Caterham the latest team to fall foul of the Leafield ‘curse’

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The last few days have been particularly difficult for Caterham F1 Team. As both sides in the ownership dispute claim to have been done wrong by, the staff and workers at Leafield have been caught in the middle of the mess.

Locked out of the factory, and just weeks away from the holiday season, many are facing the prospect of being out of a job as the team staggers on its last legs. It may not even make the next race of the year in Austin, Texas.

What’s even sadder is that it isn’t the first time this has happened at Leafield. Nor is it even the second time. Should Caterham fold before the end of the year, it would in fact mark the third occasion that a team based at the site in Oxfordshire has collapsed mid-way through the season.

Leafield Technical Centre first played host to a Formula 1 operation in the late 1990s when Tom Walkinshaw bought Arrows Grand Prix. The British businessman leased the site to run Arrows from, with the plucky backmarkers managing to survive through thick and thin.

However, its on-track success was never noteworthy. Walkinshaw pulled off a coup to sign defending world champion Damon Hill for 1997, and although he came close to winning the Hungarian Grand Prix of that year, he soon departed at the end of the season when a seat with Jordan became available.

Come 2002, the money had dried up and Arrows was on its last legs. Drivers Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Enrique Bernoldi were even told to deliberately not qualify for the French Grand Prix at Magny-Cours as the team simply could not afford to race. By the time of the Hungarian Grand Prix in August 2002, the grid was one team lighter – Arrows was no more, five races shy of the end of the season.

However, some embers did still burn when the site at Leafield was taken over by Super Aguri (pictured) for the 2006 season. The new team was intended to work as a B-team to Honda, and was run by former F1 driver Aguri Suzuki.

The original car was based on the Arrows A23 from the 2002 season, but the outfit soon found its own feet, scoring four points in 2007 courtesy of Takuma Sato. The team’s best ever result came at that year’s Canadian Grand Prix where Sato finished sixth after famously passing McLaren’s Fernando Alonso for position. Teammate Anthony Davidson was also due points, but dropped to 11th after hitting a groundhog.

Come 2008 though, the alarm bells were ringing at Leafield once again. As the team began to limp, it could take part in just four races before folding after the Spanish Grand Prix.

And so we come to Caterham. After debuting in 2010 at Lotus Racing, the team moved to Leafield in 2012 upon becoming Caterham F1 Team, and was the ‘lead backmarker’ then ahead of Marussia and HRT. It stayed in that position until 2013, when Marussia moved ahead thanks to Jules Bianchi’s efforts and talent, and in 2014, Caterham has slipped to the very back of the grid.

It’s a very sorry state of affairs, as summed up in administrator Finnbarr O’Connell’s chat with the Press Association here. Both Fernandes and Engavest are embroiled in a petty war of words when, in the real world, hundreds of jobs are at stake. This isn’t just business: it’s affecting real lives.

HRT was the last team to withdraw from Formula 1. The Spanish team had always been the one at the very back of the F1 field, so its demise and exit at the end of 2012 hardly came as a surprise. However, it was clean – everyone knew it was going to happen, including the team itself.

Although there is the same sense of inevitability with Caterham, those at the top keep saying “keep calm and carry on” before pointing the finger at the other side. It is very undignified.

Let us hope that when future teams arrive in F1, lessons are learned from this blueprint of how not to do it. The word “farcical” springs to mind.

Previous F1 competition doesn’t guarantee IndyCar success at COTA

Manor F1 Photo
Manor F1 Photo
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AUSTIN, Texas – Familiarity does not breed success, according to three NTT IndyCar Series drivers who have previous experience at Circuit of the Americas in the Formula One United States Grand Prix. Several other drivers, including IndyCar Series rookie Patricio O’Ward, competed in the LMPC IMSA race in 2017.

Although the course is the same – 20-turns and 3.41-miles – the cars are completely different. The highly-advanced, technologically-driven Formula One cars are advanced beyond the realm of anything allowed in the NTT IndyCar Series. It’s more about the driver in IndyCar, which uses an impressive, but simpler formula to help showcase driver skill more than technology in its races.

