While many eyes will be focused on the battle at the front of the field at this weekend’s Indian Grand Prix – particularly whether Sebastian Vettel can wrap up a fourth World Championship crown – there is an equally frantic battle towards the tail of the grid.
Marussia and Caterham have been engaged in a season-long tussle for the vital tenth place in the Constructors’ Championship, which the former currently holds by dint of a thirteenth-placed finish for Jules Bianchi at the Malaysian Grand Prix.
If either Caterham driver, Giedo van der Garde or Charles Pic, can match or better that result, then the Leafield-based squad will claim the coveted spot. With it will come several million dollars in prizemoney – crucial income for the small teams at the back of the grid.
The significance of this is something that the team’s drivers are all too aware of, and the number-one goal over the remainder of the season is to beat them.
“The target is very simple: finish in front of Marussia. We can see that Marussia was fast over one lap this weekend, but we definitely have the pace to fight with them,” Pic told RichardsF1.com in an exclusive interview after qualifying at the Buddh International Circuit.
“In terms of race pace, we’re in front of them,” he added. “But we don’t have the pace to fight the likes of Williams or Sauber.
“So in order to grab a thirteenth-placed finish, we need something to happen: a wet race, a lot of retirements. But we still have to make sure we’re in front of them when it happens. I finished fourteenth in Korea – just missing the place to claim tenth. It will be a shame not to finish tenth in the standings; we deserve to do so.”
“The most important thing is to be ahead of them all of the time, and to have a bit of luck fall our way,” van der Garde added.
“We’re never going to out-race the likes of Williams on sheer pace. We’ll need a few crashes for others here and there and some high attrition. If you look over the entire year, I would say we deserve it because we have been quicker more of the time.”
That improvement in pace has come off the back of some serious development of the CT03 design, which was little more than a minor development of the previous year’s CT01 racer. After starting out over half a second off the pace of the Marussias at the Australian Grand Prix, the Caterhams steadily chipped away and pulled ahead with a major update at the Spanish Grand Prix.
“We as a team have done very well over the year,” van der Garde told us.
“We’ve developed a year-old car very well and got an edge once we arrived in Europe. In the last four or five races, Marussia have started to come back to us as we have stopped developing the car to focus on 2014.”
Qualifying for today’s Indian Grand Prix was a closely-fought affair between the two small teams, with Marussia claiming bragging rights courtesy of Jules Bianchi qualifying nineteenth-fastest, just 0.135 seconds quicker than van der Garde. Pic was a further three-tenths back, although his best lap was ruined by traffic – even that’s a challenge when you’re in one of the slower cars.
“It was too close!” van der Garde exclaimed.
“All weekend we were really close. I was a tenth quicker than Bianchi yesterday and in qualifying I finished a tenth behind. I lost the time in Sector 1, simply due to tyre warm-up. The circuit is very smooth and it’s difficult to build tyre temperature. I lost a quarter of a second to Bianchi in Sector 1 and almost made it up over the rest of the lap.”
“It’s been a tough weekend so far,” Pic, who qualified 21st, mused.
“We had a hydraulic issue yesterday and that cost us time working on the car set-up on Friday. We understood the opportunities overnight and put it right for Saturday. This morning the car was working normally, and then in qualifying I was quite happy with the balance on the first run.
“For my second run, we aimed for one flying lap to make the best time. But I exited the pits right between three cars – Maldonado, Hulkenberg and di Resta – and it cost me; if I tried to slow down to make a gap, I would lose tyre temperature. So I was stuck too close behind Maldonado and lost too much time through the high-speed corners (especially in Sectors 2 and 3).”
As ever, the focus for Sunday’s race will be on managing the battle with Bianchi and Chilton, however, an added complication will be the high wear rate of the Soft-compound Pirelli tyres.
“The soft tyres won’t last much longer than ten or twelve laps, but the Medium tyres will be good for at least twenty laps. Our strategists will work on the best plan for Charles and I, so we will see what happens,” van der Garde said.
Image via Motorsport.com