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“Thoughts on Caterham, testing and development drivers”

April 17, 2013

Following a difficult start to the Formula One season, backmarkers Caterham this morning announced a restructuring of its driver line-up.

Stepping in to rejoin the Leafield squad is the teams’ former driver Heikki Kovalainen, who will take the reserve seat alongside Alexander Rossi.

Ma Qinghua – who drove in free practice in place of Giedo van der Garde in Shanghai – has now been dropped from the reserve driver role. Meanwhile, Kovalainen will assume the third driver position for Caterham during free practice one at both the Bahrain and Spanish Grands Prix.

A former Chinese Touring Car Champion, Ma has also been removed from his seat in the Caterham GP2 team after a poor showing in Sepang; however the Caterham squad insist the Chinese racer will remain a “core member” of the their driver roster.
Rossi is set to replace Ma within the GP2 squad, while an announcement will eventually be made regarding Ma’s revised plans.

Fair enough – line-up changes happen when drivers under perform, or in the case of Ma, perform to their abilities, but I believe there is a bigger problem at work here.
Caterham have come into the 2013 with a difficult car, not helped by the banning of their exhaust turning vane before the start of the season, leaving them with a car that may not be as optimised as they had desired.

With all due respect to Ma and Rossi, as well as race drivers van der Garde and Charles Pic, they are all relatively young and / or inexperienced drivers and it is with this generation of driver that we may finally be seeing the fallout from the testing restrictions, as introduced in 2007.
For all the simulator work prepared by the teams – much of which is highly detailed and of very high quality – it is not real track time and Formula One is edging toward a generation who missed the last days of high mileage testing – and the experience that came with it.

Indeed, it is the likes of Kovalainen and Lewis Hamilton who were some of the final drivers to spend entire days running around circuits in front of empty stands, learning about their cars and their craft, while also delivering advice on elements such as balance – advice that could be so crucial to Caterham now.
Take into the account the recent departure of the likes of Timo Glock, Rubens Barrichello and Michael Schumacher – all of whom were pilots well versed in the virtues of pounding around circuits all day long – and Formula One may be about to lose the last of the development generation. Data and numbers are crucial, but a driver with ability to accurately inform engineers about the needs of a car from behind the wheel is also key.

Another struggling team, Williams, appear to be finding themselves in a position similar to Caterham. With a difficult FW35 car, the Grove squad have employed Susie Wolff as development driver alongside racers Pastor Maldonado and Valtteri Bottas, yet who amongst that trio racers enjoy the experience necessary to develop a Formula One machine?
Maldonado’s speed is a known quantity, but his inconsistency can oft make him an unreliable database, while Bottas has only completed three Grand Prix weekends (not counting his numerous Friday morning runs in 2012). Wolff, meanwhile, has no Grand Prix experience whatsoever. Should things come to a head with the FW35, Williams have nowhere to turn with regards to development running and that could hurt them in the long run.

This is a problem facing the teams now as drivers from the last decade begin to fall away and it is not likely to go away.

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