• 2011 teams review

Nipping at the heels

ESPNF1 Staff
December 12, 2011

In part two of ESPNF1's season review, we analyse how the midfield teams fared in 2011, rating the drivers and looking ahead to what can be expected from them in 2012

Lotus Renault

Championship position: 5th
Points: 73
Best finish: 3rd (Australia, Malaysia)
Best qualifying: 7th (Australia, Malaysia, Spain)

Season high
After losing Robert Kubica in pre-season, Renault's plans seemed in turmoil with Nick Heidfeld thrust into the role of team leader. Expectations were low heading to Melbourne, so it was a huge surprise to see the enigmatic Vitaly Petrov score a morale boosting podium, beating both Ferraris, a Red Bull and a McLaren for pace. The team's innovative car design had proved an instant success and at that point the year ahead looked bright.

Season low
Although Renault's form quickly deteriorated as the season wore on, Kubica's rally accident in February was the moment when the whole year was undermined. Having seen him regularly outperform the car in 2010, the paddock will always be left wondering what he could have done in the early races with the R31 and if he could have helped develop the car and halt the dramatic slide into the midfield.

Driver v driver qualifying

Petrov 12
Heidfeld 3
Senna 4

Driver v driver race

Petrov 10
Heidfeld 6
Senna 3

Vitaly Petrov - 6/10
Renault will replace Petrov with Romain Grosjean next season, despite the Russian having a contract for 2012. Looking back, he dined out on his performance in Australia for too long and, as brilliant as it was, one race doesn't make a top driver. What was most disappointing, however, was his inability to keep the car competitive and develop into the leader Renault so sorely needed after Kubica's accident. He clearly improved on his 2010 season, but ultimately it wasn't enough, and after his rant at the team in Abu Dhabi, the writing was on the wall.

Nick Heidfeld - 6/10
As the replacement for Robert Kubica, Heidfeld was on a hiding to nothing in one sense. His first race was compromised by early contact, but he showed real promise with his third place in Malaysia next time out. The problem was that Heidfeld never gave the impression that he could outperform the car and Renault was used to Kubica doing that every other week in 2010. What's more, Heidfeld was unable to keep the car competitive, and while the fact that he finished ahead of Petrov more often than not in the first half of the season shows that his dismissal may have been a touch harsh, Renault needed a charismatic lead driver. Heidfeld wasn't it.

Bruno Senna - 7/10
Thrown into the deep end in the middle of the season without any real knowledge of the Pirelli tyres, Senna did enough to boost his reputation during his eight races at the team - even if it wasn't enough for him to retain his seat. An outstanding first qualifying performance at Spa showed his true talent, and he went on to outqualify Petrov on a further three occasions to prove he has the speed. But at times his racecraft looked rusty, although that might not be too much of a surprise after a season at the back with HRT in 2010. Overall, he proved that he is worth a place on the grid on merit rather than because of the name, but he may have to endure another year as a test driver as spots on the grid for 2012 are filling up fast.

Chances for 2012
With Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean on board, anything is possible. The team should have learnt a lot this season, and will put that into producing a car with good development potential throughout next year. Raikkonen will get the most out of the machinery, but only if it is competitive enough to maintain his interest. The problem will be if the team is too conservative after the forward-exiting exhaust failure, but after a season that has seen a lot of off-track distractions - such as the name row and Heidfeld's replacement - you sense things will only get better.

ESPN verdict - 5/10
It's strange to think this is the team that Fernando Alonso won back-to-back titles with five years ago. It looked like one of the surprise packages of the season early on, but the loss of Kubica meant it couldn't live up to the early promise. It did not do a good enough job of developing the car and things weren't helped by a messy year away from the track with the loss of Kubica, the naming row and the firing of Heidfeld.

