March 10th, 2-14 (F1plus/Graham Keilloh).- It says something that Marussia and Caterham are still sometimes referred to as the 'new' teams in F1.
We are in fact about to start year five of their F1 existences, and the lingering perceptions of their newness is likely related to their being unfulfilled. Four full seasons down the line and the questions still swirl: when will they score their first point? When will they get on the pace of the midfield pack?
The sneering that they face is rather unfair though. After all, both entered the sport promised a swingeing budget cap and technical freedom as a consequence, which subsequently were reneged on.
In F1 more than in most things you get what you pay for, and Marussia's budget continues to be around a third of the level of those further ahead. And what would we rather have, that the team spends money it doesn't have and thus encounters problems à la Lotus?
Yet even with these considerations there is evidence that Marussia might be poised to answer at least one of the questions outlined in the opening paragraph. Perhaps both.
A consequence of the new rules for 2014 is that reliability is no longer the given that we've grown used to, therefore many have speculated that if a Marussia (or Caterham) can make the finish in Melbourne it'll probably end the team's points drought.
Even more, this combined with the vagaries of establishing the order of the constructors' table means that a single strong finish while all this is going on could likely ensure tenth place in the final rankings (and the millions that go with it) in itself, with the season barely started.
Indeed this is something that Marussia last year played for and got: focussing on reliability rather than performance in pre-season, and the P13 finish of Jules Bianchi in round two in Malaysia was what ensured the team's tenth placing ahead of Caterham in the ultimate standings.
Yet it didn't look in this pre-season that Marussia was poised to repeat the trick.
The team was rather overwhelmed with car troubles in the first two tests, with the MR03 completing but 55 laps in the first eight days, a total that lagged way behind even those of Lotus (who missed the first test of course) and Red Bull (whose woes were well-documented).
A few in response started to hypothesise that the new engine regulations and the associated complexities of the units must be a particular challenge for the small teams. Perhaps it would get the better of them.
But the team seemed to pull the iron out of the fire in the final Bahrain test, achieving a total of 258 laps which is testament to clearing many of the reliability problems. A few still linger, such an electrical problem that manifested of the final day, but things certainly look a bit more promising. Even more encouraging is that the car looks handy.
Many commented upon the MR03's launch that it appeared neat and tidy, the sort that a team with its more modest resources would look to produce ideally, as well as well-balanced on track (though perhaps still a little short of downforce).
Bianchi and Chilton.
But, once it started to run properly too it looked quick: Jenson Button for one commented that in high-speed corners it appeared a major advance on previous Marussias, while Max Chilton in the final test set an impressive 1m 36.8 mark, good for the 14th best time of anyone, and better than the quickest times of Button, Vettel and Gutierrez (as well as was within 0.6 seconds of the best Marussia time from Bahrain Q1 last year, despite the various restrictions since).
Some have even started to whisper that we could be set for the long-awaited advent of Marussia genuinely being on the pace of the midfield; of bridging the chasm that has gaped for four seasons.
If this is indeed so perhaps it shouldn't surprise us. While Pat Symonds left the team mid last season to some regret, he left behind a strong and restructured outfit. The team now has a Ferrari power unit finally, which has delighted the team as a massive improvement on the cumbersome and underpowered Cosworths. It also means that the squad gets Ferrari gearboxes, freeing up resource to be used elsewhere, as well as benefits from full manufacturer backing for the first time.
Marussia has long since been preparing for 2014 and its regulation changes: a team of four has been devoted to it entirely since mid-2012, and gradually the number of staff focussing on it increased over time, to become close to singular attention for the team by mid last year.
And most broadly of all the Marussia squad is one of a committed collection of real racers, those who can be counted upon to fight hard and make the maximum of its relatively meagre rations, as well as display a healthy willingness to think out of the box, something that could well serve it well in a new formula wherein much will be unexplored.
Look out for Marussia this year. The old certainties may not be so certain after all.