Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne aim to build on good impressions made in Abu Dhabi when new season starts in Australia.
Formula One opportunity knocks for Toro Rosso pair
Only the most eagle-eyed of observers will have noticed that when Toro Rosso took to the track at Yas Marina Circuit for November's Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, they did so with the UAE flag emblazoned across their wing mirrors.
This was not out of respect to the host city – no other team adorned such patriotic paraphernalia – but rather a stark, undeniable tipping of the team cap to the capital.
The Italian marque have gradually strengthened their ties with Abu Dhabi over the past 12 months. In September, Cepsa, a Spanish-based oil company acquired six months earlier by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed's International Petroleum Investment Company (IPIC), joined Falcon Private Bank and Nova Chemicals to become the third Abu Dhabi-owned business to sponsor the six-year-old racing team.
Team bosses maintain the three deals are entirely separate and it is mere happenstance all are owned by the government investment arm of the UAE capital.
When Giorgio Ascanelli, the technical director of Toro Rosso, was asked about a rumoured takeover and factory relocation, the Italian laughed off speculation, replying: "Do they make good pasta in Abu Dhabi?"
Regardless of the city's culinary abilities, Toro Rosso clearly believes Abu Dhabi helps provide proof of a driver's abilities. Red Bull Racing's sister team is one of only two marques who will run with an all-new driver line-up this season and in Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne, Toro Rosso have a pair of young drivers who both cut their Formula One teeth at Yas Marina.
Ricciardo, a 22-year-old Australian, took part in the Young Driver Test in Abu Dhabi for Red Bull in 2010, where he set a fastest lap that was 1.3 seconds quicker than Sebastian Vettel's pole position lap the previous Saturday in the same car. For 2011, Ricciardo was rewarded with a role as test driver for Toro Rosso and, midway through the season, joined the Hispania Racing Team (HRT) to further his development.
"To get time in an F1 car at the test in Abu Dhabi was important and to get it in a Red Bull was obviously a bit of a bonus," Ricciardo, dressed in a Toro Rosso race-suit decorated with UAE-owned sponsors, told The National last month in Barcelona during testing.
"The car had just won the world championship, so for a young driver like me to get that opportunity, to work with world championship-winning engineers too, was a pretty big buzz and a great learning experience."
Vergne, a 21-year-old Frenchman, tested in Abu Dhabi for Red Bull in November last year after a successful season in Formula Renault 3.5. At Yas, he finished top of the time sheets and said, due to the machine he was in possession of, he had expected nothing less.
"The three days with Red Bull in Abu Dhabi were really important," he said in Spain. "But I am not able to say whether it was more important than my previous season or more important than my test with Toro Rosso - for that you would have to ask the boss."
Franz Tost, the Toro Rosso team principal, said the performances in the UAE of his two new drivers were "important but not decisive" yet Toro Rosso have gone from having two dependable, experienced drivers in Jaime Alguersuari and Sebastian Buemi, to having two unseasoned rookies. It is undoubtedly a risk, but a risk worth taking, according to Tost.
"It is not easy to go out with two unexperienced drivers. We will for sure sometimes struggle, but this is the choice we have gone with and we stick with it," he said. "For me, both of them are highly skilled drivers who can have a future in Formula One. They are mature enough to come into F1, but the most important thing is they increase their experience and develop."
Tost expects his new drivers to face "accidents and crashes" but made clear expectations have not been lowered simply because of his new line-up's naivety.
"I hope that both of them are within the points because our target is to finish seventh; that means they will have to perform well consistently."
Last year, Toro Rosso finished eighth in the Constructors' Championship.
The Faenza-based team also provided one of last season's most intriguing off-track dramas. The relationship between Alguersuari and Buemi - both closely matched - at times seemed sprinkled more with animosity than affability as they fought for their futures.
Ricciardo and Vergne are keen to avoid driving down a similar road.
The two rookies competed alongside each other in the Formula Renault West European Cup in 2008 and have crossed each other's paths regularly while remaining friends. They understand a strong, professional relationship is essential to achieving success on track.
"We're young, but we are mature as well," Vergne said. "We are friends and we understand that if we start fighting, we will only hurt the team going forward. We want a good car and we will all work together to get that, but of course, everybody knows it's a different story once we have the helmets on and are out on track."
Ricciardo, who describes his relationship with his teammate as "competitive" and jokes about who has more followers on Twitter, said their hunger for success creates a strong racing environment and a "fierce" contest between them should be expected once they are sat behind the wheel.
"I maybe have more experience courtesy of my time with HRT, but relatively speaking we are both still so inexperienced at this level," Ricciardo said.
"Maybe Jean-Eric will have a few more nerves than me at the first few races, but I'm pretty confident we are both able to produce what is expected of us."
Ricciardo currently leads the Twitter contest by around 300 followers, but Vergne claims indifference. "So long as I lead him in qualifying and races," the Frenchman said, laughing, "I'm happy to let him win that one."
The teammates' first chance to beat each other on track will arrive on Friday when first practice of the Australian Grand Prix commences in Melbourne.