Shanghai: A week ago, Toro Rosso driver Pierre Gasly came from nowhere to finish in fourth place in the Bahrain Grand Prix.
He and his team treated it like a victory.
“I must say, it’s been amazing,” Gasly said of his “success” as he prepares for Sunday’s Chinese Grand Prix, the third race of the season.
Toro Rosso team principal Franz Tost was just as thrilled, and credited engine maker Honda.
“I expected a place between eight and 10,” Tost said in Shanghai. “And in the end it was fourth place. It was a big, positive surprise and I’m very happy.”
For seven of the 10 teams in Formula One, getting one of their drivers to finish in fourth place is about all they can hope for. Forget about first, second or third.
Three teams and their six drivers monopolise the top spots in Formula One almost every race. Last season, five different drivers won races, all from the top three teams: Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull. Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel has won both races so far this season.
It was much the same in practice Friday ahead of Saturday’s qualifying for the Chinese GP.
Defending champion Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes was quickest in both sessions, and Ferrari driver Kimi Raikkonen was second quickest each time. Hamilton’s teammate, Valtteri Bottas, was third in both sessions, which stayed dry until a light rain began to fall in the final minutes of the second practice.
Hamilton will try to win his sixth race in China, and will be after his seventh pole position.
Rain is forecast for Saturday qualifying with a dry day predicted for Sunday.
“The battle for that fourth place in the championship is going to be extremely interesting through the year,” said Robert Fernley, the deputy team principal of Force India.
Last season, Force India finished fourth in the team standings, but light years behind the top three.
New series owner Liberty Media, which took over last season from long-time Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone, hopes to give the small teams a chance to be more competitive when the current rules — called the Concorde Agreement — expire after the 2020 season.
The new owners are looking to cut costs and cap spending, but the richest teams, Mercedes and Ferrari, will have to agree — or cut a deal.
The smaller teams seem mostly on board.
“I support all the points that Liberty Media presented, and I hope that they will realise it,” said Tost, the Toro Rosso principal.
Though it runs in cycles, Formula One has traditionally been dominated by a few teams and drivers. The “also-ran” teams have taken to calling themselves “the midfield,” where competition is close for the spots behind the top three. But the gap is large.
Fernley, the Force India No. 2, was asked if he had ever seen the pack in the middle this tight.
“Not in recent years, no,” he replied. “I think it’s tremendous. The battle for that fourth place in the championship is going to be extremely interesting through the year.”
Sauber driver Marcus Ericsson was ninth in Bahrain, and just as excited as Gasly — the fourth-place winner.
Ninth place in Formula One is worth two points in the season standings, far behind the 25 the winner gets. But at least it’s something.
“It was a great race for us,” said the Swede, who praised the team’s new main sponsor, Alfa Romeo. “We’re coming from two very difficult years where we’ve been always at the back as a team. I was super happy to be back in the points. It’s been a long time.”