Saturday 8 March 2014

F1 2014 Season Preview: Toro Rosso - Hard to read

Toro Rosso has never been any ordinary F1 team. Aside from the bit we all know - that it's the Red Bull B squad - or perhaps even because of it in part, it's always been one hard to read. And for a few reasons at the outset of the 2014 campaign the Faenza squad seems a bit harder to read even than usual.

Photo: Octane Photography
Part of the confusion arises possibly from that Toro Rosso still seems a team in transition, of becoming one with its own aero programme rather than one, as it did up to and including 2008, that benefits from Red Bull big team hand-me-downs. The transition hasn't been a quick or easy one, indeed Giorgio Ascanelli - leading an aero programme not reckoned to be his forte - fell on his sword in 2012 and was replaced as Technical Director by the highly rated James Key. And Key appears still to be seeking to make sense of it all: beefing up the technical staff, overseeing investment in the facilities as well as doing his best to integrate the team's two bases in Bicester and Faenza. But by admission last year was a holding season while all of this was going on. The team did rise a place in the constructors' table, but that in truth owed mainly to Williams' woes - Toro Rosso didn't in the broadest sense move forward to any great extent. Adding to the confusion the 2013 car seemed an inconsistent one: sometimes qualifying well inside the top 10, other times struggling to scrape out of Q1.

And as we stand now the confusion has been cranked up further, by the STR9 being one of those 2014 cars suffering a difficult birth due to the struggling Renault power unit. When Toro Rosso switched from Ferrari to Renault for this year it seemed non-contentious; indeed it seemed sensible given it would allow greater scope for the A team and B team to cross-fertilise, to develop in unison. But in the immediate term at least Toro Rosso must look on the decision ruefully, with the car behind where it wants to be, mainly down to a lack of running, particularly early in pre-season testing, which is related to difficulties with the power unit. In Jerez, as was the way for all Renault powered cars (that had deigned to turn up), it could barely complete a lap without succumbing to apparent overheating. Plus Toro Rosso had the peculiar problem that the car sounded rather odd when circulating on track, rather like a bag of bits being shaken around the place.

Things improved as testing went on. After the first two tests - one in Jerez and one in Bahrain - the team seemed well in the doldrums and was stopping only a syllable short in its press releases of saying it was all dastardly Renault's fault. But in the final four days in Bahrain the car achieved much more distance than in the previous eight with 271 laps. But even here it's hard to judge how well the team was doing accounting for the Renault restraints, as it has more kilometres on the clock overall than its sister Red Bull or Lotus, but fewer than the similarly-powered Caterham. The chassis has been hard to read too. It looks neat (aside from an awful nose that even raised some mirth from Ann Summers' Twitter feed), with the odd example of innovative thinking on show such as still seeking to get aerodynamic effect from the exhaust. But until the engine's at full chat and at the full extent of its torque it's impossible to know for certain how it will behave.

But Jean-Eric Vergne had good words to say about the STR9 at the end of testing: saying that he 'had a really good feeling from the car', and the team was at least bringing upgrades as pre-season went on: most notably a new (if still unsightly) nose as well as revised suspension. But the lap times themselves still appeared underwhelming on the face of it, around the mid-grid sort of level. A few reckon nevertheless that come Melbourne it'll be the quickest of the Red Bull pair of teams, which will be a feather in the cap. It won't stay that way however, given the A team's mammoth budget and development potential. More broadly Toro Rosso, whatever it's been doing right, is in the same position as the other Renault teams of waiting and hoping for the power unit problems to be sorted. And also hope that by the time it happens that its rival teams aren't out of sight in the points table.

Jean-Eric Vergne - Car #25
Photo: Octane Photography
Jean-Eric Vergne was at Toro Rosso as an audition for a Red Bull vacancy. It came along last year, and he goofed it, losing out to his team mate Daniel Ricciardo. So, that's pretty much that for him? Well, not necessarily.

The Red Bull collective continues to rate Vergne highly, and the fact that he's been retained at Toro Rosso for this year demonstrates as much (we know that this particular young drivers' programme feels no obligation to hang onto drivers - at Toro Rosso or anywhere else - for longer than strictly necessary). Indeed, for the most part it has considered Vergne to have the more potential than his contemporary Ricciardo.

