racing Technology Norfolk location and set up shop with a brand new cast of characters to run the team – hardly the same thing.

2) Starting a team with a limited budget – Toyota was the last team to start from scratch, but they rivalled Ferrari in terms of budget. It’s hard to compare Fernandes’ team to that of Toyota/TTE who were able to build up a facility that is now defunct for three years, yet is still the envy of most of the F1 field. Engine test benches that are second-to-none, and wind-tunnels that other teams are renting to verify their own results.

3) Starting a team in a no-testing era – Sure, you can replicate full races on the dyno, shake a car on a 7-post shaker-rig, play all you want in the wind-tunnel, but nothing beats pounding around a track for a few days.  Even Ferrari used to have their two wind-tunnels running 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, before the Resource Restriction Agreement. Caterham started their team and was thrust into their first race with only 12 days of testing. Contrast that to the Toyotas, Stewarts, etc, where they could test for a month straight if they wanted, and you can see the difference.  Want to test something minor today?  Slap on some hockey-puck demo tires, and go out for a “filming day” to make sure the car runs.  Want some real testing?  Need to wait until the Friday before a race – not the time when you want to try something revolutionary.

4) Starting a team in an era of unprecedented reliability – It’s crazy how many cars finish a race these days. If they don’t crash, they almost always finish. Engines are on a development freeze, so engine failures are few and far between. Minardi could pick up the odd points finish back when it was top-6 only; however, that was when half the field retiring was not overly uncommon. Finishing in the top-10 these days is probably more of an accomplishment than getting a top-6 back in 1990. I’d bet most drivers knew the access roads around each circuit back to the pits quite well – these days they’d get lost! Webber and Bourdais got their first points through high attrition. Those days are gone, even if only until 2014 when ERS becomes a major component of the drivetrain.

Given all of the differences these days that stack the odds against them, Caterham is doing well. They’re finishing lots of races, which is something that many other teams couldn’t achieve in their first few years. I think they’ll get their first points this year, and I hope they do. Despite the differences due to the modern high-reliability/no-testing era, you can only claim to be a “new” team for so long.

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