Everything to prove
By Mike Wise. Last Updated: 17/02/12 12:18pm
It's all systems go at Caterham as the most ambitious of F1's new teams strives to move up from the back of the grid. Chief technical officer Mike Gascoyne talks to Sky Sports about their plans.
"I've no comment to make on the appointment of Mark Hughes," joked Caterham chief technical officer Mike Gascoyne about an hour after Queens Park Rangers' new manager was confirmed. It had been quite a couple of days at Loftus Road as owner Tony Fernandes wielded the axe on Neil Warnock; confirmation if it be needed that, behind the Mr Nice Guy exterior, there does indeed beat the heart of a ruthless operator. The exponential success of Air Asia didn't happen by accident.
Fast forward a week and there then came the announcement that Caterham, the less well publicised but arguably more ambitious end of Fernandes' burgeoning sporting empire, are to move to a new site at Leafield in Oxfordshire. The relocation is unsurprising given that Caterham will need to hire the very best engineers if they are to move up the grid. People who, barring a call from Ferrari, tend to congregate around the UK's so-called 'Motorsport Valley' rather than Norfolk, where the team have based themselves since their formation in late 2009 as Lotus.
The dream of once more turning Lotus into winners subsequently turned sour amid acrimony and no little confusion. However, Renault are now Lotus and Lotus are now Caterham - with Gascoyne's priority now being the ascent of a team who have pretty much everything still to prove. Although Caterham have clearly moved ahead of fellow newcomers Marussia and HRT and even embarrassed some of F1's established midfield runners last season (hello Williams), that first World Championship point remains out of reach. Might that change in 2012?
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"In reality, we moved up here and based ourselves in Norfolk because obviously the intention was in the longer term to have closer ties with the Lotus Group and possibly purchase Lotus Cars. It was always Tony's intention to have car manufacturing as part of the group. Obviously, for whatever reasons, in Malaysia (the Lotus Group is currently owned by Malaysian state car company Proton) that hasn't panned out. Through the acquisition of Caterham, we've been able to approach that from a different route. We've announced the Caterham Group and it was always the intention to bring Formula 1 and the road car and the consultancy businesses under one roof.
"Given that's not with Lotus, it doesn't make much sense to be in Norfolk. Certainly on the Formula 1 side, we have a lot of problems attracting experienced personnel, so it makes a lot more sense to move to the Oxfordshire area where there's a much, much bigger base for Formula 1. Having said that, elements of it will stay in Norfolk because we own the Hingham facility and we've built that up. So that will stay fully operational but we now need a much, much bigger site.
"The intention was always to move to a bigger site and it makes sense now to move to Leafield, which was the old TWR site where they did F1 (Arrows and Super Aguri were based there) plus consultancies. It's a perfect site for us."
Back to last season. You didn't achieve your stated aim of scoring points, but progress can be measured in other ways too. What progress did you make?
"That's a very astute comment in that, yes, we wanted to join the midfield and start racing for points. Although we clearly moved away from the other new teams - they in effect stayed where they were and we did make a lot of progress. The ways we made progress are that we're fully based at one site, we've got 300 staff, our own design team under Mark Smith. We use the Aerolab wind tunnel facility but we've now switched to the Williams tunnel in Grove.
"The move to Leafield will really be the last piece in the jigsaw, in that we'll be 350 strong, with our own wind tunnel 20 miles down the road staffed by our own staff. We'll be as strong as the smaller Formula 1 teams: your Force Indias; your Toro Rossos; your Saubers. That's what you have to do if you're going to be racing them. You're never going to do that as a small, disjointed team with contractors making the car for you. We feel that, behind the scenes, we've put everything in place to be an established Formula 1 team. Now we've got to prove that on the track by racing with them.
"It was frustrating because we'd stepped two seconds away from the other new teams but that wasn't quite enough to have us in the racing. Having said that, from Singapore onwards last year, in every single race we were beating a Williams, a Renault...we were regularly beating those guys. We did make progress but it didn't manifest itself in points. That's what everybody looks at but at the end of the day we finished five points behind Williams in the championship. You wouldn't have said that five years ago."
Are you more wary of setting ambitious pre-season targets now, or is it the right thing to do to motivate everyone?
"The shareholders have invested and they want to see progress, and that's right and proper. That pressure has always been on ourselves more than anything else. We'll set our own internal targets and we'll race for them but we do now see ourselves as an established Formula 1 team.
