- Caterham's progress
Caterham closing in
It nearly happened in Valencia - but for twin clashes with the Toro Rossos during the European Grand Prix, Caterham could have scored that elusive first point.
One of the side effects of the topsy-turvy season we've seen thus far is that Caterham's steady march towards the mid-field has gone largely unnoticed as all eyes have been on the near-endless stream of winners at the front of the pack.
Because Caterham disappointed at the start of the year, and the team admit that they disappointed themselves. Their confident display in pre-season testing failed to deliver much in the way of a tangible improvement in the gap to the mid-field come Melbourne, and by the time the F1 circus was leaving Sepang all eyes were on Sauber as the mid-field team to watch.
But while we've been keeping an eye on the steady stream of winners, on the variable strategies demanded by the Pirelli rubber, Caterham have been keeping their heads down and concentrating on closing the gap to their rivals with every passing race. One man who has been pushing that progress from the inside is driver Heikki Kovalainen, who has been with the team since its 2010 debut as Lotus Racing.
"When we went to the first race, we were expecting to be stronger than we were," Kovalainen admitted. "I think everybody was a bit disappointed. But since then, from what I can see, the team is making the right steps towards fixing that problem. We've been bringing more people into the team - a main area is aerodynamics - and we're strengthening the team day by day.
"We're taking the right steps, and we are making progress, it's just that we were too optimistic at the beginning of the season. We set the high expectations ourselves, and people were disappointed when we were not there. But the margins are small - we're talking about a few tenths. In qualifying, a couple of seconds a lap covers the whole field. "
And progress is being made, make no doubt about it. In Valencia, the Finnish driver made it into the second phase of qualifying on pure pace, and lined up on the grid ahead of both Toro Rossos. The Red Bull junior team have been Caterham's nearest rivals on track this season, and the dwindling gap between the two teams in qualifying shows just how far the Norfolk racers have come.
In Melbourne, the fastest Caterham was 1.6s slower than the slowest Toro Rosso in Q1. At the next race, Jean-Eric Vergne joined the Caterhams in the dropout zone after Q1, 0.3s faster than Kovalainen. In China, Vergne once again dropped out with the Caterhams after the first round, this time with a 0.6s advantage.
By Bahrain, it was clear that Caterham weren't quite on the pace with the mid-field come qualifying, but that they were in a position to put up a fight on race day. Despite the Toro Rosso's clear speed advantage, as was demonstrated by Daniel Ricciardo's P6 grid position, Kovalainen beat Vergne to a spot in Q2. Over the course of recent races the gap between the two teams has remained close but fluctuating, but it is increasingly obvious that only a major development push from Toro Rosso will keep them out of Caterham's clutches in the long term.
And a development push is exactly what Caterham are doing, with upgrades at both Valencia and the more recent race in Silverstone. The rain-soaked British Grand Prix weekend made it impossible for any of the teams to test their Silverstone upgrades with much success, but had the weather remained clement the team's new package included revised rear bodywork, a new exhaust layout, and front and rear wings.
"We're embarking on a big development programme that is a significant step forward in terms of our capabilities in the CFD environment," technical director Mark Smith explained in Barcelona. "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.
"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.
"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," Smith asserted. "We will be in a strong position, and I hope that we will pick up the points."
As a driver, Kovalainen is heartened by seeing his feedback contributions writ large on the car as it evolves.
"Obviously I don't design the car, but I give feedback to the engineers and to the designers about what needs to be done - in terms of balance, where the weaknesses are, what we really need to focus on," he said. "And I see that being taken into account 100 percent. And that's great - I think it shows that they have good confidence in my abilities, in the way I think the car should be developed. I think we're making good progress, so it's very satisfying.
"I've been able to develop a great relationship with the team, and I feel like I'm in a very good position within the team - I've been able to contribute more than in my previous teams. It's one of the reasons I've been able to get the most out of the team and out of the car at every race."
In an interview earlier this season Smith spoke of the team's need to close the gap to the mid-field - his concern was that Caterham were racing in isolation, caught in limbo between the tightly packed mid-field and their previous rivals in Marussia and HRT. But by Valencia, when Caterham had out-qualified both Toro Rossos on pace, it was clear that the gap was closing.
The high of Europe was followed by the low of Silverstone, however, when Petrov found himself unable to start the team's home grand prix when his engine failed on the way out of the pits on Sunday afternoon. The Russian's DNS will not have been welcomed, but Caterham are now so far ahead of their fellow 2010 newbies that the elusive first point is more important to their championship campaign than the tallying of P15 finishes and DNQs used to rank the pointless.
Be it a race of attrition, unusual weather conditions, or a victory in the development race, at their current rate of progress Caterham are but a few short races away from securing their first point.