Season Preview 2012: All change at STR

By on Monday, February 13, 2012

Out with the old and in with the new. Toro Rosso has a fresh line-up for 2012.

Daniel Ricciardo moves up from HRT

When Red Bull dispensed with the services of Jaime Alguersuari and Sebastien Buemi in December, they clearly signalled that neither was good enough to drive for a world championship winning team. Sebastian Vettel has set the bar astonishingly high at Red Bull and there are those that believe Red Bull are unlikely to find a driver of such calibre in the current generation. Yet while there were strong performances on occasion, in particular from Jaime Alguersuari, many inside felt underwhelmed by what their young duo were delivering. They could never unlock the potential on the soft tyres, said senior figures inside the team.

But that remains a footnote now in the history of STR, a team that is starting to forge their own identity after twenty years of competing as Minardi until Red Bull bought the Faenza-based squad in 2005. Last year was the first time the team built their own car from scratch, thanks to the team being legally unable to use Red Bull materials and they didn’t do a bad job. Winter testing is always a phoney war and every year teams talk about finishing a position higher than the previous season, inevitable leaving some teams disappointed. There was dissatisfaction at not achieving 7th place in 2011 – despite improving on 9th in 2010 - which inevitably means that such a position is a target. But how realistic will this target be, with the anticipated revival of Williams and the emergence of Caterham, not to mention the inexperience of Daniel Ricciardo and Jean Eric Vergne?

Ricciardo or Vergne may well partner the world champion in the future

But let’s not get stuck into a whirlwind of negativity, as Toro Rosso will almost certainly be competitive in an increasingly congested midfield where finishing between 7th and 10th in the championship may well be decided by a handful of points.

One key asset Toro Rosso has is technical director Giorgio Ascanelli. He has been around the block for a few decades and he knows what he’s doing. Using Ferrari engines, gearboxes and KERS provides the team with useful stability in the technical department. Towards the end of 2011, STR topped the straight line speed traps at several of the races and this will be an area in which the team will look to maintain.

However, it is on the driver front where the interest is greatest as the Ricciardo-Vergne contest is highly anticipated. Many believe whoever wins will be promoted to drive alongside Sebastian Vettel in 2013, although this may be somewhat premature. Looking ahead to the new regulations in 2014 seems like a more likely time for the shuffling to take place. Initially though, there are indications of favouritism. It’s never been explicitly said within Red Bull, but their eagerness to promote Vergne to F1 demonstrates that he is the ‘Chosen One’. The initial plan was said to be a line-up of Alguersuari and Vergne, with Ricciardo placed at Caterham. When the latter didn’t work out, it was Alguersuari who was dropped, rather than the team holding back on Vergne’s progress.

Is Vergne the next big thing, or the latest Red Bull disappointment?

Vergne was never expected to be in a Formula One seat at the start of 2012, but his rapid progress throughout 2011 left Red Bull with a problem. As finishing a very close runner-up to Robert Wickens in FR3.5, Vergne had proved that he was deserving of a seat. As was Ricciardo, who had served his apprenticeship with HRT after Toro Rosso was unable to dump either of Buemi or Alguersuari when the latter’s performances picked up mid-2011.

But now STR has Ricciardo and Vergne onboard, with both knowing that they have 2012, and perhaps 2013, to prove themselves. Helmut Marko was typically blunt in his analysis of the previous drivers in that they ‘weren’t winners’. Vergne agrees with Marko’s statement that you need to prove you deserve to be one of just twenty-four drivers selected to race in 2012. The current duo may only be 22 and 21 respectively, but age isn’t an issue to the Red Bull system. Vergne has also already started the mind games in saying that Ricciardo – who has started eleven races – should hold the advantage in the dawn of the season. It’s a mouth-watering battle, even if it is likely to take place just outside of the top ten.

A good season for the team would be finishing 7th and that means overhauling Sauber. The Swiss team has lost its technical director and notoriously struggle at development due to their comparatively small workforce. With a strong end to 2011, Toro Rosso has a good basis in the direction they should take the STR7. Getting Ricciardo and Vergne up to speed will be crucial, particularly in their understanding of the Pirelli tyres – something which eluded Alguersuari in the opening stint of 2011. For the drivers, it is about establishing themselves as a Formula One driver, proving that they have what it takes to line up alongside Vettel in the future and they have potentially just a season to do so.

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