F1 midfield can sometimes be more competitive and interesting than the fight at the top. This group comprises of the largest number of teams and occasionally a top team might take an excursion here, just to say 'hi'. These midfield teams serve as a stepping stone for drivers aiming to land a top drive. But most importantly, these teams are sometimes able to make cars that are good enough to fight with the top guns for podiums and even victories, despite striking differences in their budget. So in second part of our season review, we take a look at the five midfield teams of the season, including McLaren.
McLaren - An excursion to the midfield
In 2012, McLaren produced the fastest car on the grid but it's championship challenge was halted by a chain of slow pit stops and reliability issues. This year, it was the other way round with the team doing well operationally but struggling to produce a good car. We all know that McLaren 'revolutionized' their 2013 car as they felt that they won't be able to develop the 'evolutionised' version of 2012 car after a certain level. We have also repetitively criticized the team for going with this option in the first place when McLaren ended the previous season with the fastest car. But the reality is that the decision to go for a radical car wasn't made at the end of 2012. Rather it was made much during the
midway point of 2012, when in Whitmarsh words ''McLaren began to ran out off puff a little bit''.
Having chosen a radical design, it took the team considerable amount of time to understand a variety of changes, namely, a new pull rod suspension, a new rear suspension and a radical new sidepod concept. And when they were analysing the new design, others were developing, leaving them with even bigger gap to cover in terms of development. This major deficit in pace forced McLaren to shift focus to their 2014 car earlier than they would have like to, with the result that they failed to score a podium for the first time since 1980.
Talking about the results, McLaren had a poor start to their 2013 campaign, qualifying in 10th and 15th position at the season opening race in Australia. At least it was better than Ferrari's grid slot of 12th and 16th[Read: Ferrari's poor start in 2012 vs McLaren's poor start in 2013] but McLaren had no Fernando Alonso behind the wheels who could make way from a lowly grid position. Jenson Button is quick when the car is quick and slow when the car is that way. And the MP4-28 was surely not quick. Further, Button's teammate Sergio Perez failed to show the sparks he hinted with his second season at Sauber. That forced Martin Whitmarsh to give a wake up call to Perez who duly responded to the instructions by banging wheels with Button in Bahrain - something the latter didn't particularly like.
The first half of the season ended without anything special from McLaren. Forget about keeping pace with the leaders in in-season development race, McLaren's 2013 challenger was nowhere close to the pace of the cars with which the top guns started the season with. This was in sharp contrast with the 2009 season when McLaren returned to winning ways by the summer break after enduring a tough start to the season.
2014 - A transition year
2014 will essentially serve as a transition year for the eight times constructors winner McLaren. It will be their first year without Vodafone as the title sponsor and the last with Mercedes engines. And while the British team will be hoping to return to winning ways in 2014, it is 2015 that presents them with the first real chance of fighting for the championship. During 2014, they'll also have to closely evaluate Kevin Magnussen and see whether Jenson Button can take them to the title if the car is right there at the top but not the fastest.
Force India - Tyres, tyres, tyres
Force India had a positive end to their 2012 campaign with Nico Hulkenberg leading the Brazilian Grand Prix and eventually finishing fifth. But the driver who led the race for the team decided to move to Sauber, leaving Force India with a decision regarding who will partner Paul di Resta. They had to choose between their old driver Adrian Sutil and Ferrari Driver Academy member Jules Bianchi. They finally chose Adrian Sutil who made a fine return to Formula 1 by leading the Australian Grand Prix. With Di Resta also in points, future for Force India seemed bright, as far as 2013 was concerned. Despite a dismal weekend in Malaysia where neither of the cars finished the race due to a captive wheel nut issue, the team consistently scored points in the first half of the season with Di Resta's best finishing coming in Bahrain where he finished fourth after staying in a podium position for much of the race and Sutil's finest result coming in Monaco where he put some great overtaking moves on a track which hardly sees some passing to take fifth.
