March 9th, 2013 (F1plus/G. Keilloh).- Toro Rosso bucked the trend in 2012, but not in a good way. In a year noted for the feast enjoyed by the midfield teams, the Faenza squad lived only on the crumbs that fell off the table. Sauber, Force India and Williams improved on their 2011 points totals vastly (and even then felt that they could have done better), but Toro Rosso's points haul almost halved, from 41 to 26.
The team was some 50 points shy of Williams next up in the final constructors' standings, and spent much of the year in a strange vacuum, off the back of the midfield bunch while clear of the three (now, not so) new teams. Quite why this came to pass isn't certain. Indeed, the Toro Rossos actually started the year pretty well, qualifying in P10 and P11 in Melbourne, scoring points in the first two rounds and Daniel Ricciardo started sixth in Bahrain, the cars all the while being firmly among the midfield pack. But then as the European season commenced and the teams around it 'kicked' on development, Toro Rosso for whatever reason didn't keep up.
The team that was possibly the sixth best and certainly good for giant killing in late 2011 now looked a world away. Come the summer break Ricciardo admitted that further points that season would likely only be won via the attrition of others.
As we know by now, the Red Bull company doesn't take kindly to failure, and mid-year Dietrich Mateschitz got team principal Franz Tost to change things at Toro Rosso, which Tost did by initiating a technical reshuffle which included replacing Technical Director Giorgio Ascanelli with the highly-rated James Key (ex of Sauber and Force India).
The Toro Rosso team is admittedly behind the the midfield squads around it on staff numbers and resources, and to be fair to all concerned no one sought to blame the two debutant drivers for the underachievement. But Key when he arrived nevertheless found an aero department rather short-staffed as well as stuck in something of a rut - it's been suggested that for all of Ascanelli's considerable talents leading an aero programme is not among them. Key also found that the STR7 machine had a rather narrow set up window, losing performance rapidly outside of it particularly when not at a precise ride height. In the age of the peripatetic Pirellis, this was considerable impediment.
And, coincidentally with Key's arrival or not, there was an upturn for Toro Rosso in late 2012. Partly it was down to luck, such as the high drop out rate at Spa resulting in points, but equally it was down to upgrades to the floor, exhausts, front and rear wings. Ricciardo's doom-laden predictions did not come true as the cars rejoined the midfield peleton with greater regularity and the team totalled up eight more points finishes after the summer break.
And things continue to look up this year for the Faenza squad. James Key has a strong record of getting the best out of a small team (seen wherever he's been) and he appears to have done just that with the STR8. The way it's gone in testing looks to all that it's behaving well and on pace is right with the midfield bunch again, and this is reflected by the drivers barely being able to suppress a smile when out of the car. And while the car doesn't appear over-loaded with innovation apparently it does have a much wider set up window than the STR7 did. This was in part at the behest of the drivers, in order to allow them to push more often and thus make their case for promotion to the 'A team' Red Bull more coherently.
Which brings us neatly on to the matter that will preoccupy most of those watching on in the direction of the Toro Rossos in 2013. Many associate the team primarily with its status of being the 'B team' for Red Bull. Such an apparent conflict of interest wouldn't be allowed in other sports in all probability, and leaves a nasty taste on occasion (such as Helmut Marko tearing strips off Jaime Alguersuari for holding up Sebastian Vettel in a practice session in 2011). But one area where the relationship is clear is that Toro Rosso is there, in part, to further the readiness of products from the Red Bull young drivers' programme for a step up to the big team. And given it's hardly a secret that Red Bull is simply waiting for one such driver to demonstrate their suitability to replace Mark Webber, opportunity knocks for both Ricciardo and his team mate Jean-Éric Vergne in 2013. Both were parachuted into Toro Rosso at the start of last year, and neither has made a compelling case for promotion since.
This year they get another chance, but equally the clock is ticking for both as the next product off the conveyor belt, Antonio Felix da Costa, appears increasingly large in the rear view mirror. And as we've seen already, the existence of a Toro Rosso driver is a little like that of Tony Soprano - Marko can and will rub them out at a moment's notice.
