Day Four: Toro Rosso

On the fourth day of Christmas, Ben Sweeney gave to me…. Toro Rosso

Drivers: Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne
Championship Standing: 7th
Highest Finish: 6th (Ricciardo, Canada)

Keeping Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne made Toro Rosso one of only three teams to keep their 2012 driver line up. However, the consistent driver pairing did nothing to help bump them up the grid and at the opening round in Australia, the duo qualified thirteenth and fourteenth. Race day saw Vergne move one up the order to twelfth while Ricciardo retired from his home Grand Prix with an exhaust failure. In Malaysia, Toro Rosso had a quiet weekend with 13th for Ricciardo and 17th for Vergne on the Sunday while sister-team Red Bull were engulfed in the Multi-21 controversy. The controversy led to a public breakdown of the already tense relationship between Mark Webber and Seabstian Vettel which set the rumour mill into action as to which of the Toro Rosso drivers could step in to replace a dissatisfied Mark if he decided to leave the team.

Almost in reaction to the rumours, Ricciardo recorded his career best result of 8th while Vergne was making no friends at Red Bull when he clashed with Mark Webber in the run into four en route to finishing twelfth. At the next round in Bahrain, Vergne fell victim to the Pirelli delaminations and dropped out in the early stages of the race with the subsequent damage to the car. Ricciardo was the last man on the grid to be lapped by race winner Vettel, finishing a lap down in sixteenth. Spain was yet another poor race for Vergne as, for the third consecutive race, he was the innocent victim. Firstly, Sauber unsafely released Hulkenberg who hit Vergne in the pitlane. Then, Vergne suffered yet another rear-tyre delamination and once again dropped from the race due to the damage suffered to the car. Ricciardo finished tenth to take the last point on offer.

It was role reversal for the team in Monaco when Vergne scored his first points of the season and Ricciardo became the innocent victim. In the later stages of the race, some feisty drivers discovered that the run into the Nouvelle chicane was a possible overtaking spot, providing you had the balls to be late on the brakes and hoped the other driver yielded. Lotus’ Romain Grosjean was one of these drivers and he got it wrong, flying straight into the back of Ricciardo and mounting the STR7′s rear wing, resulting in Ricciardo’s immediate retirement. Vergne was once again in the points in Canada with a very impressive sixth place, to secure his best result to date while Ricciardo in the other car finished the race in a lowly fifteenth.

When the news broke on the Thursday before the British Grand Prix that Mark Webber was retiring from F1 at the end of the season, a powerful spotlight was thrust onto the Toro Rosso duo as the role of the team is to prepare drivers for an eventual move to the sister team, if they meet standards. Webber’s countryman, Ricciardo, answered the calling and qualified in a hugely impressive 5th as opposed to Vergne who qualified 12th. Then in the race, bad luck struck Vergne who for the umpteenth time was the innocent victim. He suffered yet another disastrous Pirelli tyre explosion late in the race while fending off the Lotus duo of Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean. It was the worst possible time for a retirement as the media’s attention moved to Ricciardo in the running to replace Webber, finishing eighth in Silverstone.

Unbelievably, Vergne suffered yet another blameless retirement when his hydraulics failed in the early stages of the race. Ricciardo went on to twelfth. Although not in the points, it was better than a retirement while battling for a place in Red Bull. Arriving in Hungary, Vergne had essentially been ruled out of replacing Webber by Red Bull team-principal Christian Horner who claimed Vergne wasn’t up to standard, although Toro Rosso team-principal Franz Tost stepped in to defend Jean-Eric and say he would be. Nevertheless the pressure was off for Vergne, although the comments would still be very dis-heartening. He finished the Hungarian race in twelfth ahead of Ricciardo who crossed the line in thirteenth.

Coming back from the summer break, Ricciardo was still in the hunt for the vacant Red Bull seat, and eager to please. His qualifying position of nineteenth in a rain affected session was far from impressive, but his fight to tenth on Sunday rectified the situation. His promotion to Red Bull was announced in the days following the Belgian Grand Prix. Meanwhile, Vergne qualified eighteenth and progressed to twelfth during the race.

Both drivers qualified in the top ten (Ricciardo seventh, Vergne tenth) at Monza, but while Ricciardo fought off Grosjean for seventh in the race, Vergne suffered a transmission failure and dropped from the race. Ricciardo qualified in the top ten again in Singapore (ninth to be precise) while Vergne took twelfth. There were no points to score on Sunday, however, as Ricciardo crashed into the barriers under the grandstand while Vergne dropped to fourteenth.

Both men failed to reach the chequered flag in Korea two weeks later due to a brakes issue which saw them pulling into the pits on lap 52 of 55, but as they had completed over 90% of the race distance they were classified as eighteenth and nineteenth. Vergne and Ricciardo finished twelfth and thirteenth respectively in Suzuka, both a lap down on race winner Sebastian Vettel.

It was a relatively poor race for the team in Abu Dhabi when Ricciardo finished sixteenth and Vergne finished seventeenth. In the later stages of the race, Vergne was battling Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso for position out of the pitlane. Vergne took the racing line while Alonso went for a rapidly closing gap, forcing the Spaniard over the track bordering kerbs. The double World Champion eventually took the place, but in doing so pulled a huge 25Gs which caused him to be hospitalised for precautionary tests post-race.

In Austin Ricciardo narrowly missed out on tenth place when battling Jenson Button, while Vergne was handed a twenty-second post-race penalty for crashing with Sauber’s Esteban Gutierrez on the final lap, giving the Frenchman a final finishing position of sixteenth. He finished one better in Brazil when he finished fifteenth ahead of Maldonado, while Ricciardo took the last points finish on offer, crossing the line and closing his Toro Rosso career with tenth.

Although Ricciardo is the driver praised by Red Bull, Vergne has not been given the chance to show his full potential this year. He suffered four blameless retirements in the first nine races, while finishing in the points in three of the five races he finished. Regardless of his bad luck he has been ruled out of contention for the Red Bull while Ricciardo was signed to the sister team. Daniil Kvyat’s appointment as his replacement in STR was met with considerably mixed reaction with critics claiming that GP3 to F1 with relatively little experience in an F1 car was too much of a jump to make. Either way, Toro Rosso may be looking to Antonio Felix da Costa or Carlos Sainz Jr. to take over from the young Russian should things not go his way.

Photo courtesy Toro Rosso.

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