Formula 1’s driver market rarely remains static and the sport has been typically fluid in that respect over the winter break. Down at Caterham they had a complete overhaul as Charles Pic and Giedo van der Garde exited the team in favour of Japanese fans favourite Kamui Kobayashi and Swedish rookie Marcus Ericsson.
The appointment of Ericsson to a Formula 1 seat had been rumoured since last year’s Brazilian Grand Prix and the team duly confirmed the news in the run-up to the first test at Jerez.
We caught up with Ericsson at last week’s test at the Spanish circuit, after Ericsson had completed his two days of running in the new Caterham CT05. Ericsson managed just 12 laps in the CT05 but nonetheless had a comfortable and measured start to his Caterham career. So was it a surprise for Ericsson to find himself sitting in a Formula 1 motorhome at the end of January, preparing for his debut in the sport?
“I think we were pushing for a Formula 1 seat since the end of last year, that’s what we were trying,” he says.
“Obviously it was difficult because there are a lot of drivers who were trying to get it as well but in the end it was a nice surprise to get it.”
Ericsson steps up to Formula 1 having competed in GP2 for the last few seasons. He joined the series at the start of 2010 with a strong reputation, having achieved good results in Formula Three. After a couple of wins across three years, 2013 was supposed to play witness to Ericsson’s rise from occasional frontrunner to championship contender. But a dreadful start to the year left him playing catch-up, from which he was able to salve sixth place in the championship with DAMS.
“Last year in GP2 results-wise it was quite bad for me because with the team and my experience and my speed, I should have been there fighting for the championship up until the very end. I think also we showed last year that we should have been [fighting for the title] as well because we were quick on every single track.”
“Just for some reason for the first five weekends of the year I scored zero points. Everything went against us: penalties, technical problems, driver mistakes. Everything went wrong, and then after that we were too far behind. In the second half of the season we showed we could be consistent in the top and scored good points but it was just too late.”
Ericsson is one of three rookies to join the grid in 2014 and is the only graduate from last year’s GP2 field. McLaren’s Kevin Magnussen won the Formula Renault 3.5 Series, while Daniil Kvyat joined Toro Rosso after claiming the GP3 title. Ericsson, though, believes that progressing through GP2 provides a driver with the best platform to make the transition into Formula 1.
“Driving wise, GP2 is the best school as we have the same tracks and the same tyres so I think the driving side will hopefully be something I get used to quite quickly,” he says.
“Everything else in Formula 1 - the way you work with all the engineers, all the engineers on the different areas of the car - that is something I need to learn quickly and it’s a big challenge. The steering wheel on a Formula 1 car is very different to GP2 etc. [There’s] a few things you need to learn, but I’m up for it and I’m going to work day and night to make sure I do well.”
Ericsson admits that the first test was slightly frustrating due to the lack of running.
“Obviously we’ve had quite a lot of problems in this test. I didn’t do a lap at the car with full speed and we were 15 seconds off the pace. It’s a bit frustrating obviously that we could not do more laps as testing is quite limited.
Ericsson nonetheless jokingly delights in the fact that he was actually faster than Sebastian Vettel, who managed a best of 1.38.3 compared to Ericsson’s 1.37.9 (“ah yeah, not too bad!”) Beating a world champion who was 15 seconds off the pace in testing is obviously nothing to take seriously, but Ericsson is upbeat about the prospects of the Caterham CT05.
“The potential is good. Obviously we’ve had problems but in a few laps or corners it’s been working fine. It’s pretty interesting and when we get it working properly it should be really fun to drive and for the spectators it’ll be fun to watch. I think the sound is a positive surprise because I heard a lot of stories that the sound would be this or the sound would be that, but for me it sounds awesome when the car is driving around.”
However, there is one striking feature of the Caterham CT05, which is its front nose solution. It’s certainly unique, with one senior figure in the paddock commenting that Caterham should be “embarrassed” with their approach to the regulations. Ericsson breaks out into a knowing laugh when asked about the aesthetic ‘beauty’ of the CT05.
“It’s not the prettiest…but it’s not the ugliest either! It has its own look. But in the end if it’s quick, I don’t care how it looks!”
So if the Caterham isn’t the ugliest car, then to which one is Ericsson referring?
“Oh I don’t know,” he laughs, realising his error. “I’m not seeing the front of the car anyway because when you drive, you don’t see it!”
Alongside Kobayashi and Ericsson, Caterham has signed 2012 Formula Renault 3.5 champion and GP2 race winner Robin Frijns as a reserve driver (who as we speak, is slumped alongside us on the Caterham sofa bench in his plain white overalls chatting to his manager and playing on his phone) as well as continuing Alexander Rossi. Ericsson believes that having a strong roster of drivers boosts the entire team.
“It’s great because Robin is a great driver and also Alexander. They’re all really good drivers and we push each other. Everyone works hard and make sure they do the very best.”
Ericsson is hesitant to make definitive predictions until Caterham can fully understand where they sit with the CT05.
“It’s difficult to say before we know where we are with the car but obviously, as always, you have your team-mate as a benchmark and to have Kamui as a team-mate is perfect. He’s proven in Formula 1 that he’s a great driver, he’s been on the podium in a Sauber, so to have him as a team mate is perfect because then I have someone to compare to and try and beat.”
But fast forwards 10 – or so – months to be sitting in the same place, what would leave Ericsson a satisfied racing driver?
“Oooh, very difficult,” he says pensively.
“It’s…impossible to say, because we don’t really know where we are. But we hope as a team to be moving up the grid and fighting with the bigger teams and for me personally, I would like to be fighting with Kamui and trying to beat him.”