Saturday, March 17, 2018

Engine Blood Ranks The 2018 Contenders: 4. Red Bull Babies

HISTORY: Would you believe these guys used to be Minardi, the plucky underdogs of F1, kept alive long past the toll of their bell by Australian money-pit Paul Stoddart and, rumour has it, some hush-hush payments from Bernie Ecclestone, desperate to keep at least 20 cars on the grid in the wake of Prost and Arrows' collapses.

Bought out by Red Bull and used as a young driver feeder team, plus the recipients of their cast-off engine contracts, their highlight came when Sebastian Vettel took the team's first and only win, and was promptly snapped up by Red Bull to the surprise of absolutely nobody.  A frustrating few years have followed, with their best drivers getting plucked from them on a regular basis (Vettel, Ricciardo, Verstappen, not Sainz who isn't as good as he thinks he is), making consolidation difficult.

An interesting move has occurred, though - Toro Rosso have Honda engines this season, after the Japanese outfit endured three horrendous years with McLaren.  McLaren couldn't wait to get rid of the power units that not even Sauber wanted, but testing has shown promise, and the F1 world awaits this team's next moves with no little anticipation.


From Toro Rosso, accessed via BBC Sport.
We do love how the bright electric blue and the red detailing allows these to be picked out more easily from the Red Bulls, with their admittedly cooler flat matt midnight blue.  Makes a change from seasons past when you couldn't tell them apart.

Not much about it is telling us this is Honda-powered, though.  One wonders whether that will change as time goes on, or whether they're being deliberately kept off the branding in case that engine contract mysteriously gets swapped to Red Bull...


10. Pierre GASLY (FRA)
28. Brendon HARTLEY (NZ)

All change (sort of - see below) for Toro Rosso this year, as they welcome in two guys who had a rocky road to F1 and that we're happy to welcome into the fold - and one of whom might be hitting the big leagues early if Ricciardo goes to Mercedes at the end of the season...

Gasly had the more traditional route, up through the lower formulae, including a single race weekend in Formula E and winning the 2016 GP2 series.  He also came second in the Super Formula championship last year whilst balancing that with being Red Bull's test driver and a few F1 races for Toro Rosso.  We can only hope he evolves into Haunter and then Gengar in short order.  #pokemonfunnies

One would have thought Hartley would have missed out of F1 altogether, as he had been so close previously with no cigar.  A Le Mans winner and two-time World Endurance Champion, which is traditionally what you do AFTER F1, he'd been dropped by Red Bull back in 2010 in favour of Jean-Eric Vergne, who did eventually get a Toro Rosso drive but now dwells in Formula E, where he is winning because of course he would, he's a Formula One driver.

Hartley kept his hand in with simulator runs and young driver tests for Mercedes, and when Gasly had Super Formula commitments on the US Grand Prix weekend last year, Hartley was the surprise call-up.  It's always nice to see a driver take a less traditional route to the big time, so here's hoping he can live up to his early promise.

LAST YEAR: 7th in Constructors' Championship, 53 points.

55. Carlos SAINZ (ESP) - 9th, 54 points, best finish: 4th.
26. Daniil KYVAT (RUS) - 19th, 5 points, best finish: 9th.
10. Pierre GASLY (FRA) - 21st, 0 points, best finish: 12th.
28. Brendon HARTLEY (NZ) - 23rd, 0 points, best finish: 13th.

Apparently Red Bull want to own all the drvers in the world...  EXCEPT Daniil Kyvat.  A Russian Grand Prix demanded a Russian driver, and Kyvat was impressive enough in his first season with Red Bull, beating highly-rated team mate Ricciardo.  A shunty start to his second season and he was replaced with the foetal Max Verstappen, which shows how ridiculously youth-focused this sport is becoming.  We will miss him, even if the team won't.

Sainz then went to Renault after an eye-catching 4th in Singapore, though we're not sure he merits a works drive.  It was something to do with the engine swap with McLaren, which shines a spotlight on the political intrigue going on behind the scenes.  By that time Toro Rosso had been outdeveloped - a common problem for this lot - and Gasly and Hartley had a largely uneventful time waiting for 2018.

PROSPECTS: They're damned if they do and damned if they don't: do well, and the Honda contract goes to Red Bull, leaving Toro Rosso to rebuild around a Renault or Ferrari engine, and quite probably without whichever of their drivers impresses the most.  Don't do well, and they're stuck with a potentially troublesome engine, possibly still playing the driver merry-go-round.  It's fair to say we don't envy their position, but it'll be fascinating to watch.

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