Scuderia Toro Rosso has featured heavily in the recent headlines for Red Bull’s decision to appoint karting and Formula 3 protégé Max Verstappen into its driver line-up next year, where the Dutchman – aged 17 next year – will become the youngest driver in the sport’s history.
The Faenza team has faced more immediate challenges in 2014, and has suffered this year with next to no pre-season testing that translated into a number of points’ finishes going begging with retirements.
We sat down and spoke at length with the figurehead of the team and discussed – among many topics – the challenge of the current regulations, the controversy over Verstappen’s hiring and the sport’s global reach.
Next year will mark the tenth year for the Scuderia Toro Rosso team since Red Bull’s buyout of Minardi; it will also be thirty years since Minardi made its Grand Prix debut. How has Scuderia Toro Rosso evolved since 2006 in the context of its Minardi ancestry?
Ten years is a long time – Mamma mia, time is running away!
When Dietrich Mateschitz and Red Bull bought the Minardi team, Scuderia Toro Rosso’s philosophy was completely different to what it is today. Toro Rosso was a race team, which had the cars and the parts from Red Bull Technology which we had to prepare and bring to the circuits to race.
That worked fantastically. We had a good 2006 season when we overtook the cars from Red Bull Racing, despite being equipped with an air-restricted V10 engine when the rest of the grid had V8s.
In 2007, we competed with – more or less – the same Red Bull Technology car, but quipped with a different engine [Ferrari] while Red Bull Racing had a Renault engine on Adrian Newey’s recommendations. We wouldn’t win the World Championship because Ferrari didn’t have the best engine.
We took over the Ferrari contract from Red Bull Racing, and had fantastic seasons in 2007 and 2008, which peaked with Sebastian Vettel’s victory at Monza. From then on, our opponents got a bit nervous and so the regulations changed that restricted the number of components which could be purchased, and it forced us to design and produce our cars in-house.
This was a complete change for us, as we didn’t have the infrastructure in place to do this. It also meant a complete change in philosophy for us: no longer could we exist as a core team of Red Bull Technology, we had to change everything and do it all in-house.
This was a big challenge for the complete team and a big step in another direction. We had to build up the infrastructure, from the buildings, offices, departments (aerodynamics and CFD, production, design, machining). Creating and renting extra buildings is one thing, but to build up a team from the personnel side is a much more difficult issue, made harder by our location in Italy.
The most experienced personnel are in the UK, and when you’re trying to relocate them and their families to Italy, one of the first questions you’re asked is about the quality of education [for their children] in the area. So you’re competing with schools in Oxford, where most of the teams are.
Nevertheless, we’ve managed to convince a number experienced people to come and our headcount has grown from about 85 people in 2006 to over 385 today. The team is growing, the infrastructure is being built up and will be finished by the end of 2015. From the personnel side, I’m confident that from 2016 onwards – once we’ve built up our headcount – we’ll have everything in place.
In 2014, you’re keeping Lotus at bay from your seventh place in the Constructors’ Championship standings but there’s a big gap to those ahead in the points’ tally. While there have been some highlights, you’ve described the reliability issues as ‘unacceptable’ in your mid-year review. What steps have been taken to course correct your season?
The difficulties we’ve had in 2014 started in the pre-season testing. If you can’t test and complete a technical program because of reliability issues, then it’s hard to catch up. That is even tougher when your direct opponents – in our case Force India, Williams and McLaren – are equipped with Mercedes engines, which were very reliable and powerful. That meant all the Mercedes teams could do a lot of mileage and were well-prepared for the first races. That was not the case for us or other Renault teams.
And as a smaller team, if you can’t prepare yourself or the drivers for a season, it’s really difficult to succeed during the season and to close the gap to the teams in front of you.
The STR9 is quite a good car, and we’ve had a number of highlights during the season. Don’t forget that Jean-Eric Vergne was holding fifth place very comfortably and well under control at the Monaco Grand Prix until his engine exploded.
We lost a lot of points because of reliability issues, but some of these issues were also from Toro Rosso’s side. For example, in Canada we had a rear suspension failure for Daniil Kvyat, or at Austria where we were also in a good place [both drivers retired]. This is simply a result of not being prepared in the best possible way.
To compensate for the performance deficiencies, we bring in new parts and modifications onto the track without having done seven-post rig tests or other reliability tests, just to gain time. But this exercise doesn’t work in Formula 1, but I’m quite convinced in the future that we will be in a better shape.
“Max will give the answer with results, because this is the best answer you can give. He is an extraordinary talent.”
At the Italian Grand Prix, Daniil Kvyat became the first driver to cop a ten-place grid penalty for exceeding his power unit component allowance and you were quite vocal about the penalty system under the new regulations. What could the FIA do to not penalize the driver for something that’s out of their control?
I’m not criticizing the regulation, as it’s the same for everybody. What should be changed for the future is the double-penalty that can occur, where the balance of the grid penalty is carried over to the following race if you can’t serve the full penalty in one race. It punishes the midfield teams like us, so you have to ask why a driver is being penalized a second time?
We all know about the regulations, so it’s the same for everybody. So you simply have to prepare yourself not to come into such a situation.