However, the team took a back step when the Silverstone blowouts forced Pirelli to changed its tyre compounds. The VJM06 simply didn't had the balance which it enjoyed previously and it struggled to stay at par with its other competitors. Force India was one of the three teams that had designed the car according to the Pirelli tyres and had a massive advantage over the rest in terms of tyre management. But the mid-season tyre change overturned this advantage - and after scoring 59 points in first eight races, the team could only add 18 more points to their total over the remaining 11 races.
To make matters worse, Paul di Resta had a poor run of races and qualifying results. While at some races, he was able to cover up from a lowly grid spot, that wasn't the case at all races. Also, the four consecutive DNFs between Hungary and Korea hurt his chances of a drive next season as this is the time where teams usually shortlist their drivers for next season. As many of the retirements were because of driver errors, particularly Singapore and Korea, his chances of staying with Force India also dwindled.
With this season mid-season slump - in performance of both from the team and in one of the drivers - Force India were at the risk of losing sixth place in the standings to Sauber having already lost out to McLaren. But some advancements in understanding the 'old tyres' helped them grab a few extra points to stay ahead of Sauber in the all important fight for sixth in the standings. And eventually the team did keep Sauber at bay, scoring more points in the first half of the season than its Swiss rivals managed to score during all the 19 races of the season.
At the season opener in Australia, Sauber encountered a fuel system problem with Hulkenberg's car and the highly regarded German had to watch the race from his hotel room. Malaysia was far better for Hulkenberg with the 26 year old finishing in eighth place and scoring four points. Despite three more points finishes, team's tally stood at a meagre seven points. All this time, Hulkenberg's former team Force India was in top form, scoring points on a consistent basis and standing in fifth position in the constructors standings. Naturally, Hulkenberg was filled with questions about whether he regretted his move to Sauber or not.
But then the F1 fraternity headed to Silverstone for the British Grand Prix and the prestigious race got famous for all the wrong reasons with multiple blow outs forcing Pirelli to revert to 2012 tyre compounds while keeping the 2013 spec structures. This change also coincided with a major update from Sauber that turned fortunes for the Swiss team. At Monza, Hulkenberg locked his Sauber in third place and had enough pace in the car to take fifth place in the race and double teams tally. He bettered that result in Korea with a stunning drive to fourth place. During the race, he held off the Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton and showed his intelligence by letting the Brit overtake him in the first DRS zone before re-passing him rather easily in the second zone to retain his lead. The increased pace and the growing experience also transformed Hulkenberg's rookie teammate Esteban Gutierrez who made his points debut at the following race at Suzuka after a rather poor start to his F1 career where he faced repetitive criticism from fans and experts. The team eventually finished the year in seventh place with 57 points, 20 less than what Force India managed to score during the same 19 race season.
So what lies for Sauber in 2014?
After the season it was announced that Nico Hulkenberg would return to Force India. That means that Sauber has lost their star driver who helped them score much more points than it deserved, particularly in the first leg of the season. In place of Hulkenberg comes Adrian Sutil, who has showed some good pace with his previous employers. Esteban Gutierrez has been retained for a second year but he must improve himself and carry on the momentum from second half of the season. The official signing of Sergey Sirotkin as test driver also puts an end to the speculations against Sauber's Russian deal.
Toro Rosso - The fight for a seat at Red Bull
2013 has been just another year for Red Bull's juniour outfit Toro Rosso. The Faenza based outfit scored almost the same number of points as they did in 2012, though they did finish a place higher in the constructors championship. But that credit goes to Williams for producing a poor car and not to Toro Rosso producing a better can than their British rival.
That allows us to concentrate more on the intra-team battle between Daniel Ricciardo and Jean Eric Vergne which became all the more important when it was announced that Mark Webber would depart from Formula 1, leaving a seat vacant at Red Bull.
