Given smaller teams’ impact on F1’s current grid, they still matter

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A fascinating piece penned by veteran F1 scribe Nigel Roebuck for the U.K.’s MotorSport Magazine out today addresses the root of the problems facing Formula One at the moment, and outlines how some of the decisions over the last six or so years have led to the current state of affairs where Caterham and Marussia are off the grid and others have been rumored to be in financial peril.

In looking through the remaining 18 drivers on the grid, it is interesting to note where each driver got his starting point within F1, and note how few have done so at the immediate top of the grid:

  • Sebastian Vettel, BMW Sauber (1 race), then Toro Rosso
  • Daniel Ricciardo, HRT (now defunct)
  • Nico Rosberg, Williams
  • Lewis Hamilton, McLaren
  • Kimi Raikkonen, Sauber
  • Fernando Alonso, Minardi (forerunner to Toro Rosso)
  • Romain Grosjean, Renault (forerunner to Lotus)
  • Pastor Maldonado, Williams
  • Kevin Magnussen, McLaren
  • Jenson Button, Williams
  • Sergio Perez, Sauber
  • Nico Hulkenberg, Williams
  • Esteban Gutierrez, Sauber
  • Adrian Sutil, Spyker (forerunner to Force India)
  • Jean-Eric Vergne, Toro Rosso
  • Daniil Kvyat, Toro Rosso
  • Felipe Massa, Sauber
  • Valtteri Bottas, Williams

As you see, Williams (5 drivers) and Sauber (5) tie for the most of the 18 with a combined 10 drivers getting their careers started there. Sauber has been the perennial midfielder, and that’s not a negative – Peter Sauber and later, Monisha Kaltenborn, have excelled in their talent-spotting ability.

Williams, while one of the most successful teams in Formula One history in terms of Driver’s and Constructor’s Championships, has seen its fortunes ebb and flow over the last 20 years. At no point when Rosberg, Maldonado, Button, Hulkenberg or Bottas debuted for the team was the Williams one of the top two or three cars on the grid. Button’s initial sojourn was BMW’s first go-’round in 2000, and was a learning year for both parties before the Williams-BMW package won its first races in 2001.

But in looking through the remaining eight, you still see midfield teams as the rule, rather than the exception, to being the place of launching driver careers. Ricciardo, Vergne and Kvyat are all part of the Red Bull empire, and two of the three have graduated into the top Red Bull squad – Vergne, the exception, is hanging on to his F1 career.

Alonso began with the forerunner to Toro Rosso, Minardi, and is the lone Minardi graduate still active in F1 today. This is the team that also launched the career of Mark Webber, Giancarlo Fisichella and Jarno Trulli among others, all of whom went onto become Grand Prix winners.

Sutil began with the Force India forerunner of Spyker, and now races with Sauber, even though he hopes his contract will still be honored next season. Sutil is a rare perennial midfielder in modern day F1, a driver who has held onto a career making the most of his circumstances without being in one of the top three or four cars on the grid – much like his countrymen Nico Hulkenberg and Nick Heidfeld, for instance.

Grosjean has been with Renault in two forms – both as the factory Renault squad and now, as Lotus. In 2012, he fought to save his reputation while in 2013, armed with a podium-contending car, Grosjean was a star of the second half. But as the team has regressed, so have Grosjean’s results, but his talent level has not changed.

It is only in the form of Hamilton, who has been in nothing short of a race-winning car all years bar one (2009, and even then, he still took two wins with a difficult McLaren chassis) and Magnussen, this year with a McLaren that has ranged anywhere from being the third-to-fifth best chassis depending on the circuit, who have made their debuts in what you would call immediate podium-contending equipment.

Even in looking at Caterham and Marussia, there’s few within F1 who doubted Jules Bianchi’s star on the rise in his time with Marussia – he seemed destined for a Ferrari seat. Sadly, his Suzuka accident has left him fighting for his life, rather than fighting for a top seat on the grid. We continue to wish the best for him and his family – #ForzaJules.

Teams you don’t see anywhere on that list? Manufacturer outfits. Whether Ferrari, Mercedes, Honda, BMW or Toyota, none of the drivers who are racing for Ferrari and Mercedes or raced for any of those manufacturers who have since pulled out as a factory entry (Honda returns in 2015, but as a power unit supplier) made their debuts with a manufacturer operation. It’s very interesting to note.

