For the team formally known as Minardi, Toro Rosso have now firmly established themselves in Formula One’s lower midfield, seemingly destined to be the step sister who will apparently never go to the ball themselves. As a development/junior team for Red Bull, the team’s purpose has been to do what they can with limited resources whilst giving a platform for Red Bull’s future stars to shine, often in an extremely cutthroat and competitive environment, as many a young driver has found out.
They finished 7th last year, but with 45 points in the first 11 races and just 18 in the final 10, it really was a season of two halves. Of course this wasn’t just due to the team’s shortcomings, as teams such as McLaren improved as you might expect with such resources available, but it must still be frustrating for those in Faenza that the season petered out in such a way.
For 2017 there is renewed optimism with team reverting back to Renault as their engine supplier, the only member of the paddock to have swapped for the coming season. Renault appear to have made good progress in terms of power, which will be music to fans ears, but questions still remain about reliability. Franz Tost is confident however that these issues will be ironed out, and once they are, they’ll be left with an incredibly competitive package that hopefully will allow them to challenge for 5th/6th, which you’d expect to be the team’s aim. Although they face stiff competition from teams perhaps better placed currently.
The driver line ups year on year are also getting consistently stronger, as clearly the prospect of joining an academy for an organisation with two teams in the sport who give exclusive priority to those who have come through the programme must be an extremely attractive prospect to young talented racers. With all due respect to Vitantonio Liuzzi and Scott Speed who were the first incumbents of Toro Rosso’s race seats, seeing the likes of Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen come through in the last few years and progress to the front of the field with Red Bull shows how the programme has evolved into an opportunity for the potentially elite.
The current situation is an odd one though, as it’s the first time a driver has been promoted to the senior team and then relegated back to the junior team. Daniil Kvyat entered the sport at just 19, and on his debut for the team broke Sebastian Vettel’s record as the youngest ever point scorer. After just one year with Italians, Kvyat received his promotion to Red Bull, having shown further glimpses of the talent required to help the team challenge at the front. An impressive first year culminated with one podium, 95 points and a 7th place finish in the championship, 1 place and 3 points ahead of his more experienced teammate Ricciardo. The gamble of promoting a driver with such limited experience appeared to have paid off.
All of this makes his subsequent relegation back to Toro Rosso seem all the more harsh, even by the standards set by Red Bull. After his well driven third in China in 2016, an error strewn home race in Russia resulted in his move back to Toro Rosso, citing a history or mistakes for the move. Few believe it was all that much to do with anything Kvyat had done wrong, more that Red Bull were feeling the pressure to promote Verstappen, who was already showing the potential to interest rivals Mercedes and Ferrari.
What followed was the reaction of a young man who had been publically humiliated, with Kvyat hugely struggling to keep up with new teammate Carlos Sainz back at Toro Rosso. Kvyat looked understandably broken. To show how far he’d fallen, within a year of beating Ricciardo at Red Bull, many considered the Russian lucky to be offered a drive for 2017 at all. If proof were needed for just how ruthless the sport can be, you only have to look at this treatment of a driver who at only 22 is just now the same age Lewis Hamilton was when he made his debut at McLaren.
Regardless of how unfair this situation may appear to be though, in terms of his career, Kvyat needs to turn up this season with renewed fight in his belly. He won’t be afforded a third chance with Red Bull, and rarely does a driver discarded by the programme find employment in a race seat elsewhere. Just ask the likes of Jaime Alguersuari or Jean-Eric Vergne.
Keeping his nose relatively clean during this episode however was Sainz, who responded to being overlooked in favour of Verstappen in a way that would have been extremely pleasing to the Red Bull hierarchy. There was very little to choose between Verstappen and Sainz during their season together, Verstappen edging qualifying 10-9 and races they both finished, 5-4. If Verstappen is a future multiple world champion, then Sainz has already shown potential that he is also capable of hitting the pinnacle of the sport.
Sainz is a real talent, and knows that after last season that he is in pole position should a race seat open up at Red Bull. What will be interesting to see now though is with time to reflect and regain some of confidence lost by his demotion, can Kvyat show the kind of form of 2015 and put pressure back on Sainz and Red Bull? Or will Sainz further cement his place as the next in line for the top drive? If Sainz achieves this but continues to be ignored for Red Bull, there will surely be other suitors for the Spaniard, too.