Points - Ricciardo 20 / Vergne 13
Best race result - Ricciardo 7 / Vergne 6
Race head to head - Ricciardo 11 / Vergne 8
Best grid slot - Ricciardo 5/ Vergne 7
Qualifying head to head - Ricciardo 15/ Vergne 4
As you can see, Ricciardo clearly has the edge in all parameters except the highest race result which went to Jean Eric Vergne(6th at the Canadian Grand Prix). But a closer inspection to Ricciardo's results show that it was the timing of these results that helped him secure a seat at Red Bull. After the Mult-21 incident in Malaysia, rumours of Mark Webber leaving the Austrian team erupted and Webber's countrymen, Daniel Ricciardo made most of them by qualifying his Toro Rosso in sixth place at the following race in China. When the announcement was finally made in the week upto British Grand Prix, Ricciardo again showed his class, locking his car in fifth and finishing in eighth place of Sunday. At both occasions, Vergne had a torrid time. In China, the Frenchman collided with the soon-to-be-retiree Webber and finished 12th, while at Silverstone he retired from the race.
So what's in store for Jean Eric Vergne?
Vergne was clearly disappointed with the fact that Red Bull chose Daniel Ricciardo over him, especially when he had the edge in race performance, uptil that point of time. However, the good thing for Vergne is that the Helmut Marko didn't fire him after his second season, like he did with Alguersuari and Buemi. He's been given another chance to improve and show his skills and even make his own breakthrough if Vettel decided to move to Ferrari in 2015.
The prospects of Daniil Kvyat
Daniil Kvyvat's announcement as Toro Rosso's second driver for 2014 season was followed by string of comments from fans and journalists alike who argued that the 19 year old was too young to enter Formula 1. They compared the Russian with Jaime Alguersuari who joined Formula 1 at the same age and by the time he matured and started showing some real pace, he was shown the exit door by Red Bull.
But such negative comments against Kvyat eased off when he won the GP3 world championship with a dominant drive in Abu Dhabi. Valtteri Bottas also stepped into Formula 1 directly(albeit after spending a year as a reserve) from GP3 after winning the title there in 2011 and people expect him to following the Finn's footsteps. Further, Daniil Kvyat gained the F1 superlicense with a test at Misalo Circuit in Italy and subsequently following it with two great practice session outings in US and Brazil.
Williams - Downhill Drive
In 2012, everything seemed to return on track for Williams. They scored their first victory in nearly eight years at the Spanish Grand Prix in the hands of Pastor Maldonado who also qualified on the front row in Singapore. After such an illustrious year, it was expected that Williams would take the next step in the ladder to return to old glory. Instead, they went two steps backwards, scoring the same amount of points as they scored in 2011 - five.
Their car was aerodynamically weaker than its midfield competitors and it was clear from the three pre-season tests that they would be relinquishing at the back of the midfield unless they find a solution to their problems. A big breakthrough in the performance did come, right at the end of the season, when the team replaced their complicated blown exhaust for a simpler one. But by that time it was too late, and the team finished a distant 9th in the constructors championship - well off its midfield rivals, both in terms of points and sheer pace.
But the nine time constructors winner did have some good days in 2013. First came during the Canadian Grand Prix qualifying where their rookie driver Valtteri Bottas conquered the mixed conditions and put on a super lap to lock his Williams FW35 in third place. The team would have thought it was their best possible chance of breaking into points, but by the first few laps of the race, it was clear that team didn't have a car that would work well in dry conditions and Bottas only went backwards - finishing down in 14th place. Another good moment came a few races later in Hungary where Pastor Maldonado scored his and team's first points in form of a tenth place finish. Their final highlight of the year came at a rather straightforward race in US where Valtteri Bottas put on a great show to finish eighth and score his first ever points.
While Valtteri Bottas was flying in his debut season, his experienced teammate Pastor Maldonado had a troubled year. It was clear that he was frustrated with the car under his belt and at Austin he went on to accuse the team of sabotaging his car. The soured relationship eventually came to an end last month when it was announced that Maldonado was parting ways with Williams for a drive with Lotus F1 team.
How rookie Valtteri Bottas fared against Pastor Maldonado
Qualifying head to head - Bottas 12 / Maldonado 7
Best qualifying - Bottas 3rd / Maldonado 13th
Race head to head - Bottas 8 / Maldonado 12
Best race result - Bottas 8th / Maldonado 10th
So what lies ahead for Williams?
Read the other two parts of our Season Review