March 23rd, 2013 (F1Plus / Chris Cameron-Dow) - It was clear in Australia that Marussia had taken a step forward since 2012, and the situation in Malaysia is much the same. Marussia seem to have an edge over rivals Caterham and are snapping at the heels of the more established teams ahead.
Throughout the Malaysian Grand Prix weekend, Jules Bianchi has been ahead of at least one of the Caterhams, and when the pace counted - in qualifying - he was almost a full second clear of Charles Pic and 1.5 seconds faster than Giedo van der Garde. Max Chilton had a difficult Saturday, struggling with tyre wear ahead of qualifying, but he still managed to qualify ahead of Van der Garde's Caterham.
Bianchi's qualifying lap was just half a second off the pace of Nico Hulkenberg who was the last man to progress to Q2, and significantly, Bianchi felt that there was more speed available in his car. Perhaps even more importantly, Bianchi was only 1.6 seconds off Adrian Sutil's leading Q1 time. The contrast from the same session in 2012 is startling - in Q1 in Malaysia last year, the quickest Marussia was 3.8 seconds off the pace. This year it looks like Marussia could mount a serious challenge on the midfield.
A major step forward for Marussia would be finishing on the lead lap. Getting lapped is time consuming, as it requires the drivers to get off the optimum racing line to make way for the leaders. If it can be avoided, that will be an enormous boost to the Marussia team. If they lose 1.6 seconds per lap, the Marussias could theoretically finish tomorrow's race without being lapped, but that is assuming a constant time deficit to the front-runners, which is not likely as the leaders have clear air to run in but the midfield runners do not.
Bianchi will start the race 19th, with Chilton 21st.
This is what the team had to say after qualifying:
Jules Bianchi: “I am obviously thrilled with my qualifying lap today, but seeing how close we were to Q2 - just 0.5s - only left me wanting more. It has not been an easy time in practice, as we seem to have been struggling quite a lot with the tyre degradation. In the break we worked to put all of that together into a single lap for this afternoon and it all came good in the end, especially with the weather, which stayed dry for us. I am not sure we can expect the same dry conditions tomorrow - we will see.
"I do feel we can have a very interesting - and maybe exciting - race and show some more progress from where we were in Melbourne. My thanks for the Team because it has been difficult to progress the car since yesterday, but to do so in this heat and humidity is very tough. I am not sure it will be any easier tomorrow but I hope we can bring home another good result for everyone as some reward.”
Max Chilton: “Today has been a tough day for us and unfortunately it didn’t get any better for qualifying. We’ve been dealing with some significant tyre wear issues all weekend and these have hampered our progress quite a bit. This left me rather on the back foot going into qualifying and although the steps I was making to play catch up were satisfying, they were always going to be a step behind our true pace.
"It’s disappointing because had we not suffered quite as much, the performance is obviously in the car and there to be taken advantage of. That’s today done and dusted though and my thoughts now turn to tomorrow. I’m pretty confident that if we can get the Caterham off the line we can get into the right position and then start making an impression on the midfielders.”
John Booth, Team Principal: “It was pleasing to get a dry qualifying session today to afford our two new drivers this experience after the difficulties of a wet session in Melbourne. The dry conditions also gave us the first true barometer of pace that we’ve been waiting for since pre-season testing and we have to be pleased with how things have shaken out in respect of where we are relative to the cars ahead.
"The morning session wasn’t without its issues for Max, so unfortunately as a team we didn’t prepare him in the best way for qualifying and this has undoubtedly compromised him today. However, as he demonstrated back in Melbourne, he can surely have a good race tomorrow and fight his way back up to a more representative position in the field. Jules has excelled himself today and worked well with his engineers to extract the maximum performance from the car.
"The good news is he came back still feeling a little disappointed in his own lap, which shows there is still more to come from him and the package in general. We look forward to what we feel sure will be an eventful race tomorrow. As today’s more sustained dry window has shown, you can never predict anything in Sepang, but what we do have some confidence in after today is our ability to continue reeling in the midfield pack.”