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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.

DC

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 Few Malaysian Points

Apart from the first lap, there was not a great deal of overtaking in this Grand Prix. And yet it was very interesting. Perhaps most importantly, it illustrated that McLaren have closed the gap to Ferrari. Even had the McLarens not got the jump on Massa and Raikkonen at the start, they clearly were as quick and would not have been left behind if the Ferraris had grabbed the lead. When the Italian cars had nothing in front of them, they went no faster than they had been going behind Alonso and Hamilton.

Alonso

Alonso’s race

Naturally, Jean Todt denied that this had anything to do with the tightening of the test for flexible floors, that it was merely that McLaren had found more improvements since Melbourne than Ferrari had, but I think there is more to it than that. The BMWs were able to run at Ferrari pace, as shown by Heidfeld keeping Massa at bay, and there was a string of cars just behind this pair; did everyone improve more than Ferrari?

Some of the loss of Ferrari’s advantage can be explained by Kimi’s reliability worries. He was obviously content to hold station rather than risk the engine and would have been better advised to take the penalty and show us the true pace of the Ferrari with a fresh engine, I think. In spite of his determination to pamper the engine for points rather than a win, he was able to stay with the McLarens; with a new engine, he could have bullied his way through to fight for the lead.

The Finn’s face in the post race press conference spoke volumes – he is with Ferrari to win the championship and, if that means sometimes he has to go a little slower and let Massa have the glory, he is prepared to do it. And the glow around Felipe is beginning to fade; this was a race that he expected to win but threw away in frustration when he lost his lead at the first corner. It is Raikkonen, not Massa, that Alonso will have to fight for his third championship in a row.

A little further back, Williams entertained us with a great drive from Rosberg that deserved better than retirement and a charge through the field from Wurz. Hopefully, the car will get even better and we can enjoy the sight of a Williams battling for the lead again.

The performance of the Renaults and Hondas was interesting, both racing much better than they qualified. This would indicate that their main problem is in adjusting to the Bridgestones, rather than fundamental flaws in the design of the cars. If they can get on top of the tire problem, they will leapfrog into the top ten, I think.

And give Fisichella his due: he is doing a far better job than his much-hyped Finnish teammate, driving the car as fast as it will go without drama and taking the points on offer.

Toyota performed their usual disappearing act, Trulli circulating anonymously in the final points positions while Ralf managed to find his way back to keep the tailenders company. If anyone drives like Fisichella’s reputation, it is the Toyota team!

Note that Super Aguri were not so impressive in Malaysia – they have slipped a little and now run with their natural competitors, the Toro Rossos. This is a trend that is likely to continue, since their car becomes ever more out of date as others develop their later designs and get them to work with the tires. Expect Toro Rosso to get better and better, however, as Red Bull get the RB3 sorted out and drop a few hints to their second team.

Finally, I have to say it: Scott Speed finished well ahead of Liuzzi. Yes, tell me that Vitantonio had a little argument with Sato that spoiled his race – the point is, Scott didn’t. He ran consistently with a gaggle of allegedly better cars throughout the race and brought it home in the end. Staying out of trouble is part of racecraft too, Gerhard…

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Spyker Pays the Piper

I see that Spyker’s protest against the legality of the Toro Rosso cost the team $2,000. That seems a bit steep for saying, “Oi, we don’t think that’s legal!” and makes me wonder about the wisdom of Spyker making a fuss about the Toro Rosso and Super Aguri cars at all. No wonder Williams is sitting quietly at the moment, allowing Spyker to shoulder the burden of the costs involved.

Spyker

Once they get to arbitration, the price to be paid will increase dramatically, of course – lawyers don’t come cheap these days. And what will Spyker gain, even if they win the case? TR and SA would have to stop using their 2007 models and that could easily mean they have to drop out of racing, at least for a time. Which would leave Spyker still at the back of the grid but with a bigger gap to bridge to the teams above them – at least TR are within reach at the moment.

It seems to me that Spyker would be wiser to spend the money on development rather than legal fees. Neither SA nor TR are going to get anywhere near the Constructor’s Championship this year, so it seems pointless to mutter about it being for constructors only. Customer cars will be legal next year anyway and any victories in court achieved this season will become meaningless. By then, Colin Kolles might well wish he had the money rather than a judgment in his pocket.

Okay, you can say it’s a matter of principle – TR and SA are probably breaking the terms of the Concorde Agreement for 2007. But the FIA aren’t interested, understandably since they ignore the agreement anytime they want to, and the other teams are only prepared to shake their heads and give Spyker moral support. The principle could cost Spyker a lot of money and distracts them from the main task, which is getting their car competitive with the others. Consider how much good it did Shadow in winning their case against Arrows in 1978; by the time the judgment came through, Arrows had another design ready and Shadow had dropped to the tail end of the field.

Maybe I’m missing something, but it seems to me that Spyker have nothing to gain and a lot to lose in this whole business. Ultimately, their aim has to be to build a car that can beat all comers, so what does it matter if TR and SA have stolen a temporary advantage by bending the rules? In the long run they will have to compete with the likes of Ferrari and McLaren if they don’t want to remain as perennial also-rans. And a season or two at the back of the grid is part of the apprenticeship that has to be served if they are going to learn enough to move upwards.

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