The Toro Rossos won't be challenging for wins, or even podiums, any time soon. Its glory days with Sebastian Vettel in late 2008 are likely never to be repeated for various reasons, at least without major investment. But there is every indication that in 2013 the team will return to respectability, and perhaps claim the odd plunder from the big boys on a good day.
Jean-Éric Vergne - Car #18
Vergne needs to impress once in while.
As outlined above, life at Toro Rosso and as a member of the Red Bull club isn't like that in any other team. You are there, explicitly, to show your worth for a step up to join the big boys. Last year, after Sebastien Buemi and Jaime Alguersuari were cast aside unceremoniously having failed the initiation, in came Jean-Éric Vergne and Daniel Ricciardo as the next in line.
To be frank, neither did nearly enough to show their readiness for promotion to the sport's most competitive outfit last year either, although in their defence the STR7 wasn't a machine that lent itself to demonstrating your talents. Vergne scored the more of the two pilots - by 16 points to 10 - but the feeling within Red Bull and elsewhere is that Ricciardo remains ahead in this particular pecking order.
So, why is this? Well, a lot of it is down to qualifying performance: Vergne simply never got the hang of it. He missed out on making the second part of qualifying on no fewer than eight occasions last season (almost to the point that you could reasonably predict that he and the six pilots of the 'new' cars would be the seven Q1 drop outs) compared with this fate befalling Ricciardo but once, and Ricciardo out qualified him by 16 to four. And it wasn't for the want of trying on Vergne's part, as shown by the frequency on which he would do such as lock wheels and bin the thing during his attempts at flying laps.
Come race day Vergne was marginally the quicker of the two though, and showed an almost Button-like knack of looking after his car and tyres well and ghosting into good finishing positions, including on days that it rained (he finished eighth in Malaysia and in Brazil).
Four eighth places ensured he got the better of his stable mate, on points at least. Like Button, Vergne could be pretty racy too, but he sometimes pushed things too far such as punting Timo Glock out in Brazil and his chop on Heikki Kovalainen in Valencia was one of the most ham-fisted pieces of driving from anyone all season.
But is qualifying low and ghosting forward enough for Red Bull? Probably not, and Vergne will need to show a bit more raw pace, and consistently, this year to impress his suitors. For him especially, the clock is ticking.
Daniel Ricciardo - Car #19
Australian Daniel Ricciardo looks to replace his countryman at Red Bull in 2014.
It's common for F1 observers to talk of Vergne and Ricciardo like they are one and the same. And to an extent it's understandable, their respective CVs have spooky parallels, at Toro Rosso there is no experienced yardstick with which to judge either driver, and indeed in 2012 the Toro Rossos tended to be rather isolated, off the back of the mid-pack runners yet still clear of Caterham, Marussia and HRT, making the individual drivers' contribution harder to discern. Further muddying the waters, neither Faenza pilot got a conspicuous upper hand last campaign. And like Vergne, Ricciardo in 2012 didn't make an irrefutable case of his worthiness of a Red Bull drive. But the race recommences this year, and apparently Ricciardo starts ahead.
And we can see why to some extent. As mentioned Ricciardo had the whip hand over Vergne on qualifying pace last campaign, being ahead 16 times out of 20, and his crowning glory was starting sixth in Bahrain, a performance that got Ascanelli gushing with Vettel comparisons (Ricciardo did rather spoil it to a degree within a few hundred metres of the race start, making a poor start and then having contact with another car). He was also the more consistent finisher, scoring points on six occasions compared with Vergne's four. And Ricciardo can point to more cameos in which he raced strongly with the big boys, such as in Suzuka and Abu Dhabi.
Given his greater pace, particularly in qualifying, and on track brio displayed thus far you suspect that Ricciardo has shown more of the sorts of things Red Bull is looking for than Vergne has. And he certainly did nothing in 2012 to impede his chances of the step up actively. But if he wants to occupy Webber's forcibly evacuated chair in 2014 he'll need to show a little more. Starting now.