"We're a 'Column One' team in terms of the rewards we get with FOM (Formula One Management) having finished 10th two years running. And if you're 10th then you've got to start looking at whose ninth and eighth, racing them and beating them."
How much easier would the building job be if Tony Fernandes had taken over an existing team?
"That's one way to look at it. But then you've got to pay a lot of money to buy an existing team. Tony over the past couple of years has invested something like €100million into the project. But that's what you would have had to pay if you'd wanted to buy an existing team.
"In some ways for Tony, the type of guy he is, he works on a very personal level as a team principal and there's a lot more satisfaction in having built it from nothing - which he did with Air Asia. They bought two planes and a load of debt and 10 years later they're one of the world's fastest growing airlines. I think it's in Tony's make-up that he'd much prefer to succeed this way."
Looking ahead to the 2012 season now, from the outside it seems that building a team is a question of getting all the right 'ingredients' in place. What are the latest ingredients to be added to the Caterham mix?
"This year, Mark Smith (former Force India technical director) is in charge of the design team, having come on board in the middle of last year. We've got a much bigger design team, we've got people like John Iley in from McLaren to head up the aero programme with Marianne Hinson alongside him - he's someone I've worked with many years before. Steve Nielsen has just joined us as sporting director from Renault, again someone I've worked with before.
"Also we've got Red Bull KERS on the car. We were racing and beating cars at the end of last year that had KERS and we didn't. That's several tenths per lap at every track. We've got a much-expanded aero programme, we've got another year of stability and growth under our belts. I think that, unlike the teams we're trying to beat which, if you look at Force India or Sauber or Toro Rosso or Williams - the privateers - they've got the same budgets, the same resources, they're doing the same again. We're not.
"We can say 'last year we didn't have any of these and now we've got them'. So there are reasons why we'll do a better job. We have put the ingredients in place, it's time to go and demonstrate them. This time last year, although we were talking about doing better, and we did relative to the new teams, we were also nowhere near the position we're in now in terms of size, stability and experience."
The 2012 season sees little in the way of technical changes but there's sure to be innovation nonetheless. There's already talk of a 'braking stabilising system' developed by Lotus Renault...
"Yes, I saw it. We have to wait and see. Systems that control ride height have been put forward before. I think there's legality issues. Let's wait and see - to see what everyone comes up with. There is stability in the regs. These blown diffusers that caught us out last year have been banned, and we think that's levelling the playing field for us especially. But let's see what happens."
Might we see other innovations on Caterham's 2012 car?
"I think it will be a much more current car than the last two cars we've been able to design. It's probably a bigger step forward compared to the 2011 car. In 2010 our car was obviously very basic because we didn't have much time to do it and we always said the 2011 car would be a big step forward. What's exciting for me is that the 2012 car is probably a bigger step forward in terms of refinement of design than we made in 2011."
Back to targets....what are they for 2012?
"Well I'm not meant to make any of them, am I?! In the last race (of 2011) I think we qualified four-tenths away from Williams. We did that in a car without KERS - and that's probably the difference between KERS. We finished at the back of that midfield pack. I think we want to start there, maybe even a bit better than that.
"If you look at last year, we started a second-and-a-half off and we finished four-tenths off that pack. We want to start with that pack and make that same level of progress."
There are rumours that Jarno Trulli might yet be replaced? Can you say anything concrete?
"What I can say on Jarno is that he does have a contract with the team that is concrete for next year and he will be part of the team next year."
Tony Fernandes seems a very nice guy but there's a steeliness there as well, if recent events at QPR are anything to go by. Do you feel under pressure to deliver results, or is the parallel between a football manager and chief technical officer a very lazy one?
"No, I think it's a fairly relevant one. If you like, with 20 Premiership managers or 12 senior Formula 1 technical guys, the same level is there. The only thing I'd say is that I've been here for 23 years and been successful, so I don't feel any different pressure that I've felt any other year. There's some differences: I set up this team - I was here before Tony came in. Tony and I have a very good relationship. He puts pressure on me and he's said the team needs to move forward; he rings me up and asks me how we're going in the wind tunnel.
"There's always pressure to succeed and that's right and proper. But I've been here a long time and there's a reason for that. But also in the Caterham Group, I'm now CEO of Caterham Composites as well. So Tony and I work very well as businessmen.
"He'll put pressure on me, but that's no more than I've had every year in my career. You either thrive off it or you don't."