Force India only failed to score points in one of the last ten races © Sutton Images
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Force India

Championship position: 6th
Points: 69
Best finish: 6th (Singapore, Brazil)
Best qualifying: 6th (Great Britain)

Season high
It's hard to look past an excellent drive from Paul di Resta in Singapore, where he outpaced the Mercedes of Nico Rosberg. His sixth place showed the strength of the car towards the end of the season, and was strongly backed up by Sutil coming home eighth. The result, coupled with a dismal weekend for Renault, really ignited the race for fifth in the constructors', and wasn't the last time that the team beat Mercedes on track.

Season low
While there were a number of poor showings early in the season, the expectations weren't as high as they were for one of the team's home grands prix at Silverstone (the other, of course, being the inaugural Indian GP). Di Resta's brilliant qualifying performance saw him sixth on the grid, and he had a strong first stint that kept him in contention for solid points, but the second pit stop saw the team bring out the wrong tyres and he lost almost half a minute in the pits to eventually finish 15th.

Driver v driver qualifying

Sutil 10
Di Resta 9

Driver v driver race

Sutil 11
Di Resta 8

Adrian Sutil - 8/10
Having been somewhat surprised by the pace of di Resta early in the campaign, Sutil was one of the standout drivers when he finally got a more competitive car in the second half of the season. While a cynic will point out that his best performances came once it was clear his seat was under threat, he rarely made a mistake and his drive to beat Rosberg in Brazil was a highly impressive one. It's a surprise that his future is in question.

Paul di Resta - 7/10
While he was the best rookie of the season, both in terms of results and performances, di Resta still made one or two costly errors. The standout one was in Canada when he was on for a strong points finish but ran into Heidfeld and eventually crashed out. Those points would have secured the team fifth in the constructors' in hindsight, as well as keeping him closer to Sutil in the final standings. He showed great potential though and his excellent qualifying at Silverstone and strong sixth in Singapore showed why Force India rates him so highly.

Chances for 2012
Expectations will grow at Force India next season regardless of the line-up that Mallya chooses. The three drivers at his disposal will all be able to deliver given a strong car, and a strong car is what the team had at the end of 2011. Having started last season on the back foot, it can't afford to do the same in 2012 if it wants to continue the progress it has shown year-on-year. But it has a strong base and could challenge Renault from the off.

ESPN verdict - 8/10
The most improved team throughout the length of the season, Force India came close to snatching a fifth-placed championship position from Renault that would have been unthinkable after the first two races. From Germany onwards, Force India was the fifth quickest team, and on occasion fourth quickest as it developed a strong all-round car. Fundamentally, it gave itself too much to do to overhaul Renault, but it was another year of progression that established the team at the front of the midfield.

Kamui Kobayashi scored more points in Monaco alone than Sauber managed in total in the final nine races of the season © Sutton Images
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Sauber

Championship position: 7th
Points: 44
Best finish: 5th (Monaco)
Best qualifying: 7th (Japan)

Season high
Kamui Kobayashi's fifth place in Monaco was a big result for the team, almost doubling its points tally in one go and giving it a comfortable lead in the constructors' championship. However, the real high came two weeks later in Montreal when Kobayashi ran second for a long period of the race. He held off Felipe Massa admirably on the drying track even though the Ferrari eventually outdragged him to the line.

Season low
Having delivered such an impressive all-round performance in Melbourne - where the car was quick and the strategy perfect - Sauber lost the double-top ten result when it was discovered that there was a technical infringement with the rear wing of the car. While the result ultimately wouldn't have changed its final championship position, it turned what was a great start to the season into a major disappointment.

Driver v driver qualifying

Kobayashi 8
Perez 11
De la Rosa 0

Driver v driver race

Kobayashi 11
Perez 7
De la Rosa 0

Kamui Kobayashi - 7/10
It was a big ask of Kobayashi to lead the team alongside Perez this season, although it was one he appeared to be relishing early on. His performances fell away in the latter half of the year but he still came through with consecutive points finishes in the final two races to help cement seventh in the constructors'. He recently admitted that he found his new role tougher: "It wasn't easy for me. I needed to improve a lot in various areas. Not only in driving, but also in making decisions with the engineers."

