At the end of the 2011 Formula 1 season the second Red Bull team, Scudderia Torro Rosso (STR), surprised most of the paddock, media and fans by replacing both of their race drivers; Spaniard Jaime Alguersuari and Swiss driver Sebastien Buemi. The purpose of STR is to develop drivers capable of stepping into the senior Red Bull team in the future, which worked to great effect with the reigning double world champion Sebastian Vettel who made the transition from STR to the senior Red Bull Racing team in 2009, having brilliantly won the 2008 Italian grand prix for STR; becoming the youngest race winner in F1 history aged just 21 years and 74 days old.Both Alguersuari and Buemi were deemed not to be good enough to be able to make the same transition as Vettel. Dr Helmut Marko, advisor to Red Bull and the overseer of the Red Bull driver development programme, was quoted in the Gazzetta dello Sport as saying, in justification of the decision to drop Alguersuari and Buemi “Toro Rosso was created to give young drivers a chance. Alguersuari and Buemi had that chance for three years and after that period it’s possible to evaluate a drivers’ development. We didn’t see in them any possibility of growth. Both are Grand Prix drivers, but for us that’s not enough. We want Grand Prix winners”.
Given those strong words from Marko, it seems highly likely that the services of STR’s current driver pairing of Frenchman Jean-Eric Vergne and Australian Daniel Ricciardo will also dispensed with if the team does not detect winning potential in them. So, halfway through their first season in F1 are Vergne and Ricciardo doing enough to justify their drives at STR? And does their form suggest that they might have what it takes to be grand prix winners and possibly replace veteran Mark Webber at the end of his newly extended contract with Red Bull Racing at the end of 2013?It was pretty much impossible to gauge Ricciardo’s speed in 2011 when he competed in 11 races for the struggling HRT team. He certainly didn’t set the world alight driving for the Spanish team, but I would imagine that even some of the world champions on the grid would struggle driving for HRT, so I’m going to discount those 11 race results from any further consideration, other than to say that they probably gave Ricciardo some valuable experience of driving Formula 1 machinery in anger, both in qualifying and race conditions.
With his 2011 HRT experience behind him, Ricciardo started the 2012 season with a solid result for STR, taking ninth place at his home grand prix in Australia, having also made it through to the qualifying top 10 shoot out. Since the opening round of the season, though, results have been more disappointing for Ricciardo with no further points scoring finishes and a best result of just 11th place from the next 10 rounds of the season. That 11th place, though, came at the European grand prix at Valencia, where the Hamilton/Maldonado incident in the closing laps gained him two places.
There have been other signs of promise for Ricciardo in 2012, though. His qualifying performance in Bahrain was nothing short of exceptional, with another appearance in Q3 and a sixth place starting position, just half a second off Sebastian Vettel pole position time in the senior Red Bull team. That promising position was, however, wasted in the first lap of the race during which he dropped 10 places to 16th position, going on to finish the race just one place further forward, in 15th place. Ricciardo explained after the race that he “spun the wheels off the line and then…braked a little too early for the first corner, and probably chose the wrong side of the track. Then…picked up some damage to the nose” going on to call the situation “frustrating, disappointing. A complete shithouse really”. It’s hard to know what might have been possible for Ricciardo in Bahrain had he had a better opening lap.
Jean-Eric Vergne’s pre-2012 Formula 1 experience was more limited than Ricciardo’s and it’s just as hard to draw any conclusions from it as Ricciardo’s experience with HRT. At least Ricciardo had the advantage of racing during his time with HRT. Vergne had to be content with Friday free practice running for Torro Rosso in three of the final four races of the 2011 season; Korea, Abu Dhabi and Brazil. It is, of course, impossible for outsiders to draw any conclusions from the times set during free practice, but Vergne clearly did enough to be given the chance to drive the title-winning Red Bull RB7 at the young driver test in Abu Dhabi at the end of the season. The Frenchman was fastest in all three days of that test, but again it’s impossible to draw too many conclusions from that; he was in the fastest car, after all. Still, he clearly did enough in his limited Friday free practice running, and the end of season test, to warrant being called up into a race seat with STR for 2012.Like his team-mate, Vergne made a good start to the season, following up his 11th place finish in Melbourne with his best result of the season so far in Malaysia where he scored four world championship points after finishing in eighth position. This was particularly impressive given his 18th place starting position. A bit like his team-mate, though, Vergne seems to have peaked early with his eighth place in Sepang being his only points scoring finish in the opening 11 rounds of the championship, his best results since then being consecutive 12thplace finishes in rounds five and six; Spain and Monaco.
