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David Coulthard to retire from F1

British Red Bull driver David Coulthard has announced he will retire from Formula One racing at the end of the season.

The 37-year-old Scot, who is currently 12th in the Drivers’ Championship with six points, told of his decision ahead of this weekend’s British Grand Prix at Silverstone, which will be his 237th start.

Coulthard made his debut with the Williams team in 1994 before joining McLaren two years later. He remained with them for nine years before switching to Red Bull in 2005.

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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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The Red Bull Charge

Perhaps the biggest surprise in Bahrain was David Coulthard’s drive through the field to seventh before having to retire the car. Add to that Mark Webber’s unexpectedly high qualifying positions in the Red Bull RB3 so far and one begins to suspect that Adrian Newey’s design is a lot better than it looked in pre-season testing.

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David Coulthard in the office

At this moment, the Red Bull are the most interesting of all the teams. We are becoming used to Ferrari and McLaren being at the front with BMW just behind them, but Red Bull are currently the most likely to emerge from the tussle behind the leaders and become a front-running outfit. The car gets better all the time and the team’s intention is to solve their niggling reliability problems during the break before Barcelona. If they can do that, they could be amongst the top teams for the rest of the season.

Now Red Bull’s oft-criticized choice of drivers does not look at all bad. Webber is wringing the utmost from the car in qualifying and is always good in the race; Coulthard is playing his usual game of disaster in qualifying but magnificent performances from the back of the grid. Don’t write off the old guys just yet!

The big question mark remains on reliability – but, if you’re going to have a weakness, this is more desirable than the mystifying handling difficulties being experienced by Honda. At least if something breaks, you can tell immediately what it is and find a fix before the next race; Honda, however, can only try a range of solutions to see what works and what doesn’t. Consider how worried BMW were about their gearbox failures in testing and how they have managed to find a solution.

So I see Red Bull becoming the fourth contender for podiums by mid-season. And, if that turns out to be true, we may have to watch Toro Rosso as well. Whatever excuses are given, the fact remains that their car is an RB3 clone and it has the same potential therefore. Should the team share in the knowledge gained by their parent team, the TRs too could become a whole lot more competitive, perhaps even running with Webber and Coulthard.

Which could be a lot of fun, too, considering the drivers involved; one team of experienced veterans and the other composed of young bloods eager to prove their worth. None of them will be champion this year, but they might score enough points to have some influence on the championship race. Considering how close that race is at the moment, a few points lost here and there to drivers coming through from the midfield could easily be the deciding factor in where the championship ends up.

Yes, I hope Red Bull solve their reliability problem – that would be one more factor to take into account in the resolution of this brilliant season.

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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.

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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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