Sergio Perez - 7/10
As debuts go, his drive to a provisional seventh place in Melbourne - one-stopping on the rapidly degrading Pirelli tyres - was nothing short of remarkable. It took until Silverstone for him to be able to repeat the result, but he made few errors throughout the season, even picking up points when the car was less competitive. He would have had a better tally if the team hadn't forced him into extra-long stints so often.

Pedro de la Rosa - N/A
De la Rosa only participated in one race as a late replacement, displaying a safe pair of hands to get the car to the finish in the chaos of Canada, but ultimately well adrift of the points.

Chances for 2012
Continuity is the watchword for next season after both drivers were signed up for another year as early as July along with Esteban Gutierrez as reserve. This year's car was an improvement on the 2010 challenger, and while the team's progress was halted when it stopped development on the blown diffuser so early, it will stand it in much better stead than many others when the system is banned next year. If Kobayashi and Perez continue to develop then the team should score regular points.

ESPN verdict - 7/10
While some wondered if the team's good results in testing were a ruse to attract sponsors, the car was immediately competitive in Melbourne and it was a shame that an infringement that brought no performance gains cost it 10 points. The first half of the season was still very strong, and it looked like sixth in the constructors' was Sauber's for the taking until an ill-fated decision to stop development of the exhaust-blown diffuser dented the C30's performance. It only just managed to hold off Toro Rosso in the end, and while Sauber pointed the finger at the FIA for tampering with the rules surrounding exhausts, it only really had itself to blame.

Toro Rosso finished with both cars in the top ten on four occasions © Sutton Images
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Toro Rosso

Championship position: 8th
Points: 41
Best finish: 7th (Italy, Korea)
Best qualifying: 6th (Belgium)

Season high
Jaime Alguersuari's seventh place in Korea saw the STR6 beat Nico Rosberg's Mercedes in a straight fight. The Toro Rosso was the quickest car in a straight line and dominated the first sector, allowing Alguersuari to find a way past on the final lap to match the team's best result of the year. More than the result alone, however, it was a clear indication that the two young drivers could push the team forward, with both saying that the upturn in performance was the result of maximising an update.

Season low
After such a close battle towards the end of the season, losing out on seventh in the constructors' championship to Sauber will have hurt. Both cars lined up ahead of Sauber on the grid at the final race in Brazil, but ultimately just missed out on points as they came home 11th and 12th while Kamui Kobayashi took ninth place to keep Sauber ahead by just three points.

Driver v driver qualifying

Alguersuari 6
Buemi 13

Driver v driver race

Alguersuari 10
Buemi 8

Jaime Alguersuari - 8/10
The way he responded to a poor start to the season was admirable, especially considering the pressure on his shoulders due to the presence of Daniel Ricciardo on Fridays. His strong results in Italy and Korea were mature drives for a 21-year-old, and he scored almost double the points of Sebastien Buemi as he often got the maximum out of the car in races. It's also notable that all of the team's best results - both in qualifying and races - were scored by him.

Sebastien Buemi - 7/10
His season was a tale of two halves. He scored points in three of the first six races while Alguersuari remained scoreless, but only outscored his team-mate on one occasion after that. In his defence he was unlucky at times and suffered mechanical failures in India and Abu Dhabi while he was running in the points.

Chances for 2012
While it no longer enjoys the same level of support from Red Bull that it once did, the clever double-floor design on the car shows that the team is able to stand on its own two feet. Ally that to a large new sponsorship deal with CEPSA and a pair of young drivers who have been making less and less mistakes - to the extent that neither looks likely to be replaced - and Toro Rosso can realistically target moving ahead of Sauber next season.

ESPN verdict - 6/10
It took Toro Rosso too long to get going this year, while Sauber was able to amass more than double the amount of points by the halfway stage. Growing maturity from both drivers helped the team close the gap, but ultimately it was undone by basic errors from the team such as wheels not being properly attached in China and Japan.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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