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.

Houston Supercross by the numbers: Five riders begin to gap the field

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Chase Sexton stumbled in San Diego and Eli Tomac had a hard fall in Anaheim 2, but the Monster Energy Supercross numbers for Houston suggest they will continue to be the ones to beat in Houston. To do so, they will have to turn back challenges from another pair of riders who have swept the top five in the first three rounds and another with a worst finish of sixth.

Houston Supercross numbers
Cooper Webb’s ability to close races makes him a Houston favorite. – Feld Motor Sports

Despite an accident in his heat in San Diego that sent him to the Last Chance Qualifier (LCQ), Sexton recovered to score a top-five that weekend. His podium finish in Anaheim 1 and overall win last week in Anaheim 2 makes him one of the three riders with a perfect top-five record. He is joined by Cooper Webb, who finished second in the first two rounds and fourth last week, and Ken Roczen, whose consistency in the first three races contributed to him grabbing the top spot in this week’s NBC Supercross Power Rankings.

There are reasons to believe Webb and Roczen can keep those streaks alive.

Webb is the only multiple winner at Supercross’ current Houston stadium. His pair of wins came in 2019 and 2021, the same year he won his two 450 championships.

Clinton Fowler points out this week, that Webb has carried that strength into 2023. Webb had a late surge in Anaheim 1, advancing from fifth to second in the final six laps. In San Diego, he set his ninth fastest lap with two to go and his eighth fastest on the final lap. He posted his fastest lap of Anaheim 2 on Lap 12 while the rest of the field did so on Lap 6 on average.

By comparison, Tomac set his 14th fastest lap on the final circuit in route to winning the Main at San Diego while he was trying to keep Webb at bay.

With a sixth at San Diego, Dylan Ferrandis barely missed sweeping the top five in his first three races as did Tomac with a sixth last week at Anaheim 2.

This will be the 46th year Supercross has visited Houston and with 55 races the city is tied for the second-most with Detroit.

Jim Pomeroy won the first race in the Astrodome during the inaugural season of 1974 on a 250, which was the premiere class at the time. Houston was one of three races held that year along with events at Daytona International Speedway and the Los Angeles Coliseum. All three venues return in 2023 with the first SuperMotocross championship finale returning to the famed LA Coliseum in September.

Webb won most recently in 2021 in the final race of three held there that year as the series executed a strategy of racing in residencies to limit travel during height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Tomac and Justin Barcia also won in Houston in 2021.

Two privateers have started the season on a high note.

Joshua Cartwright and Joshua Varize have each made the last two Mains. Cartwright finished 18th in San Diego and 21st last week in Anaheim 2 – all while working fulltime as a Business Intelligence Analyst at the University of Texas, Dallas. Varize earned a top-15 (12th) in San Diego and was 21st in Anaheim 2 in his third season on a 450.

Michael Mosiman scored his first 250 win last year in San Diego. – Feld Motor Sports

The numbers show none of the active 250 Supercross East riders have won in Houston, so no matter who steps on top of the box, there is going to be a fresh face. That is not surprising since most of the top competitors have not raced at this venue yet.

Michael Mosiman has a pair of top-fives there, however. His best finish was a second in the second 2021 race. Garrett Marchbanks scored a top-10 in his rookie season of 2019 in Houston.

In the 250 East division, Hunter Lawrence is one of the favorites to win the title now that Christian Craig has moved to 450s. Last year he had four wins and nine podiums, but failed to set a fast lap in a race.

The other 250 riders with 2022 wins this week are Mosiman, who earned his first Supercross win last year in San Diego, and Nate Thrasher, who became the fifth new class winner at Daytona.

Jeremy Martin will attempt to extend a record this week in Houston. His division leading SuperMotocross podiums number 65. He has 26 wins in the combined sessions, which ranks fourth all time.

Last Five Houston Winners

450s
2022, no race
2021, Race 3: Cooper Webb
2021, Race 2: Eli Tomac
2021, Race 1: Justin Barcia
2020, no race
2019, Cooper Webb
2018, Jason Anderson

250s
2022, no race
2021, Race 3: Colt Nichols
2021, Race 2: Jett Lawrence
2021, Race 1: Christian Craig
2020, no race
2019, Dylan Ferrandis
2018, Aaron Plessinger

By the Numbers

Anaheim 2
San Diego

More SuperMotocross coverage

Supercross unveils 16th edition of a Ricky Carmichael designed Daytona track
Power Rankings after week 3
Malcom Stewart out for “extended duration” after knee surgery
Haiden Deegan makes Supercross debut in Houston, Justin Cooper to 450s
Talon Hawkins set to relieve injured Jalek Swoll in Houston
Jalek Swoll out for an indefinite period with broken arm
Ken Roczen urgently needed a change
Chris Blose joins Pro Circuit Kawasaki in 250 East opener
Seth Hammaker to miss Houston with wrist injury
Jo Shimoda joins Seth Hammaker, Austin Forkner on injured list
Injury sidelines Austin Forkner for remainder of 2023 SX
Chase Sexton wins Anaheim 2 in 450s; Levi Kitchen takes 250s
Results and points from Anaheim 2