Will Gray

Gray Matter: Season preview – The Backmarkers

There is no shortage of engineering talent at Marussia or Caterham – but can either backmarker team overcome budget limitations to break through and challenge Toro Rosso and beyond this season?

The collapse of HRT over the winter demonstrated the challenges that smaller teams face to simply stay on the grid and the efforts and achievements of Caterham and Marussia, who operate on a fraction of the budget of the leading teams, are often overlooked.

The target of the two surviving teams, beyond survival, is firstly not to come last and secondly to try and catch up with the back of the midfield – but that’s easier said than done.

Both teams genuinely challenged Toro Rosso at times last year and both have strong CVs to suggest they have the ingredients, at least, to climb up the field. If only they had more resources.

Both have experienced men at the helm with former Benetton and Renault technical chief Pat Symonds now permanent at Marussia and ex-Renault, Red Bull and Force India designer Mark Smith leading Caterham, having taken over the race team role from Mike Gascoyne who is now chief technical officer of the overall Caterham Group. Caterham also has former Ferrari man John Iley overseeing aerodynamics.

Beyond the lead personnel, both also have strong technical partnerships at the heart of their cars. Marussia’s deal with McLaren Applied Technologies gives them use of the team’s wind tunnel, CFD, simulator, test rigs and overall expertise. Caterham, meanwhile, use a title-winning combination of a Renault engine with a Red Bull gearbox.

Yet after three years, still neither has scored a point.

Unfortunately for both, early testing this year has done little to indicate either has made a significant enough step forward to change this statistic – while Toro Rosso appears to have at least maintained their gap ahead of the two comparative newcomers and has the potential to move forward again.

CATERHAM

After several years of failing to live up to pre-season promises, the team has been more conservative on predictions this year.

The new machine appears similar to last year’s model and has looked a little ragged in testing while an issue with the legality of their exhaust outlet could set them back in aerodynamic performance. There will be no major upgrade package until Spain in May.

The team have replaced former race winner Heikki Kovalainen and experienced Russian Vitaly Petrov with ex-Marussia man Charles Pic and rookie Giedo van der Garde for financial reasons - and unless the pair produce some surprise magic it could be tough for Caterham to progress.

They managed to beat their closest rivals Marussia to 10th in the constructors’ championship last year – clinching the crucial prize money that goes with it – but that is likely to be a harder fight this time around.

MARUSSIA

The challenges faced by the team were highlighted in the off-season when they were forced to drop experienced racer Timo Glock in favour of a pay driver to help their finances and then booted out Luis Razia because his backers failed to pay an instalment.

One bonus from Razia’s departure is that they have instead installed highly rated Ferrari academy driver Jules Bianchi in the seat, after he missed out on the Force India drive.

The car appeared in testing with noticeably sponsor-less livery so it still looks like the team will have to be clever with budgets to develop anywhere near the pace of teams ahead.

However, the baseline of the car does look good – as you would expect with former Renault chief Pat Symonds at the helm – and from testing times the team appears to have just got the slight edge on Caterham.

The old CFD-only development concept has been replaced by the more standard wind tunnel approach but the car is still unique on the grid, with the lowest nose of all on the grid and limited exhaust detailing at the rear of the car – the latter being something the team will have to quickly work on.

Despite the McLaren link-up, the team run the Cosworth engine and they have their own gearbox developed with Xtrack. This year’s addition of a Williams-built KERS, however, will at least put them on a level playing field with their rivals in that area.

With Glock gone, it is up to rookies Bianchi and Max Chilton to not only race the car but also to steer its development – and the team will need to call on all the experience of Bianchi, who was test and development driver for Force India last year, to lead this process.

TORO ROSSO

In contrast, Toro Rosso have two hot-shots in their race seats, both with a year or more of F1 racing experience. Jean Eric Vergne and Daniel Ricciardo are both not only keen to make their mark in F1 after struggling with last year’s car but also chasing the carrot of a potential seat at Red Bull Racing in 2014.

If pre-season words are to be believed, 2013 could be an exciting season for Toro Rosso – because of the arrival of James Key from Sauber and his immediate efforts to make the car more driveable.

Key has focused on delivering a more flexible car to set-up that should deliver a more consistent performance across different types of tracks, and this should give them a good platform from which to build.

As testing times indicate, the team is not expecting to be fully competitive from the start - but they have aerodynamic improvements planned for later in the season and when those come through that could allow its strong driver pairing to truly unlock their potential.