So, what went wrong for Vergne? Broadly speaking, it fell into two categories. A big problem for him, both in absolute terms and relative to his team mate and promotion rival Ricciardo, was that the knack of qualifying in the dry continued to elude him last season. He didn't chuck the thing off on a Saturday with the regularity that he did in 2012 (though he did run off the track on his big quali efforts in Silverstone and Monza), but it remained the case that he was habitually clear tenths, and places, down on his stable mate. And these tended to spoil his weekends, resulting in races that appeared mediocre to the outsider due to being mired in traffic for the most part. He did tend to move forward on a Sunday, while Ricciardo moved back towards him in turn, but his qualifying yips ensured that the damage was done.

Yet possibly his other problem was even bigger: that in the rounds from Silverstone onwards last campaign when everyone knew as a fact that an A team seat was available while Ricciardo reached for the stars and got noticed, Vergne seemed to regress at the vital moment  Many concluded that he didn't respond well to a pressure situation - either of a qualifying lap or seizing the opportunity of the vacated Red Bull drive when it finally materialised. Hardly what will convince a top-level team to take a punt on you.

Nevertheless Vergne's best performances and results at Monaco and Canada last year showed that with a good starting slot he could be excellent - all pace and crisp passing. But it wasn't coincidence that both of the cases mentioned had wet qualifying sessions, when Vergne's ability to improvise with the grip below him uncertain serves him well (in a similar vein, he's often relatively quick early in Friday practice when the track is green).

But Vergne recognises the problem, and has spoken impressively this year of changing his environment and improving his mental approach, to achieve a mindset akin to those of his F3 and Formula Renault 3.5 years when he had much success. And if this can unlock his potential at vital moments with regularity then you would have thought it will ensure his F1 future. Possibly not at Red Bull, but somewhere.

Daniil Kvyat - Car #26
Photo: Octane Photography
It's fair to say that the selection of 19 year old Russian Daniil Kvyat for the 2014 Toro Rosso race drive was not widely foreseen. Antonio Felix da Costa as far as most looking in from out of the camp were concerned was a shoo-in for the drive, and had been so for a while. Some got cynical too, stating that Kvyat's accession was all about money: there's a Russian Grand Prix now after all, and someone worked out that in that vast country the soft drinks market was worth $14.5 billion in 2011. But just as with the selection of Daniel Ricciardo - not Kimi Raikkonen - to fill the empty chair in the big team, despite cynicism there is evidence beneath the exterior that this selection of Kvyat was in fact made for all of the right reasons.

Perhaps it's one of those decisions that - if such a thing is possible - should simultaneously surprise us and not surprise us. Red Bull's not afraid to go against external expectations as intimated. But more specifically the feeling within the Red Bull young drivers' programme is that Kvyat is the most talented of all of them on the way up (including da Costa), with tremendous natural pace allied to other skills, and Red Bull it seems has decided to cut to the chase by throwing him the keys. Red Bull kingmaker Helmut Marko has spoken highly of Kvyat's 'talent, passion and work ethic', Toro Rosso boss Franz Tost has spoken in glowing terms of his brain power and ability to perform under pressure, while Kvyat's technical feedback given in the Silverstone young drivers' test for Toro Rosso in July (depsite binning it) apparently also seriously impressed. As for the risk of a young man such as him evaporating under the sheer glare of being a F1 pilot, Marko has also noted that Kvyat's mental strength was a key reason for his being selected. His positive and constructive reaction to difficulties sets him apart, including from da Costa. Out of the car Kvyat appears articulate and mature; respectful but not overawed.

Kvyat benefited from timing too: at decision time he was in the midst of a rocket-like rise up the GP3 order, which shortly afterwards was rewarded with the championship, something he achieved despite having to juggle his efforts with F3 outings. He also impressed those important to be impressed in these F3 appearances too, particularly on his debut in the category when he stuck his car on pole at Hockenheim after only a shakedown test, and this further was just the first of a series of pole positions. Add in the fact that the heir apparent da Costa had a disappointing and patchy year in Formula Renault 3.5, and the decision was sealed.

And since getting the gig he's done nothing to suggest that he's not worthy of the step up. He's had two FP1 outings in a Toro Rosso late last season: in Austin he set a best mark just two tenths shy of Ricciardo's, while in Interlagos he circulated confidently and quickly in foul conditions. As for the matter of the 19 year old Kvyat being too young and raw to take full advantage of this opportunity? Well, starting out at his age is nothing new, and some of the parallels aren't bad for Kvyat: he in fact is older than Fernando Alonso was when he made his F1 race bow, as well as in Melbourne will be a matter of days younger than Vettel was when he made his own debut. There are plenty of earlier examples of F1 drivers with worthy careers at the top starting out at this point or sooner in terms of age and experience.

Of course, Kvyat must perform and quickly, as he's part of a young drivers' programme not know for its patience. But in the here and now there's next to nothing to suggest that he won't.

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