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The Character of Toro Rosso

Toro Rosso is a team with a lot going for it. For a start, it is all that remains of the Minardi saga, in spite of its rather silly name. And it is run by one of F1′s most mischievous characters, Gerhard Berger. Add to that the fact that it is the only team to have an American driver in its line-up and I have to keep an eye on it.

Scott

Scott Speed

Anyone with a smattering of a Latin language knows that Toro Rosso is Italian for Red Bull; it’s a pity that the company boss, Dietrich Mateschitz, felt it was so important to rename the team for the corporation even though there was so much goodwill attached to the Minardi name. As a result, the team has to build a completely new image of its own without the lingering aura that surrounded Minardi.

But it is happening. Thanks largely to Berger’s love of fun, Toro Rosso begins to emerge as the “bad boy” in the paddock, the team that bucks authority and goes its own way. The irreverent nature of its press releases may be a bit cheesy but at least they’re different from the usual bland, careful statements.

It remains hard to see the team as separate from the Red Bull giant, however, and their use of an obvious copy of the parent company’s RB3 chassis confirms that impression. Although they lag behind Red Bull in development of the car, it is quite likely that they will benefit from the gains made in that camp and will become ever more competitive as the season progresses. The alternative would be to develop independently and find their own tweaks to what is beginning to look a very sound design. That is their best hope of catching and overtaking the parent company, although it also carries the risk of failure and a season spent at the back of the grid with Spyker and Super Aguri.

It remains to be seen which route they will choose. And we also await a verdict on the abilities of the Toro Rosso drivers. Last season was inconclusive, with Liuzzi doing better than Speed in the early season but generally overshadowed by him later on. And so far this year that has continued, with first one then the other getting the upper hand. It is very hard to rate them without a driver of known quality to compare them with.

For some reason that I do not understand, Liuzzi is highly regarded in F1 circles – perhaps because of his performances in the lower formulae. Yet, if we look at the cold statistics, Speed has performed at least as well as Vitantonio and should be accorded the same respect. I suspect that the reason he is not rated is a matter of personality, rather than talent. Scott’s pre-F1 record is impressive too but his character is seemingly laid back, informal and altogether too “nice”.

One would think that Berger, of all people, would understand that an irreverent attitude is no bar to driving talent, seeing that he was renowned for practical jokes when paired with Ayrton Senna, but apparently our Austrian hero wants others to be more serious than himself. There is a vast ambition in Berger that shows itself in his goals for Toro Rosso and I think it is this that led him to string Speed along during the off season – he wants to see the same drive in the American.

I would suggest that Scott Speed has already demonstrated a hidden and understated drive that is exactly what Berger is looking for. This is the same man who raced while suffering from a debilitating disease and conquered it. The light-hearted, nice guy persona is cover, that’s all.

All this will be irrelevant if Toro Rosso cannot develop their equipment, however. They lack the depth of experience that other teams have and so must work that much harder to bring their car to its full potential. Many doubt that they can do it but I think the spirit of Minardi hovers over the team and will ensure that they get down to business and produce the goods in the end.

Yeah, it’s true, I like ‘em and forgive their weaknesses as a result. But at least they have some character…

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A Thought or Two on Speed

With the off season nearly at an end, it is time to step back and make our predictions based on the testing we have all been following so avidly. Or so it seems, judging by the number of experts pronouncing the obvious.

Of course Ferrari look the team to beat and McLaren and Renault are their nearest competitors – anyone could work that out after a quick look at the timesheets from the various testing venues used. And it is hardly controversial to suggest that Massa will be faster than his teammate in 2007 – again, that is pretty clear from testing.

Speed

Speed – ambiguity intended

It is so easy to forget that this is just testing and that the truth will only emerge once the season gets underway. Many a team has been embarrassed by their race performance after having a brilliant winter and others come good after a race or two. That’s what makes for a great season, after all – the unpredictability of racing.

That is what I keep telling myself, anyway. F1 could really use a closely-fought championship with several drivers and cars battling for honors – so I hope that all the indicators are wrong and Ferrari will not have the enormous advantage in the races that is so obvious in testing.

But allow me to point at one last interesting fact from the final day of testing in Bahrain: Scott Speed’s 8th fastest time in the Toro Rosso. Not only was he quicker than the Red Bull duo (which must be incredibly frustrating for them) but he has also given an answer to Gerhard Berger’s doubts about his commitment. I stand by what I have said about Speed in the past – our resident American is much better than anyone gives him credit for.

But it also vindicates the psychological skills of that man, Berger…

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Gerhard Berger Tries Psychology

Apparently, Sebastien Bourdais is to be given another drive in the Toro Rosso while the contracted drivers, Liuzzi and Speed, are still waiting for confirmation of their seats this year. In an interview with Auto Motor und Sport magazine, Berger has been critical of his drivers’ performances in 2006, so it seems that I was wrong about the delay originating with Red Bull owner, Dietrich Mateschitz. My apologies to him, of course.

