Franz Tost and all other Toro Rosso employees always insist that they’re independent from Red Bull, but it’s quite obvious they aren’t. Over half of their funding still comes from Red Bull, for one. And, I mean, their name literally translates to ‘Red Bull’ in Italian, if you hadn’t realised that already.
All about the ceiling
Let me explain this to you about Toro Rosso; it’s all about the ceiling, the potential, the best-case scenario. It’s not about the floor. When they sign a driver, it doesn’t matter as much if it doesn’t work out. When a driver hits the ground running and blossoms, when you have a Sebastian Vettel or a Max Verstappen – great! Red Bull Racing now has a new, super talented driver who can compete for wins and maybe titles. When a driver flops, well, that’s too bad, but they can just plug in another driver at the snap of a finger. Dr Helmut Marko has never been afraid to axe anybody (to put it lightly).
A perfect example of this was this year’s line-up. Pierre Gasly and Brendon Hartley were both very promising when first coming into the team (although Hartley was 27 already), but the former proved to be much better equipped and better adjusted to the world of F1, something which you couldn’t have predicted beforehand. It’s an x-factor, an intangible that you can’t predict before a driver comes into F1, no matter how talented they are (Stoffel Vandoorne, a record-breaking GP2 champion, is another great example of this). How will they adjust to the circus, the roller coaster that is Formula 1? Will they crumble under the bright lights, or will they give it their all and thrive under the pressure? Gasly got promoted to Red Bull and Hartley got axed. There’s your answer.
Having the luxury of the second team has been quite advantageous for Red Bull. Well, second team since 2009, because Vettel caused Toro Rosso to actually beat Red Bull in the standings in 2008 (the only time that happened) as he won Toro Rosso’s only race in the team’s history to date in Monza.
With a junior programme holding as many super talents as Red Bull’s, Toro Rosso has pretty much become a stomping ground for the cream of the crop of that academy. Vettel was the first to get promoted in 2009 (when he immediately ended runners-up in the championship), followed by Daniel Ricciardo in 2014, Daniil Kvyat in 2015, Verstappen in 2016 and now Gasly in 2019. Looking at that list, Kvyat is the only one that didn’t work out as well at Red Bull. Apart from The Torpedo, it’s been a pretty watertight recruitment strategy for Red Bull. They literally use Toro Rosso as a failsafe.
Not just the drivers
However, the car itself is also a guinea pig in a way. Red Bull just signed a two-year deal with Honda to let them power their cars, which is seen as a big risk by many.
Who was already powered by Honda in 2018, though? That’s right. Toro Rosso. They’ve just completed their first season working together with the Japanese carmaker, and the two worked really well together, even though the ninth position in the constructors’ championship might suggest otherwise.
The Honda engine was actually more powerful than Renault’s by the end of the season, per Auto Motor und Sport. Add to this the fact that Honda have more resources than any other engine manufacturer in F1, and Red Bull could actually have made a genius move. Again, though, they used Toro Rosso as a guinea pig in 2018 to see how the two would work together. They then liked what they saw and the feedback they got and decided to pull the trigger a few months ago.
You could argue that having a guinea pig team like Toro Rosso in F1 that doesn’t really aim to ever compete at the top of the grid is bad for the sport, but I would beg to differ.
I actually quite enjoy the experiments. I like seeing a team have the licence to take risks, and it’s even more fun when those risks pay off. Verstappen in 2015, that was a gamble, for example. Having a 17-year-old kid promote straight from F3, where he only finished third in the championship? You can’t tell me that wasn’t a risk. It was so fun to see him (and Carlos Sainz!) flourish and mature at Toro Rosso. Seeing Honda do well this season was also satisfying to watch after those three years of agony at McLaren. Toro Rosso are always a wildcard. They might be Red Bull’s guinea pigs, but that’s okay.