Back to front: The Formula One season review — midfield melee

Michael Lamonato Columnist

By , Michael Lamonato is a Roar Expert

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    Is a Red Bull alliance with Honda on the cards? (AFP / Jorge Guerrero)

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    Focusing on Formula One’s frontrunners means we tend to miss the often more interesting struggles in the midfield.

    Not unlike a relegation zone, the middle of the Formula One grid is a mix of teams both consolidating after darker days and struggling to keep a grip on power.

    And 2016 was no exception.

    Today, The Roar reflects on the year’s midfield teams and considers what effect their 2016 seasons might have on their immediate futures.

    Toro Rosso

    Toro Rosso’s 2016 story was defined not by any in-house work but by a spat between Red Bull Racing and Renault after the French manufacturer’s dismal 2015 power unit design.

    Toro Rosso was collateral damage, and it was forced into a deal with Ferrari for year-old power units, which were pacey in 2015 but completely outclassed in 2016.

    Scoring heavily early was key to mitigation, but tension between Max Verstappen’s camp and the team, and then the swapping of the Dutchman for a deeply demoralised Daniil Kvyat after four rounds, made it hard for STR to be on its A-game.

    But the little Italian team performed nobly, leaning heavily on its excellent James Key-designed chassis and, critically, the extremely impressive Carlos Sainz, to claim seventh in the standings – not far behind McLaren.

    Carlos Sainz of Scuderia Toro Rosso

    Kvyat, too, started to show signs of his old feisty self, thanks largely to the quality car that enabled him to put up a fight against newfound nemesis Verstappen in Singapore, where the power deficit counted for little.

    But Sainz stole the show, qualifying in the top 10 nine times and scoring 48 of the team’s 63 points. Many view him as destined for a top seat, even if not at Red Bull Racing.

    Rating
    Toro Rosso-Ferrari – 7/10

    McLaren

    Improvement is the name of the McLaren-Honda game, but the rate of recovering from its reformed partnership is proving slow and painful.

    The team is struggling to find the sweet spot.

    Its first season was burdened by misguided expectations that the car would be quick out of the box. Instead, it had a reliability rate of 68.43 per cent thanks to 12 mechanical retirements.

    Targets were therefore set much lower this year. As a result, the team trundled along with little controversy.

    Unreliability dropped to 16.66 per cent and the team scored almost triple the points.

    But a distant sixth in the constructors’ standings was all it was worth.

    It was only in July this year that Honda’s power unit began nudging ahead of last year’s Ferrari.

    But that this translated into only an 11-point advantage over the 2015 Ferrari-powered Toro Rosso, suggests there’s plenty of work to do on the aerodynamic side of the things, too.

    “Honestly speaking, the target we set wasn’t big enough or good enough,” Honda boss Yusuke Hasegawa told F1i.

    “I think the other teams were doing a very good job.”

    If the same rate of development continues into a third year, McLaren will score 212 points – which is enough for fourth in this year’s standings but is still almost 200 points away from the top three.

    Good enough for the illustrious McLaren moniker? Barely.

    Rating
    McLaren-Honda – 5/10

    Force India vs Williams

    If Formula One lacked fight at the front of the grid, it made up for it with an arguably more meaningful battle for fourth between Force India and Williams.

    A glance at the championship table reveals a season of two parts.

    The first part, up to the British Grand Prix, saw Williams maintain its 2015 pace well behind the frontrunners and with Force India struggling to string together convincing weekends with its A-spec car.

    But Force India’s Spanish Grand Prix B-spec introduction had an almost immediate effect, enabling Sergio Perez to score podiums in two of the next three races, in Monaco and Azerbaijan.

    Williams, on the other hand, struggled to get any of its upgrades to work, and to stand still in Formula One is to slide backwards.

    The points show it.

    From the British Grand Prix, Force India cars failed to score just thrice from 24 starts compared to Williams’ 11.

    During that period, Force India scored 114 points to Williams’s 46 – a far more damning trend than the relatively slender 35-point end-of-season gap.

    However, the difference between the two teams goes deeper than just points.

    As illustrated in this column, Force India has proven to be the more efficient outfit despite a smaller budget. Per US million dollars earnt, Force India scored 2.58 points to Williams’s 1.59.

    With the boost and loss of prize money that comes with Force India moving up one place in the standings and Williams moving down two, losing the 2016 battle for fourth was particularly disappointing for the latter – and it might prove especially costly in 2017.

    Ratings
    Force India-Mercedes – 9/10
    Williams-Mercedes – 6/10

    What did you make of the 2016 midfield? Which teams and drivers impressed, and which let you down? Leave a comment blow.

    On Friday we’ll look at the intriguing fight at the front of the field.

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    Michael Lamonato
    Michael Lamonato

    Michael is one-third of F1 podcast Box of Neutrals, as heard weekly on ABC Grandstand Digital nationwide. Though he's been part of the F1's travelling press room since 2012, people seem more interested in the time he was sick in a kart — but don't ask about that, follow him on Twitter instead @MichaelLamonato.