Gerhard

Gerhard plots his next move

But what is Gerhard up to? If he is genuinely dissatisfied with his drivers, it seems a bit late to be still dithering. There are no obvious winners left on the market and Bourdais is certainly not available for this season. Montoya has admitted that he did receive an offer from Toro Rosso and that it gave him a good laugh, the rumors of Mika Hakkinen returning to F1 in a TR have been firmly squelched, so who else is a possible? Robert Doornbos? That would be taking more of a chance than keeping Liuzzi and Speed.

This indecision seems so unlike Berger until you remember the tales of his practical jokes on Ayrton Senna. When dealing with Gerhard, things are not necessarily what they appear to be on the surface. And I think the wily Austrian is using a bit of psychology to motivate his drivers (Sigmund Freud was an Austrian, remember).

It is just not true that Liuzzi and Speed did not perform well last year. At almost every GP we were told that the TR’s V10 would not be able to compete with the V8s, only to see the cars perform far better than expected, especially through the speed traps. Liuzzi was rated highly enough for Red Bull to want him as a driver until Mark Webber came up for grabs and, as pointed out in my post, An American in F1 – Scott Speed, Scott was looking the better of the two towards the end of the season.

Gerhard knows better than anyone else how good his drivers are – he would not have fought so hard to keep Liuzzi from the clutches of Red Bull were it not so. This feigned dissatisfaction is a Berger ploy to get his drivers fired up for the coming races, to light a bomb under them, in fact.

And it will probably work. Both Liuzzi and Speed are no doubt well aware of what Berger is up to but they will still want to prove themselves to the world. When the lights go out for the start of the first race, I think Toro Rosso will have two drivers who are absolutely determined to show their boss that he was completely wrong about them – that they are instead the quickest drivers to be seen in F1 in a long time.

He’s a wily old bird, that Gerhard Berger.

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Predictions for 2007

Over at From the Kerbside, Rob Jones has posted regarding Flavio Briatore’s recent outburst against McLaren and Ferrari. The point is really that nobody knows how things will pan out this coming season so it’s all hot air from the team managers as they attempt to out-psyche the competition.

If it’s anyone’s guess what will happen, I might as well chime in with my own predictions, knowing full well that F1 is the sport that turns crystal balls into plain old glass globes. I have already said that Button will be champion (hope springs eternal) but I’ll add to that by suggesting that Honda will not win the constructor’s title. That will go to McLaren.

Jenson

Jenson Button

So, team by team, here is what will (or might) happen:

Renault: Fisichella surprises everyone by winning a couple of races in the early season but the challenge fades as time wears on. Kovalainen has flashes of great promise but something always goes wrong. The team end the season by fighting with Ferrari for third place.

Ferrari: Raikkonen and Massa push each other off in the first race and everything becomes very strained in the camp thereafter. Kimi wins a couple but so does Massa and the Raikkonen luck remains, the Finn picking up whatever Ferrari retirements are going. By mid-season the team is in disarray and Brawn is recalled to restore order. The resultant improvement is all that keeps them level with Renault. Raikkonen signs for Williams in 2008.

McLaren: They start slowly but get better and better so that Alonso becomes locked in battle with Button in the last few races. Hamilton also improves steadily and ensures that they win the constructor’s championship. Rumors of a Mercedes buy-out become stronger as the season progresses.

Honda: Begin where they left off, just a little behind the leaders. But the car improves steadily and they find a few tweaks that enable Button to hit the front and win a few races mid-season. By the end, Jenson has a narrow lead over Alonso and just pips him for the championship by two points. Barrichello says the car doesn’t suit his driving style.

BMW Sauber: Are in shock after Kubica wins the first race. Convinced they must be doing something wrong to have messed up their schedule so badly, they try out a host of tweaks to the car that only make it less competitive and they finish the season with one win and a few podiums, exactly where they expected to be. Theissen says they are aiming for two wins in 2008.

Toyota: Promise much but fail to deliver. Ralf and Trulli share out the few podiums going but the team is embarrassed by Williams beating them in most of the races. At the end of the year Toyota buys Williams and merges the two teams.

Red Bull: The RB3 chassis turns out to be very good but there are problems getting the Renault engine to reach its potential. Too often the cars retire and Coulthard and Webber finish the season mid-field, frustrated and insisting that 2008 will be better.

Williams: Improve steadily throughout the season so that, by the halfway point, they are beating the Toyotas consistently. Rosberg is mounting a challenge for the title by then but a bout of mysterious engine failures ruins his final races.

Toro Rosso: Running what is effectively an RB3 chassis, TR have no problems mating it with the Ferrari engine and are strong second-rank contenders from the start. The season develops into a battle between the TR drivers and Red Bull and Mateschitz sells the team to Prodrive for 2008. Gerhard Berger has a drive in a McLaren in the off season.

Spyker: Steady improvement throughout the season. Sutil turns out to be something of a find and he earns the team’s first podium in the last race.

Super Aguri: Have a disappointing year considering they are running a car that looks very much like a Honda. Sato is quick at times but Davidson is more consistent and earns the team’s solitary point.

Well, it could happen…

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