The setting was Albert Park. Hundreds of fans hung off temporary grandstands trying to catch a glimpse of the fastest drivers in the world fighting for first blood in the 2013 season.
Most are fixated on Massa and Alonso’s pursuit of Sebastian Vettel at the front; however, another battle at the very back of the field threatened to draw attention away from the Red Bull and Ferrari showdown. Caterham and Marussia were at war.
A four-car fight, headed by Marussia debutant Jules Bianchi, had trackside fans absolutely captivated. Knowing that the television coverage would be firmly focussed on the front of the field, I almost felt a sense of disappointment that only those lucky enough to be trackside could share in the enjoyment of such a fierce scrap for the minor places.
Regardless of whether you saw Marussia and Caterham go toe to toe at Albert Park, the 2013 Australian Grand Prix set the stage for what promises to be a wonderful, season-long battle for backmarker honours.
On paper, the teams are remarkably similar.
Marussia F1 Team, formerly known as Marussia Virgin Racing until 2012, is based in Banbury, UK. Russian sports car manufacturer Marussia Motors owns the controlling stake in the team. In 2013, the MR02 is piloted by two rookie drivers, Frenchman Jules Bianchi, and Brit Max Chilton. Though they have the lowest budget of all teams in 2013, the MR02 appears to be a solid, competitive car capable of attaining the odd point scoring finish.
Their arch rival, Caterham F1 Team, is based nearby in Leafield, UK. Like Marussia, they also underwent a name change in 2012, having formerly raced as Team Lotus in 2011. Caterham finished 10th in the Constructors’ Championship in 2012, minutely ahead of Marussia following the heroic exploits of Vitaly Petrov in Brazil.
Dutch driver Giedo van der Garde teams up with Frenchman Charles Pic in 2013, a dual pay-driver approach which delivers vital funds to the team. They take the wheel of the CT03, which is a “hybrid car”, effectively meaning that much of the 2012 CT01 chassis is retained in the 2013 entry. It is very much considered a work-in-progress.
However, at the second test in Barcelona, Bianchi and Chilton clearly outpaced their Caterham rivals. The final test at Barcelona did little to reveal any advantage to either team, meaning both would travel to Melbourne unsure of who held the upper hand.
A torrid qualifying session in wet conditions saw Caterham delve deep into their front wing supplies, as both van der Garde and Pic left the track and handed their Marussia rivals 19th and 20th positions on the grid.
Following the titanic shootout between the Caterham and Marussia drivers in the early laps, Marussia took the honours with Bianchi in 15th and Chilton in 17th, while Pic and van der Garde finished 16th and 18th respectively.
Qualifying in Malaysia saw the same order as how the drivers finished in Melbourne, and once again, it appeared that Marussia held the upper hand. Jules Bianchi finished the race in a strong 13th place, followed by Charles Pic who was hampered by a pit-lane collision with Jean-Eric Vergne. Caterham’s Giedo van der Garde took 15th ahead of Max Chilton in 16th. Advantage Marussia.
“We have to be realistic. I think it will be difficult as we are still missing some performance, but if we can do it, our target will be to score our first point this year for sure,” he told SKY Sports, when asked about his chances in 2013.
Bianchi’s main rival from Caterham, Charles Pic, told Autosport: “There are some issues where we need to progress and that’s it. It’s our job to fix issues and make steps forward.
“We have to wait a few races [for updates] but I have trust in the team so I’m sure we can have a good step forward.”
With seventeen rounds remaining in the 2013 season, the fight for tenth position in the Constructors’ Championship is well and truly alive. Millions of dollars in TV revenue are at stake, which can make or break one of these little-funded outfits.
One finish in the points either way can change the game entirely, and at this stage Marussia looks the more likely team to produce it.
Jules Bianchi is delivering Marussia results that it has scarcely achieved before, and Max Chilton looks a competitive driver who can now use Bianchi as a benchmark. Furthermore, the team has bought “significant” upgrades to Shanghai this weekend, where they will run new suspension parts and modified front and rear brake ducts.
On the other side of the coin, Caterham is pinning their hopes on an upgrade due for the first European round in Barcelona, and their season will greatly hinge on the effectiveness of this update.
Until then, expect Pic and van der Garde to gradually lose sight of Bianchi’s rear wing and fight to stay with Chilton. If Marussia can continue their incline in performance, 2013 will be sweet revenge after being pipped at the post by Caterham last year.
Even if it doesn’t feature regularly on our television screens, the battle at the back can’t be forgotten.