Will Gray

Season review: The Backmarkers

It was another 'pointless' season for F1's three newest teams - but behind the scenes Marussia, Caterham and even the apparently now defunct HRT still made significant progress during 2012.

It's incredible that three seasons have gone by since Formula One welcomed three new teams. Each arrived with realistic ambitions of slowly growing and eventually catching the more established teams. But most of those ambitions included getting points by now - and all three are still waiting for that.

So much drama was taking place at the front of the grid this season that an enthralling battle between the backmarkers was lost on most fans - but the constructors' fight for 10th position was almost as exciting and closely fought as the title chase.

Caterham started off promising to fight in the midfield this year, expecting their third iteration chassis, introduction of KERS, a high-profile design and race team and a decent (for a small team) budget for development would push them forwards.

But testing did not go so well and when neither car made it beyond Q1 in the opening race, it was clear that those lofty expectations would have to be re-assessed.

They did make progress in the middle part of the year, with Kovalainen taking 16th on the grid three times and 17th on four other occasions, but by the end the Finn still averaged 18th and Petrov 19th. That's still higher than the other teams - Marussia also averaged 19th with Glock but 21st with Pic while HRT were solidly at the back in an average 22nd for de la Rosa and 23rd for Karthikeyan - but it's not what they were expecting.

In races, getting to the end is the first important goal and things were also better for Caterham in these statistics, with just four non-finishes across the two cars in the 20 races compared to seven retirements for Marussia and 13 for HRT.

Caterham's finishing positions were also the best of the three, with both cars averaging 16th while Marussia managed 17th with Glock and 18th with Pic and HRT were 19th with de la Rosa and 20th with Karthikeyan.

So proof enough, surely, that Caterham was at the top of the backmarker pile once again.

Well, not necessarily. Because the trends of development suggest things are now tighter than they seem.

In Brazil, only Marussia driver Charles Pic's mistake behind a backmarker prevented his team from finishing ahead of Caterham in the championship - that incident allowed Caterham's Vitaly Petrov to get past to claim 11th place in the race, the highest either team finished all season, thus giving Caterham 10th place in the championship.

At the start of the season, such a tight battle was unthinkable.

Marussia had failed an important crash test before the season began and that prevented any genuine pre-season running. They started the season with the lowly ambition of reaching Q2 as their ultimate goal.

Having ditched Nick Wirth's all-CFD (computational fluid dynamics - basically, using computers to model aerodynamics) design approach last year, they had to a build design office up from scratch, so the car design was started two to three months later than other teams.

With no testing time, they started the year without even having a base set-up for the car. But even more significantly, the limited design time meant the car was still all-CFD in origin, because the wind tunnel model could not be made in time.

Through the season, however, development was done with a wind tunnel for the first time in the team's history, and with an experienced group of engineers managing that development it paid off well.

At the season-opener in Australia, the fastest Marussia was 2.3s adrift of the fastest Caterham in Q1. In race two the gap was 1.6s and in race three it was 0.8s - all down to improving the baseline set-up.

With that settled, the gap was harder to close any further, but slowly it did reduce. In Abu Dhabi, the 18th race of the year, it was just 0.1s and then in the USA, the penultimate race, both Marussia cars actually out-qualified both Caterhams, their fastest car almost a second ahead of the fastest of their rival's. And they also started to match and beat them on race pace too.

Ultimately, a collision between Marussia's Timo Glock and the Toro Rosso of Jean-Eric Vergne may have been more to blame for Marussia losing that vital 10th position in the championship, as Glock had been well ahead of the Caterham cars at that point. A puncture from the collision put him out of the picture, leaving the battle between Pic and Petrov as the decider.

Next year, the Marussia will be wind tunnel-developed from the start. And they'll have KERS. Both could make a big difference as the pair go head-to-head once again.

The performances of Caterham and Marussia may have made HRT look bad, but in truth the little Spanish team was doing themselves proud with the development path they were taking this season.

It is sad news that they have not managed to post an entry for 2013 and therefore look to be out of the sport. Sad because they were just getting everything aligned ready to show what they could do.

They, like Marussia, started the season unprepared and even failed to qualify for Australia (for the second year in a row) - but like Marussia once they got their set-up in order they closed the gap.

In Bahrain and Monaco they were very close to Marussia in qualifying and in Canada and Valencia they were ahead, out-qualifying them in Q1. They just didn't have the budget to develop the car and then started to drop back once again.

What they did do, however, was concentrate on trying to make the team a viable ongoing concern.

When Thesan Capital took over in the middle of last year, Geoff Willis was leading the design office remotely, with an engineering team made up of a selection of freelancers working from home offices, some perhaps even designing in their bedrooms.

It's an incredible thought. And it's not a viable long-term approach. The new owners realised, and early this year the team headed lock-stock into Caja Magica in Madrid, the move completed by the Bahrain GP.

The long-term objective for Thesan was to develop the team into a saleable concern. In May, they still only had a staff of 76 - that's nothing by today's standards - but the aim was to grow to 200, which they believed would enable them to be a 'credible minnow'.

The factory move and the formalisation of the team was achievement enough for this year - but it appears the value of a space in Formula One now is not as high as it once was.

Spain's economic issues meant the concept of running a Spanish-backed F1 team were dead in the water some time ago and in recent weeks the Middle East buyer they were in talks with went cold.

And that's a shame, because HRT had managed to play F1's modern Minardi very well. Only, without Paul Stoddart-style determination, it appears the well-structured progress this year was simply too little too late.

In the fight to reach the midfield, two now remain. And the end of the season suggests next year the back of the grid will be worth keeping an eye on once again.