- GP Week
Pointless (for now)
This season is going to be the year in which Caterham scores its first points. But in case you've forgotten, last season was going to be the year in which Team Lotus - the same group of men and women in green and yellow - were going to score their first points.
It didn't happen then, so who's to say that 2012 will be any different? In fact, it could be worse - Caterham left Barcelona trailing behind Marussia in the constructors' championship, a team they've comfortably bested since both made their Formula One debuts in 2010.
On paper, Caterham have what it takes to succeed - an owner with deep pockets, a long list of blue chip sponsors, experienced drivers, and a strong technical team. But the much hoped for results just aren't happening as quickly as expected.
Part of the problem is that the 2012 season is the most competitive in recent memory, with a tightly-packed midfield that can see two-thirds of the grid covered by a single second in qualifying.
Then you have the great leap forward made by the midfield as a whole over the winter. Teams like Sauber and Williams, with whom Caterham could legitimately expect to battle at the end of 2011, are now fighting at the front for wins. Lotus have moved up and are now fighting at the front, while Force India and Toro Rosso are a few vital tenths out of reach.
The progress of the grid as a whole disguises the progress that Caterham have themselves made. If you look at their qualifying results in Australia, Malaysia, China, and Spain since the team's 2010 Formula One debut, there is a marked decline in the gap to pole, with an improvement of more than two seconds at the Circuit de Catalunya.
But some of that improvement has come about as a consequence of the FIA's ban on exhaust blown diffusers, and the loss of pace suffered by the front-runners as a result. With the backmarkers steadily improving, regulation changes are on their side for now.
Over the next two or three years, however, as the technological landscape is changed by designers working out how to recoup downforce lost in the EBD ban while teams learn to get the most of 2014's new engine formula, staying competitive will be an even greater challenge.
Caterham technical director Mark Smith is aware of the challenges his team faces in a highly competitive field, but is confident that the Norfolk racers have what it takes to move ahead. This season - once again - the target is to score that vital first point.
"We are, absolutely [targeting points this year]," Smith told GPWEEK in Barcelona. "Even if it's only one point, that is our target - we need to finish this season with a point or two. Everything that we do is geared towards that."
Caterham CTO Mike Gascoyne's move to a more supervisory role encompassing both road cars and race team means that Smith has become a more visible presence within the team, but little has changed behind the public face.
"To be honest, since I joined the team - because I joined in the position of technical director - there haven't really been any changes," Smith said. "I've been doing the job, I suppose is what I'm saying. There hasn't been any need to do any real change in terms of what we're doing back at base in terms of aero, in terms of designing the car. So that's all pretty much seamless. The biggest difference is that I now come to the track at every race. Instead of coming to maybe five or six, and perhaps playing more of a background role, I come to every race and I'm on the pit wall. That's the biggest change for me."
One of the biggest changes for Caterham took place as the team returned to Europe for the summer leg of the season: former McLaren chief aerodynamicist John Iley, who was recruited last November, came to the end of his gardening leave and was allowed to take up his new role as sporting director. According to Smith, Iley's appointment was integral to the team's progress.
"One of the things that we've instigated and that happened last week is that John Iley joined us from McLaren," he said. "I've worked with John at two teams before; we know each other fairly well. He's obviously got experience of frontrunning teams - very recent experience - and it's those kinds of recruitments that actually allow you to step beyond the gradient that you're on. He only joined this week and he's already had a good look around the car. He will be giving his input to the developments that we're embarking on as of now.
"I think it will be fairly slow until the August shutdown, but I genuinely believe that our gradient will take off a little bit, and that we will have a much stronger car, certainly by the last third of the season. We will be in a strong position, and I hope that we will pick up the points."
Recruitment continues to be a vital part of Caterham's plan to progress - while the existing team works well together, a series of targeted appointments should help the Norfolk outfit to progress into the midfield at last.
"We are still a small team in many respects - it's not just the budget that we're missing," Smith admitted. "We've got a few more people to recruit to get to where we want to get to, particularly - primarily - in the aero field. That's in terms of both CFD and in terms of normal aerodynamics. We're not quite there with those people yet, we're not quite there with our CFD tools…"
Improving CFD is a vital part of Caterham's on-going development programme, and Smith readily admits that the team have a long way to go before they are able to make the most out of the technology.
"We're embarking on a big development programme that is a significant step forward in terms of our capabilities in the CFD environment," the technical director explained. "I believe that we're gearing ourselves up so that we're in the mid-field and we're doing CFD seven days a week, effectively. We're not doing seven days a week yet, but we will be later this season.
"What we need to do is… There's a gradient of development. We need to increase that, make it steeper, so that when we bring new parts to the car, whether it's a wing or a bodywork development it actually gives us more performance."
While the budget cap between front runners and back markers can often look like more of a canyon, Smith is happy with the relative degree of flexibility he is given with his development budget.
"Obviously all of this takes money," he said. "We started the season with a preliminary idea of our development budget, and as we go through the season I might have to say to Riad [Asmat] or Tony [Fernandes] 'we'd like to do this; it's outside the budget'. We've done that, and - to be very honest - I've never been told no. We are aiming to do what we can do, but one of the complications at the moment is the fact that we're a smaller team, so we're limited in terms of what we can do.
"This is the challenge. We all have development upgrades, so each week we add one or two points onto the model performance in the wind tunnel. But the bigger teams have more people, more resources, so they're adding more than us on a weekly basis.
"It is the thing that makes it massively difficult to progress. Obviously we've got a limitation in terms of the tools we have, and we are improving those, particularly CFD, and that'll come good early next year."
Development resources are a perennial problem, but one that will be improved when Caterham make their long-awaited move to Leafield, Oxfordshire, putting them in the heart of motorsport valley and nearer to their borrowed Williams wind tunnel. There are no plans for Caterham to build a tunnel at the former Arrows base.
"There is a cost implication [of building a wind tunnel]," Smith said, "but equally we're aware that, at the moment in some of the discussion forums within F1, the idea of cost saving is being discussed, and it's important that we set ourselves up going forward to be optimum in that respect. At the moment, the Williams wind tunnel is a very good tunnel for us, it works well, and when we're in Leafield it will be quite convenient."
Whatever Caterham might lack in terms of resources, they are not short on confidence. Their plucky underdog attitude and accessibility has endeared them to legions of Formula One fans, all of whom are keen to see the team score that elusive first point. Smith is confident that moment will come.
"We genuinely believe that we will come through," he asserted. "We are where we are at the moment, but I don't think you find that people [in the team] become too depressed by it. I think there's a belief that we will make progress.
"I do have high hopes. My expectations are the same as anyone's - to end the season in a stronger position than we started in, and for that to carry through into 2013.
"We need to be not in this gap between the other two new teams and the midfield, we need to be in the back end of that midfield from the beginning of next season so that we can start to progress through it."