Will Gray

Gray Matter: Mid-table mid-term report

Will Gray

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The mid-term report moves to the middle of the pack this week - and while it may not hit the headlines there is a fascinating battle for superiority outside the sport's top five teams.

With Renault making impressive moves forward to join Mercedes in the tail end of the top five, this year's tight midfield really contains just four teams - Force India, Williams, Sauber and Toro Rosso - all battling to capitalise on mistakes from the frontrunners.

While the top teams are definable this year by their rapid rates of progress and clear trends in multi-race consistency, this set of teams have shown a noticeable trend for rapid changes in relative position within the group on a race by race basis.

Arguably the most crucial part of the weekend for these teams is Q1 and Q2 in qualifying. At the end of Q1, with six cars from the three new teams more often than not taking the bottom six places in Q1, there is usually one knockout spot for the midfield runners to avoid. Meanwhile, at the end of Q2, there is usually a mistake by one or two of the top teams that gives a midfield runner the chance of making the top 10.

Taking this as a definition of success puts Williams firmly at the front, as their cars have made the top 10 on eight occasions and missed the cut in Q1 just once. No other team comes near to that performance. Force India is closest with six top-10 starts but they also have three knockouts and Sauber has four top 10s but three knockouts. Toro Rosso, meanwhile, has been slower but actually more consistent, with no top-10 starts but they have only missed the Q1 cut on two occasions.

That does not tell the whole story, however, as Williams' return to form is only recent, with six of their eight top-10 starts - and 32 of their 40 points - coming in the last four races.

At the start of the season, it was Sauber that many tipped to be the team moving forwards thanks to impressive performances in testing - but when they hit the track for real it soon became clear their pre-season form was a smokescreen to their real performance. And in terms of points they currently sit at the bottom of this group.

In Bahrain, Sauber was a full second slower than the group's pacesetters Force India but they were the first team on the entire grid to bring out a copy of McLaren's f-duct, no doubt helped by the presence of the former McLaren test driver Pedro de la Rosa. In China they were also boosted significantly by the arrival of top engineer James Key from Force India and once the f-duct was working and Key was settled in Sauber was at the front of the group, with Kamui Kobayashi making the top-10 shoot-out in Spain and Turkey.

Pace did not translate to points however, and then things took a tumble in Canada, when the team dropped to more than 1.5 per cent off the fastest of the group. Progress on the aerodynamics and particularly the diffuser design allowed them to climb back up and settle in second place from the British Grand Prix onwards, but they will need to start scoring in races if they are to move off the bottom.

Their problem so far has been an inconsistency in track-to-track performance, with slow corners a particular problem. Key admits: "We are in a position now where the car is more suited to some track layouts than to others and it is definitely (better) balanced for a mix of medium- and high-speed corners."

That inconsistency is something that Toro Rosso have not had, but pace is as they have generally always been slowest, between 0.3 and 1 per cent off the fastest time of the group. They have, however, been in the right place in races to pick up enough points to keep them ahead of the inconsistent Sauber squad. But they started with a good base car and have done little development and could start to slip back soon.

Force India have also shown good consistency, but with it good pace and that has shown in their regular points scoring. Although they have ups and downs in qualifying, come Sunday they have finished in the points in nine of the races so far - more than any other team in this group.

In 2009, their car was one of the fastest in straight line and good on medium downforce but not so good on higher downforce tracks - but they seemed to have solved this inconsistency issue from the off and sat comfortably at the top end of the charts for the first seven races, with both cars making the top-10 shoot-out in Canada.

But since then, in the last four races, they have dropped to third in the qualifying pecking order, perhaps because they have been focusing on larger developments like their blown diffuser at the cost of smaller gains. And when they debuted the blown diffuser in Hungary, they removed it after inconclusive testing, and it needs to work if they are to get back on the pace.

Williams, meanwhile, started fresh this year rather than continue with the 2009 car and they also had to cope with the loss of the Toyota engine and the arrival of their new Cosworth unit.

They were forced to play second fiddle to Force India in the early part of the season, picking up just a few points here and there from the lower end of the top 10. But when they introduced a blown diffuser at Silverstone things started to change and with revisions to improve it in Germany their performances took a dramatic upward turn.

Since Valencia they have been firmly ahead of the group in qualifying and they have scored 32 of their 40 points in that time. Their rivals caught up in Hungary, but that is a unique circuit, and they have a large aero upgrade coming for the next race in Spa so they should move forward again.

Overall, the midfield grid has been closing in on the frontrunners (namely Red Bull) in terms of qualifying pace in Q2 all season, but they began to drop away again when the leaders got to grips more quickly with the blown diffusers and, in some cases, introduced the innovative flexiwings.

The final part of the season, then, is set to be a fascinating one for this group. Williams seems to have found their way, and with a functioning blown diffuser they could start to break away from the group. But Force India, who are just seven points ahead of Williams, also have their diffuser in progress and they will need to get it right if they want to hold onto position as the 'best of the rest'.

Graph showing seconds off pole position for the top five teams (excluding the rain-influenced Malaysian qualifying session)

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