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Fast starters or backmarkers? The 2008 story so far… 10 Apr 2008

Takuma Sato (JAP) Super Aguri F1 SA08A on the grid.
Australian Grand Prix, Rd 1, Race, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia, Sunday, 16 March 2008 Giancarlo Fisichella (ITA) Force India F1 VJM01.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 3, Bahrain Grand Prix, Qualifying Day, Bahrain International Circuit, Bahrain, Saturday, 5 April 2008 Sebastian Vettel (GER) Scuderia Toro Rosso STR02 leaves the pits as Rubens Barrichello (BRA) Honda RA108 makes a pitstop.
Malaysian Grand Prix, Rd 2, Race, Sepang, Malaysia, Sunday, 23 March 2008 Nelson Piquet Jr. (BRA) Renault R28 and Sebastien Bourdais (FRA) Scuderia Toro Rosso STR02.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 3, Bahrain Grand Prix, Race, Bahrain International Circuit, Bahrain, Sunday, 6 April 2008 Mark Webber (AUS) Red Bull Racing and David Coulthard (GBR) Red Bull Racing.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 3, Bahrain Grand Prix, Race, Bahrain International Circuit, Bahrain, Sunday, 6 April 2008

With the first three flyaway races complete, the teams finally have a chance to catch their breath, regroup and get in some much-needed testing before the start of the ‘European season’ in Spain later this month.

But who has used Australia, Malaysia and Bahrain to lay down firm foundations for their 2008 campaigns? And who heads back to base with even more work to do than expected? We look at all 11 teams to see who has defied pre-season expectations. In Part One - places 11 to six in the table…

Super Aguri, 11th, 0 points
Best result: 15th, Best qualifying: 20th

Given the uncertainty that surrounded their future immediately prior to the start of the season, just making it to the first three races must be seen as something of an achievement for the Japanese team. They have actually managed quite a lot more, despite the lack of testing and shortage of spares. They’ve got both cars to the finish on two occasions (something only four other teams can claim); in Australia and Malaysia, Takuma Sato ensured they didn’t start from the back row of the grid; and at Sepang and Sakhir they weren’t the last team name in the race classification. On top of that, in Bahrain Davidson set the 14th fastest race lap.

However, there are clear signs that Super Aguri’s problems aren't quite over yet. The deal with the Magma Group announced a month ago has yet to be finalised and as a result practice laps have been restricted and the team will not be present at next week’s Barcelona test. One can only hope that by the Spanish Grand Prix everything will be in place and that Aguri Suzuki’s men can once more press ahead with their development programme.

Force India, 10th, 0 points
Best result: 12th, Best qualifying: 17th

Force India have surprised many with their early progress following last year’s buyout of the former Spyker squad by the Vijay Mallya-led consortium. Their declared aim at the opening races was to stay clear of the back row of the grid and then target Q2. They haven’t quite made it yet, but they have come desperately close - in both Malaysia and Bahrain Giancarlo Fisichella missed the cut by less than a tenth of a second. Race pace has been strong at times too, allowing Fisichella to make life difficult for the likes of Honda, and to set the 11th fastest race lap in Bahrain.

Indeed, the former Renault star seems to be flourishing in his new role. In contrast, Adrian Sutil, who many had tipped to beat Fisichella, has so far failed to shine, though largely through no fault of his own. Hydraulic issues accounted for the German’s demise at the first two races, while in Bahrain an accident on lap one wrecked his chances from the outset. It is, of course, early days. The important thing is that Mallya’s carefully targeted investments already look to be paying dividends for the Silverstone-based team.

Honda, 9th, 0 points
Best result: 10th, Best qualifying: 9th

Pundits had predicted a woeful start to the 2008 season for Honda, despite the arrival of new team principal Ross Brawn. And admittedly it hasn’t been great - zero points from three races - but there have been signs of light at the end of the tunnel. Reliability has been good and qualifying pace has been steadily improving. After narrowly missing out on Q3 in Australia and Malaysia, they eventually made it in Bahrain, with Jenson Button clinching ninth on the grid.

They have shown speed in races too - Button set the fourth fastest lap at Sepang - but luck hasn’t been on their side. Rubens Barrichello was disqualified in Australia after he was forced to pit for fuel under the safety car, while Button has twice crashed out. As a result, the latter’s 10th place in Malaysia is their best result to date, but at least points are looking increasingly probable.

Toro Rosso, 8th, 2 points
Best result: 7th, Best qualifying: 10th

Pre-season Toro Rosso were talking of the reliability benefits they would gain from starting their campaign with last year’s car. It is perhaps ironic then that only once has an STR2B been running at the chequered flag, with Sebastien Bourdais’ 15th place in Bahrain. To be fair, accidents have accounted for three of the team’s DNFs, and there have also been engine / hydraulic problems with their Ferrari V8s. On the plus side, Bourdais scored two points on his Formula One debut in Australia, finishing seventh in the final classification despite his car expiring three laps from home.

As he predicted would happen, Bourdais initially struggled with qualifying. His more experienced (in F1 terms) team mate Sebastian Vettel was the clear leader in the opening two rounds (he even made Q3 in Melbourne), though the Frenchman edged ahead in Bahrain. But with pair failing to make it past lap one on three occasions, judging the team’s form is going to have to wait for their fortunes to improve. The new car is on the way - it got its first shakedown in Italy recently in the hands of Red Bull junior team member Brendon Hartley - and will make its race debut at May's Turkish Grand Prix. Away from the track, Red Bull boss Dietrich Mateschitz’s decision to sell his half of the team hit the headlines, but given that it won’t be until 2010, the immediate impact should be minimal.

Red Bull, 7th, 4 points
Best result: 7th, Best qualifying: 8th

Red Bull look to have put their 2007 reliability issues firmly behind them with the RB4. As a result they have scored four more points than they had at the same time last year, and it might have been more had it not been for a couple of costly accidents. David Coulthard’s run-in with Massa in Australia and another off during practice in Malaysia prompted stewards to examine the safety of the Red Bull’s front suspension. It was eventually given the all-clear, but it was not the kind of attention the team were hoping for.

Since then form has been pretty consistent - seventh places for Mark Webber at Sepang and Sakhir, and a ninth for Coulthard in Malaysia. So far, though, the RB4 seems to be lacking some of the outright speed of its predecessor. In Bahrain, neither driver made Q3 for the first time since last September’s Italian Grand Prix. Nevertheless, they do seem to have closed the gap on engine suppliers Renault, even if Toyota - a team they beat soundly in last year’s final standings - have pulled away somewhat.

Renault, 6th, 6 points
Best result: 4th, Best qualifying: 9th

From champions in 2005 and 2006, Renault went to ‘best of the rest’ last year behind Ferrari and BMW Sauber, and this season it seems they have taken another step down the ladder, even with the return of Fernando Alonso. After an encouraging fourth place in Australia, the Spaniard has since struggled to challenge for points, let alone podiums. Rookie team mate Nelson Piquet has recovered admirably from a disastrous debut in Australia - 20th on the grid, DNF - but it could be a while yet before the R28 allows the Brazilian to get on the scoreboard.

Renault have admitted they are still playing catch-up after their ’07 aero problems and as a result Williams and Toyota have both edged ahead. For the moment, fourth in the championship must be Renault’s target, though even that could prove tough if improvements scheduled for the start of the European season don’t bear significant fruit. The consolation? We should at least get to see some battling drives from Alonso along the way - and find out whether Piquet really has what it takes to follow in his father’s footsteps.

Coming soon in Part Two - fifth to first in the table.