Will Gray

Season review: The backmarkers

Will Gray

Lotus, Virgin and HRT failed to score a point again this
year while former world champions Williams slumped down to single figures - but
despite these disappointments there was still hope for all those at the back of
the pack.

LOTUS

The highest finish for any of the three ‘new' teams was a
13th place for Lotus. That was no better than they achieved last
season, but they did make some promising progress and were not far off
achieving their aim of latching on to the midfield pack.

Mike Gascoyne's team produced a much sleeker chassis for
Lotus' second year but despite the team talking the talk, the opening race left
them a little pale as neither their qualifying nor race pace showed signs of
bothering the group ahead.

Three races in, however, the car was starting to show
promise if hampered a little by fragility, and by the time F1 arrived in
Europe, with a tidy set of upgrades, Heikki Kovalainen had put a Lotus into Q2
for only the second time ever.

Monaco produced a good result, with the two cars
finishing 13th and 14th, while Hungary, another slow
circuit, saw Kovalainen qualify well and have the pace to fend off a Williams,
a Renault, a Force India and a Sauber.

With a Q2 spot in Belgium and another 13th and
14th placed finish in Italy, they proved the car could run well both
on slower and faster tracks and by the end of the season Kovalainen was beating
Saubers and Bruno Senna's Renault and ran as high as 10th (albeit
due to running a different strategy) in India.

It was an excellent season for Kovalainen, the Finn out
qualifying Trulli by 17 races to 1 (Karun Chandhok took over the Italian's spot
for one event and Kovalainen beat him too). Trulli struggled with power
steering issues at the start of the year but a change did little to improve his
performance and his future is now hanging by a thread.

Overall, the season failed to live up to initial
expectations but perhaps they were a little over ambitious and it should be
seen as a satisfactory year that saw the team grow up and gather momentum. A
name change to Caterham will change little but the installation of highly rated
designer Mark Smith and his influence on the 2012 car should continue the upward
curve and there is plenty of hope for them to merge with that midfield next
season.

HRT

Starting the season with two unfinished cars was not a
promising sign for the Spanish team, but after failing to qualify for the
opener in Australia it was a season of improvement for HRT, with them
ultimately getting the upper hand in some interesting but often unnoticed
battles with back of the grid rivals Virgin.

A white facelift for 2011 only drew attention to the fact
the team was struggling for money, with a large ‘your logo here' sticker
overtly making the point. That it was not replaced with a sponsor during the
season shows just what a struggle it is commercially at the back.

After the delayed start, HRT were already giving Virgin
something to worry about and in Canada Vitantonio Liuzzi out-qualified both
Virgins with Narain Karthikeyan ahead of Jerome D'Ambrosio. The pair then raced
through to impressive 13th and 14th places, ahead of the
two Virgins and Jarno Trulli's Lotus.

In Britain, Karthikeyan made way for Australian Daniel
Ricciardo when Red Bull came searching for a race seat for their young protégé
for the rest of the season. He soon proved himself, running Liuzzi close in
both qualifying and the races, and by the end of the year the two HRT drivers had
firmly positioned themselves ahead of their Virgin rivals, out-qualifying them
in two of the final three Grands Prix.

Commercially, the team had a change of ownership during
the season and will be moving bases for 2012 - so while the 2011 season was one
of promise, the winter will again be one of uncertainty for the Spanish squad,
who continue to battle on in the model of Minardi from many years ago.

VIRGIN

From the off, Virgin were faced with a car so off the
pace it looked unlikely to qualify and although it did, the big early season
upgrade did little to improve things and there was discord in the camp very
early on.

Timo Glock had issued a competitiveness warning as early
as race three, speaking out about concerns over both pace and reliability, and
Nick Wirth and his CFD design team were soon disposed of as former Renault
technical chief Pat Symonds steered the ship in a new direction.

Jerome D'Ambrosio almost missed the 107 percent
qualifying cut in Spain then actually did miss it in Canada after a big crash
(although he was given special dispensation to start the race) and by the time
the F1 circus headed to Valencia, just eight races in, Virgin's season was
considered a write=off.

The focus was already on how to sort things out for a
happier year in 2012, rather than planning upgrades for the current season, and
it showed as HRT closed the gap.

It was a relief for the team when the season came to a
close in Brazil, but far from ending on a high it saw both cars beaten in
qualifying by the HRTs, putting them firmly on the back row, then a fumbled pit
stop pitched Glock out of the race on three wheels.

The light at the end of the tunnel for Virgin is that
it's all change for 2012. In a new team headquarters, the team will take a new
tack by shelving the all-CFD approach in favour of the traditional wind tunnel
development used by all other teams - but in starting from scratch, they will
have a lot of work to do.

WILLIAMS

This once great team started the season in buoyant mood
with a radical gearbox design aimed at optimising the new diffuser layout at
the rear of the car - but after promising testing pace it took just three races
for their hopes to be blown to pieces.

Pastor Maldonado arrived to bring cash as well as proven
young talent alongside the experienced Rubens Barrichello, but from the off it
appeared the car was going to let them down and lowly grid positions soon
pointed towards some deep rooted problems.

After the opening fly-away races the team chiefs wielded
the axe with a design team re-shuffle, instantly recognising the issues they
faced and putting a team in place in good time to focus on working things out
for 2012. Meanwhile, upgrades for 2011 failed to improve things - some were
even taken back off in Turkey - and the car lacked straight-line speed.

The team seemed to get it together a little as the
European season developed, with Maldonado regularly qualifying in the top 10,
including a best of seventh in Britain. He was running sixth in Monaco before
being punted out by Lewis Hamilton but Barrichello took some points there and
in Canada to save the team's blushes.

It didn't last, however, and by Hungary they were back to
qualifying well outside the top ten. Barrichello missed the Q1 cut in Korea and
Maldonado qualified 16th, but worse was to come. In India the pair
collided at the start then in Abu Dhabi they posted their worse ever qualifying
result as a two-car team, with 23rd and 24th on the grid.

Maldonado proved almost a match for Barrichello in
qualifying as they finished 9:10 but it was the Brazilian who mainly scored the
points that prevented the team from registering a blank sheet - although
whether he is rewarded with an extension to his contract remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, despite this disaster of a season Williams
have high hopes for the future. A reunion with Renault in place of Cosworth for
2012 offers promise in the engine department, and many fans of not only the
team but the sport as a whole will be hoping the new design team's fresh
approach will halt its rapid fall from grace.

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