The overview of the grid and where the drivers – plus the countless mechanics who’ve all started with the smaller teams as well – is all important because one of the keys to talent discovery in F1 is finding people who can outperform their machinery level once they’ve made it to F1.

It’s why most of the aforementioned drivers are in their current seats; they have long flattered their machinery and thus made themselves more valuable to a Mercedes, Ferrari, Red Bull, McLaren and/or Williams/Lotus down the line.

If down the road there’s a further team reduction to where it’s nothing but top teams left, and third cars become de rigueur, F1 risks losing this semblance of its history. While there’s something to be said for young drivers having an opportunity in top-flight machinery from the off, it seems to mean more if they work their way up and then eventually make it to a top team, rather than being gifted the opportunity straight away.

It’s one of the fascinating elements that makes F1 so special, and this can’t be overlooked as the future progresses.

The midfield matters, because the current grid wouldn’t be what it is without those launching pads.

Miguel Oliveira wins MotoGP Thai Grand Prix, Bagnaia closes to two points in championship

MotoGP Thai Grand Prix
Mirco Lazzari / Getty Images
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Miguel Oliveira mastered mixed conditions on the Chang International Circuit in Buriram, Thailand to win the MotoGP Thai Grand Prix. Oliveira showed the adaptability as he navigated a race that began in wet conditions and turned dry over the course of the race. Oliveira won the Indonesian GP in similar conditions.

“It was a long race, but I can’t complain,” Oliveira said on CNBC. “Every time we get to ride in the wet, I’m always super-fast. When it started raining, I had flashbacks of Indonesia. I tried to keep my feet on the ground, make a good start and not make mistakes and carry the bike to the end.”

All eyes were on the championship, however. Francesco Bagnaia got a great start to slot into second in Turn 1.

Meanwhile Fabio Quartararo had a disastrous first lap. He lost five positions in the first couple of turns and then rode over the rumble strips and fell back to 17th. At the end of the first lap, Bagnaia had the points’ lead by two. A win would have added to the gain and for a moment, it appeared Bagnaia might assume the lead.

Early leader Marco Bezzecchi was penalized for exceeding track limits, but before that happened, Jack Miller got around Bagnaia and pushed him back to third. Oliveira was not far behind.

After throwing away ninth-place and seven points on the last lap of the Japanese GP last week, Bagnaia did not allow the competition to press him into a mistake. He fell back as far as fourth before retaking the final position on the podium.

“It’s like a win for me, this podium,” Bagnaia. “My first podium in the wet and then there was a mix of conditions, so I’m very happy. I want to thank Jack Miller. Before the race, he gave me a motivational chat.”

Miller led the first half of the Thai Grand Prix before giving up the top spot to Oliveira and then held on to finish second. Coupled with his Japanese GP win, Miller is now fully in the MotoGP championship battle with a 40-point deficit, but he will need a string of results like Bagnaia has put together in recent weeks – and he needs Bagnaia to lose momentum.

Miller’s home Grand Prix in Australia is next up on the calendar in two weeks.

Bagnaia entered the race 18 points behind Quartararo after he failed to score any in Japan. The balance of power has rapidly shifted, however, with Quartararo now failing to earn points in two of the last three rounds. Bagnaia won four consecutive races and finished second in the five races leading up to Japan. His third-place finish in Thailand is now his sixth MotoGP podium in the last seven rounds.

Aleix Espargaro entered the race third in the standings with a 25-point deficit to Quartararo, but was able to close the gap by only five after getting hit with a long-lap penalty for aggressive riding when he pushed Darryn Binder off course during a pass for position. Espargaro finished 11th.

Rain mixed up the Moto2 running order in the MotoGP Thai Grand Prix as well. Starting on a wet track, Somkiat Chantra led the opening lap in his home Grand Prix. He could not hold onto it and crashed one circuit later, but still gave his countrymen a moment of pride by winning the pole.

Half points were awarded as the race went only eight laps before Tony Arbolino crossed under the checkers first with Filip Salac and Aron Canet rounding out the podium.

American Joe Roberts earned another top-10 in eighth with Sean Dylan Kelly finishing just outside the top 10 in 11th.