The pinnacle of any sport is an intensely difficult place to be. There is always a mountain of talent desperate to claim your place at the top table. This is as true in Formula One as it is in any other sport. After seven of the 19 Formula One races scheduled for 2011, the Toro Rosso drivers in particular are feeling the pressure.
This is because Red Bull, who own the Toro Rosso team, have plenty of young drivers under their management, and all of them are highly motivated to show they have what it takes to graduate into Formula One.
Red Bull entered Formula One in 2005 with their Red Bull Racing team. For the 2006 season they decided to buy the Minardi Formula One team and rename it Toro Rosso. The aim was to use Toro Rosso as a junior squad which could nurture young drivers, preparing them for the front of the grid with the Red Bull Racing team.
But Red Bull has found that very few of the drivers they place at Toro Rosso are able to prove they have what it takes to progress up the grid. Among the failures are Vitantonio Liuzzi, Scott Speed and Sébastien Bourdais.
In fact, the only success has been current World Champion Sebastian Vettel. While the list of drivers Red Bull has placed in Formula One is long, there are even more drivers waiting for their chance. The difficulty is this: as the Toro Rosso drivers fail to deliver anything spectacular on the Formula One tracks around the world, there is invariably a Red Bull-supported young driver doing the business in the lower ranks of motor sport.
The difficulty in assessing Alguersuari’s performances stems from his challenging start in the sport. He replaced Bourdais at Toro Rosso half way through the 2009 season, despite having only ever completed straight-line aerodynamic testing in Formula One machinery.
Bearing this difficult start in mind, he progressed well throughout 2009 and 2010. He out-qualified team-mate Sébastien Buemi in Singapore and Japan in 2009 and in 2010 he repeated this feat eight times, including in each of the final five races. He learnt tracks and built up his consistency through a Grand Prix, a vital part of any racing drivers skill set.
While the Toro Rosso drivers have regularly qualified close to each other this season, suggesting they are getting the maximum from the car, Swiss driver Buemi has out-qualified Spaniard Jaime Alguersuari six times to one, and has scored eight points against Alguersuari’s four.
To make this worse, all of Alguersuari’s points came in the recent rain-affected Canadian Grand Prix, whereas Buemi has scored in four different races. Consistent point scoring is vital in Formula One, especially for a smaller team such as Toro Rosso.
It could also be argued that had the Canadian race been dry, it’s unlikely that Alguersuari would have scored those points and so the table would read eight points to nil. The expectation was that 2009 and 2010 would be spent learning, and 2011 is the time to deliver. This hasn’t proven to be the case and while Jaime has shown some speed, these statistics are making his future at the team uncertain.
Alguersuari’s career has come full circle. He is now the Toro Rosso driver who has failed to do enough to justify his place in the top echelon of the sport. And just like Alguersuari in 2009, Red Bull has a young hot-shoe who is proving to be blisteringly fast in Formula Renault 3.5.
His name is Daniel Ricciardo and he’s Australian. Ricciardo has participated in Friday practice at each Grand Prix this season and his presence in the team is inevitably going to put immense pressure on Alguersuari and Buemi.
The prospect of being replaced affects different drivers in different ways. For some drivers, it is their worst fear and it has a negative influence on the driver’s preparation for each race. If a driver isn’t certain if he will be in the car at the next race, the temptation to overdrive when he is in the car is a natural response that must be controlled.
Other drivers will thrive on the pressure and will use the threat of being left without a drive as motivation. It is down to the driver to respond as best he can.
For now, the Toro Rosso drivers can only do their best, push themselves to the limit and get the maximum from the equipment at their disposal. They have to believe that their fate is in their own hands, and is not predetermined by the team management.