First of all, welcome to my debut as an ESPN columnist. I'll be doing a few of these throughout the year and after the success of the United States Grand Prix in Austin it's an exciting time to be the only American racing driver holding the valid superlicence required to compete in Formula One, so I hope to share some of that excitement and my experiences in my new role as one of Caterham's reserve drivers with you here.
Starting with the season opening grand prix, we knew from winter testing that it was going to be a close fight with the Marussias, but it was hard to tell in pre-season testing how close it was actually going to be. We got to Melbourne and found out that Marussia did have an advantage, and one that they capitalised on in the first race.
The fight with Marussia wasn't a major surprise, mainly because we knew that for the first four races we're running a 2012/2013 hybrid car, one that realistically wasn't going to be our full 2013 spec car that could possibly help us challenge the midfield until Barcelona. While a tough start was expected, we're a competitive group of people so we were prepared for the fight.
The one thing that always continues to blow my mind about Caterham in general is the fact that regardless of the things that happen, everyone is working towards a goal and understands that to be a competitive F1 team having only entered in 2010 doesn't happen overnight. Everyone moved on Australia quickly and that's what you have to do because you're chasing something that is a moving target.
Jules Bianchi had the upper hand on our battle with Marussia in both races and the thing that has honestly surprised me is that the paddock was so surprised by Jules' pace! I've raced against or alongside Jules ever since I've been in Europe and he's always been someone I've thought of as one of the best junior drivers in the world. So the fact that people are shocked that he's doing what he's doing is a bit strange to me. I knew that he was going to be able to extract everything out of the Marussia, but to have the gap to his team-mate being as big as it was did surprise everyone.
The positive side is that both of our cars finished both races. Obviously it's Giedo van der Garde's first year in F1 and Charles Pic's first year with the team and the fact that the reliability is 100% is great. We haven't had any issues in any of the sessions; that shows the quality of the car and now it's just about extracting the performance from it. It's a long season, we have to move through these four races and get the cars to the end. You only have to look at how many much bigger teams failed to finish both of the opening two races to see why we'd be pleased with both cars finishing both races without any issues. Charles has shown quite a bit of pace in very difficult situations, especially last weekend in Malaysia when he recovered from damage sustained in the pit lane through no fault of his own.
Looking at my role in the team, it's a new thing for me, for sure. Ever since I was 10 years old I've been in a competitive race environment, so to kind of change that up and go towards more of a back seat role has been weird. But at the same time it has been very cool because I've got to see things from a different perspective. When you're a driver the race weekend is very much dictated by how the last session went, and to be able to see it from the mechanics' perspective, the marketing team's perspective and the engineers' perspective and build a picture of how an F1 team works is good for me. I'm not going to lie; it was a bit boring at times, but it's a very cool thing to be able to build a relationship with an F1 team.
In fact, I did some pretty funny work on Sunday night in Sepang. Tom Webb - our head of communications - is the guy that drives me at races and he was busy post-race with reports, photos and stuff, and I was just sitting around so I thought I might as well do something. So I went and saw the catering team packing up and what started off as folding a few things up turned in to me still there at 1am sweating my ass off!
Looking ahead to the next two races, Ma Qing Hua will be driving in FP1 in China so my main duty is in the simulator back at Leafield. The team has built the sim from scratch and while that's all fine and well, to have a sim to be of use you need to get it to be as realistic compared to the track as possible. Giedo and Charles have a lot of responsibilities so it's been my job to get the development of the sim done.
On top of that I've just got to stay fit, because at the end of the day if either driver has an issue I've got to be able to get in the car. So I've actually just been in the sim and then I'm going to be going to Milan on Tuesday to go to a meeting with Pirelli and our engineers. So I'm involved in every aspect that the drivers are in terms of engineering and working with the team away from the race track, the difference is they get to have the fun on a race weekend!
My first outing will be in Friday practice in Bahrain, so it's just a week after China. I'm very much looking forward to that because it's a chance to drive the car and I know the track pretty well. I did GP2 Asia there so, while it's only 90 minutes, it gives me a chance to make an impression.
The main focus is to carry out the programme for the team, but let's be real here; motorsport is all about lap times, isn't it? So I'm going to need to find the balance between carrying out the job for the team and performance. At the end of the day everybody is going to look down at the results and see how you do, so while you have to ensure you can get through the run plan and you have to save the tyres, you can't be out for a Sunday drive because that will hurt you in another way. I'm confident because I've already had an FP1 session with the team in Barcelona last year, but the performance is going to be something that will be important to me.