Unlike Ricciardo, Vergne does not have the benefit of being able to fall back on any particularly impressive qualifying performances. Indeed, the Frenchman has failed to make it into the final part of qualifying in any of the 11 races so far this season. His best qualifying performance came at the season opening Australian grand prix where he started 11th. Since then, though, the best that he has been able to manage is a 14th place start in Barcelona.
So how do the two STR team-mates compare? Vergne has had the better race result and consequently sits 17th in the world drivers’ championship, one place ahead of Ricciardo. Indeed, Vergne’s race performances have generally been better than those of his team-mate. So far this season, Vergne has moved forward from his starting position eight times, compared to just five for Ricciardo. However, this does not tell the full story. Both drivers have exactly the same average finishing position; 13th. Part of the reason for Vergne’s race results appearing slightly better than his team-mate’s is because his qualifying performances have been so poor. Ricciardo has qualified ahead of his team-mate in all but two of the opening 11 rounds of the season having an average grid slot of 14th, compared to 17th for Vergne.
Although neither of the two young STR drivers has set the F1 world alight so far this season their predecessors, Alguersuari and Buemi, were given three seasons driving for STR before they were deemed not to be good enough. It is far too early, therefore, to decide whether Vergne and/or Ricciardo might up to scratch after just 11 race with the team. What’s more, there’s no prospect of a vacancy at the senior Red Bull Racing team until at least 2014, meaning that both drivers are likely to be given more time to prove their worth.
However, with Mark Webber out of contact at the end of 2013 and Sebastian Vettel’s position with Red Bull for 2014 subject to what Helmut Marko called “a performance-related clause in his contract”, there is a clear possibility of vacancies at the senior team at that point, especially if rumours of Vettel signing a pre-contract agreement with Ferrari for 2014 are to be believed.
Of course, there’s nothing to suggest that Vettel’s “performance-related clause” will be activated, and if Mark Webber can maintain the same level of performance that he’s demonstrated so far this season, there’s no reason why he couldn’t secure another contract extension with RBR. Notwithstanding that, though, I think that the next season and a half will be make or break for Vergne and Ricciardo. I just can’t see them being given the same three seasons to prove themselves at STR as their predecessors.They will be all too aware, also, that Buemi remains on the scene as STR reserve driver and Red Bull Racing test driver. The Swiss is very capable of stepping in if it becomes clear that either Vergne or Ricciardo are not up to scratch. Both drivers will need to make a concerted push in the second half of the season and try to demonstrate their worth, but I can’t help but feel that it’s STR that really needs to step up their competitiveness to give their two young drivers a chance to show what they can really do.
The Torro Rosso STR7 certainly seems to be a step backwards in comparison to its predecessor the STR6, which had scored 22 world championship points at this stage of last season (and 41 points by the end of that season). The STR7 has, in comparison, scored just six points so far this season. Its lack of performance has been acknowledged by Toro Rosso team principal, Franz Tost, who was quoted on Formula1.com as saying “We cannot hide the fact that our performance level is currently not good enough to fight at the front of the midfield. Everyone in the team will be working hard to find some improvements to try and turn our season around in the remaining nine rounds of this very close championship”.
It certainly looks like STR are taking steps to do just that, with technical director Giorgio Ascanelli looking certain to leave the team after it emerged over the course of the German grand prix weekend that he was “on holiday”, following rumours of disagreements about the technical development of the car. It has been suggested that Ascanelli will make a return to Ferrari, where he began his career as Gerhard Berger’s engineer in the 1980s, with his place at STR possibly filled by James Key, until recently the technical director at Sauber.
Key’s possible arrival at STR might come too late to salvage the 2012 season for the team and its two rookie drivers, but if the 2012 Sauber C31 is any indication, the 2013 Torro Rosso may well be good enough to enable Vergne and Ricciardo to show what they can really do in competitive F1 machinery.
2013 may well be a very interesting season at the team, if that proves to be the case. I suspect that’s when we’ll discover whether either Vergne or Ricciardo are well enough equipped to fulfil the future “grand prix winners” criteria that seems to be a requirement for a step up into the senior Red Bull Racing team.