Money buys speed in Formula One, but an IndyCar team doesn’t need a $400 million budget to go racing. It can get by on $5 millions to $10 million a year and contend for plenty of race victories and championships.

Andretti Autosport star Alexander Rossi drove in five Formula One races with Manor in 2015. The above photo is from his only F1 contest at COTA that season. He was the first driver ever to turn laps at COTA shortly after it was constructed in 2012.

Rossi had his best F1 finish in the 2015 United States Grand Prix when he started 17thand finished 12th.

“When I’ve come here in the past, I came into the weekend fully knowing that there was no chance to ever really do anything from a results perspective,” Rossi said. “To could come here to a track that I’ve spent a lot of time at, not necessarily driven a whole lot, but spent a huge amount of time at. To come into this weekend’s race, competing on a level where we have as good a shot as any, to win the race would be pretty cool.

“There’s kind of an almost unfinished business box that we’d like to tick here in some way. I’m very excited to get the weekend started.”

Chilton raced the entire F1 season in 2013 and 2014 with Marussia. He started 21stand finished 21stin 2013. He started in the first 16 races during the 2014 F1 season but was out of a ride by the time F1 arrived at COTA that season.

Me and Alex probably had pretty similar experiences,” Chilton told NBC Sports.com “Obviously the more laps are better — but the car we were in, we weren’t doing much racing, so the sort of racing experience part isn’t going to help.

“It’s good to be back. I first came here in 2013 for the (United States) Grand Prix. I loved the track. I love the city. I really enjoyed the whole facility, the race track. It’s a pretty long track in an Indy car but it’s got lots of overtaking potential for us and hopefully we’ll put on a great show.

“It’s great to have an English band like Muse on Saturday night, as well.”

Marcus Ericsson of Sweden has the most experience at COTA of any driver in the field for Sunday’s INDYCAR Classic. He competed in 97 F1 contests from 2014-2018 before becoming an IndyCar rookie with Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports this season.

Ericsson was 15thin 2015, 14thin 2016, 15thin 2017 and 10thin last year’s USGP.

“I’ve been here quite a few times,” Ericsson said. “It’s one of the best tracks on F1 and I think it’s great we are going here with INDYCAR. It’s going to be a great weekend.

“The racing should be very good. It’s already good on F1 on this track and from what I’ve done in INDYCAR, it’s going to be a really good show from everyone and I’m really looking forward to it.”

Ericsson emphasized that the his F1 experience does not necessarily give him any type of advantage in an IndyCar.

“I think for me I was here a couple months ago in F1 doing the race in ’18. I had all my reference points and then I did the first run and realized that didn’t really work,” Ericsson explained to NBC Sports.com “So I don’t know that the experience — it’s good to know the track, but then the Indy cars are very different cars to the F1 (car) so you have to sort of drive it quite differently and in the end, I think it didn’t really help the maximum amount in my opinion.

“The problem is we had two days of testing already in IndyCar. If we had come here straightaway without any testing it would be an advantage of one hundredth approximate. But now, if you don’t get the track in two days, I don’t think you would be in IndyCar.

“I don’t think it’s a big advantage now going into the weekend.”

But every little bit helps and if all of those little “bits” of information are added up, previous experience can provide a benefit in the race.

“For sure there’s things I can bring from my experience there that helps in INDYCAR, but the Indy car to drive today is different than the Formula One cars with the power steering and everything,” Ericsson continued. “I think it’s two different cars and what I found here on the test; things that worked in the F1 car didn’t really work in the Indy car. I think both cars of very difficult to be fast in but in different ways.

“For sure my experience in F1, it’s helped me to get into INDYCAR.”

James Hinchcliffe, who has never driven in Formula One, or at COTA, believes he has the best experience of any driver in Austin this weekend.

“I know where the restaurants are, so that’s cool,” Hinchcliffe said.