The rise of the No.2 driverChris Medland October 15, 2013
Sebastian Vettel's habit of breaking records on an almost weekly basis makes it easy to overlook the achievements of other drivers up and down the field, but something strange has been happening recently in Formula One; the No.2 drivers are fighting back.
I should clarify that by 'No.2 driver' I mean those whose team-mates assumed the lead driver role this year on account of their performances earlier in the season. The most obvious example being Romain Grosjean, who again was set to play second-fiddle to Kimi Raikkonen's title challenge, but after ironing out his 2012 mistakes he's really come to the fore in the last few races.
Grosjean's form is impressive but can be attributed to a number of factors. Most notably, the change in the Pirelli tyres has really hurt Raikkonen's qualifying performances, whereas Grosjean has flourished and been able to qualify on the front two rows at the last three grands prix. He'd only achieved a top-four start once previously this season - in Hungary - while Raikkonen had on three occasions by that time but has failed to since.
But it's Grosjean's maturity that has shone through. He qualified well on occasion in 2012 too but often undid his good work with first-lap errors. 12 months earlier at Suzuka he had started from fourth place but ran in to Mark Webber at Turn 2 in a move that resulted in Webber calling him a "first-lap nutcase". This year, he turned fourth into first by Turn 1 and drove a race that drew praise from last year's critic.
"We're not here to blow smoke up his arse but, in the end, he's doing a very good job this year and it's a big step for him," Webber said.
One area it must be said Grosjean is benefitting is from added team support. With Raikkonen leaving, Lotus is keen to display the talent it still possesses in Grosjean and wants to see him beating his team-mate. The same can't be said of Felipe Massa, who sent out a clear message that he's driving for himself at Suzuka,
With Raikkonen taking his seat next season, Massa defied Ferrari's team order that he should move over for Fernando Alonso early in the race. Ultimately it didn't help him hugely as Alonso passed on-track anyway, but Massa was keen to display his fighting spirit and maximise his own chances. It's an approach that could stem from rumours Nico Hulkenberg is set for the vacant Lotus seat and Massa is therefore running out of options for 2014.
If Hulkenberg does leave Sauber, then it will be left with a tough decision over its driver line-up for next season based on recent performances from Esteban Gutierrez. After threatening a top ten finish on numerous occasions, Gutierrez took a strong seventh place - withstanding late pressure from Nico Rosberg - as he finally turned his obvious improvement in to results.
The problems is Sergey Sirotkin is already lined up for a race seat at Sauber, and team principal Monisha Kaltenborn admitted after the race that Gutierrez wouldn't be ready to lead the team after just one season in Formula One. That ramps up the pressure once again, because one strong result in Japan won't be enough to convince Sauber he should be retained; just ask Kamui Kobayashi.
It's similarly ruthless at Marussia; a team which ran Timo Glock for three consecutive seasons but always changed the less experienced driver alongside him each season. With Jules Bianchi signed up again for 2014, Max Chilton has been making an ever-improving case for retaining the status quo since the summer break.
Comprehensively outpaced in the first half of the season, Chilton has closed the gap to Bianchi since the Belgian Grand Prix and his qualifying performance in Japan was impressive. Beating Bianchi - who had missed most of Friday practice and had a 10-place grid penalty - might not have been the biggest achievement, but beating both Caterhams so comfortably certainly was. That pace has yet to translate to a race, but his recent improvement and consistency (Chilton has finished every race in his F1 career so far) bodes well for Marussia's hopes of holding on to 10th in the constructors' championship.
Funny how young drivers show improvement given time, isn't it?
Chris Medland is assistant editor at ESPNF1