You have some changes coming into your driver line-up next year, with Jean-Eric Vergne leaving and Max Verstappen joining. This will give you the youngest ever driving line-up in the sport’s history. How are you responding to and handling the questions that are invariably cropping up about Max’s age and his perceived inexperience?
Max will give the answer with results, because this is the best answer you can give. For now, of course, I will answer the questions and I will always say that I am convinced that he is mature enough to do Formula 1 next year. I’ve known him for a long time; I observed him in karting and I’ve seen every race in this year’s Formula 3 Championship.
If someone wins the European karting championship, the World karting championship, is immediately a frontrunner in testing and then on the podium in Formula 3, and wins eight races against other drivers who have done Formula Renault and are in multiple seasons of Formula 3, that should say it all. He is an extraordinary talent, and I’m really looking forward to this young driver line-up next year.
For the team itself, it’s of course much more work to do. The more experienced a driver is in Formula 1, the less a team has to be involved in their management outside the cockpit.
For a young driver, you need to do more: taking care of the training, their diet, their press and marketing work, traveling to avoid jet lag. I’m convinced that he will deliver a really good performance.
For me, it’s not a question of age. You have fifteen-year-olds racing in Formula Renault, it’s different today. Ten or twenty years back, you could only have a racing license if you had a drivers’ license.
Max is from what I would call the fourth generation of karting. Alain Prost was from the first; he did a little bit. The second generation was the likes of Senna and Schumacher, who did much more karting. The third generation was Alonso, Rosberg, Hamilton and Vettel, who did even more races in karts. The fourth kart generation starts out at the age of six – their schooling happens on the kart track and even their teachers come to the circuit! – and they have done ten or twelve years of racing and have much more experience.
It’s not a question of age, it’s a question of their skills and their abilities.
Looking at the other young drivers on Red Bull’s roster, where does Max’s appointment leave the likes of Carlos Sainz Jr or Pierre Gasly? Where do they go from here, when you have such a talented pool to draw from?
Both of them are talented drivers and it’s ultimately a decision from Red Bull’s side. I can only speak for Toro Rosso – where we will have Daniil and Max next year – but the rest of them, we will have to wait and see.
Jean-Éric Vergne is leaving and since the announcement, you’ve been vocal in praising his abilities. What, in your personal opinion, has he contributed to the team and what are your hopes for him to remain in Formula 1?
I hope that he will stay in Formula 1 because he deserves to drive here. He’s a fast driver, and he’s proven it many times – such as being than Daniel Ricciardo, who is a really good driver. Unfortunately this year, because of the reliability issues, he’s not been able to show his potential. The season is not over yet, so hopefully his bad luck will be compensated – that means he should win a race (laughs), but we will see.
If he doesn’t remain in Formula 1, then I think he would have a big career in America, such as in IndyCars. I’m convinced that he could win immediately if he moved over there, because of his talent, driving abilities and experience.
“The top teams have enough money. Why shouldn’t they spend it? Whoever has the money survives, and whoever doesn’t is dead.”
What are your thoughts on the changes to the pit-to-car communication restrictions that have been announced ahead of this weekend?
To be honest, I was a little bit surprised about this. I think it’s good for the entertainment where TV viewers can hear how complicated everything is for the drivers.
In other kind of sports – football for example – there are always coaches on the sidelines telling their players where they can get an advantage. They’re not telling their players how to play football, and we’re not telling our drivers how to drive the car. No – we’re telling them how to get an advantage over their opponent.
This has been a development of the sport [until the change], but of course we will respect it.
What’s blocking a significant shift in cost control measures? Should the regulations be changed to help the smaller teams remain financially viable?
It’s totally easy: whoever has the money survives, and whoever doesn’t is dead. That’s the way it should be. It’s nothing new.
You can’t save money if you have money. Who does this? The top teams have the money, so why shouldn’t they spend it to find performance? You have to work to get the income through results and sponsorship, and that’s how it is.
We’ve been talking for years on how to cut costs. We could deliver exactly the same show for 60% less of the expenditure – the fans wouldn’t see it – but as long as the money is there, it will be spent.
One of the pressures that teams face with the current and 2015 calendar is that many of the flyaway races are scheduled in a standalone manner, so there’s a cost and personnel impact. Do you perceive next year’s calendar as an attempt by FOM and the FIA to increase the calendar beyond 20 races?
From my side, yes. The year has 52 weeks, and we could do 26 races, no problem. That’s my opinion, but there’s also the team to consider as they would see things differently.
Twenty races is quite a good number, it is just manageable. I’m more than happy that we have all of these overseas races, because the sport’s future rests with these new markets.
The future is with places like China, Russia – although it’s currently a bit difficult over there – India, the Arabian region. The balance which we have now is quite good between the historic circuits, but we also have to go to other regions.
We should have two races in America, another race in South America – like Argentina – and then we should have an additional race in South Africa or elsewhere in Africa, because these are important markets. We are a global player; I don’t know of another sport with this big stage all over the world where we can be present every second weekend over a ten-month period. It’s important to increase the value of Formula 1 and its reach.
Dreaming is allowed, and it costs nothing.
We offer our sincere thanks to Scuderia Toro Rosso for making this interview possible.
Headline image copyright RichardsF1.com. Other images via Red Bull and XPB Images
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