x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Opportunity knocks for Toro Rosso pair Ricciardo and Vergne

The two drivers are both in contention for the vacant Red Bull Racing seat for 2014, writes Gary Meenaghan.

Daniel Ricciardo was fastest in first practice for the British Grand Prix in his Toro Rosso.
Daniel Ricciardo was fastest in first practice for the British Grand Prix in his Toro Rosso.

Established in 2006, the philosophy of Red Bull Racing's sister team Scuderia Toro Rosso has always been clear. The primary purpose of the Italy-based marque is to provide a platform for recruits of Red Bull's Junior Driver Programme to showcase their suitability for a seat at the world championship winners.

It is this career path that produced Sebastian Vettel, the three-time world champion, and it is this route that should, in theory, provide the figure to fill the seat soon to be vacated by Vettel's teammate Mark Webber, who announced his retirement on Thursday

That should mean an imminent promotion for either Daniel Ricciardo or Jean-Eric Vergne, both of whom have competed for Toro Rosso since the start of last season. Yet with Kimi Raikkonen, the 2007 world champion, being openly considered by Christian Horner, the Red Bull team principal, such internal recruitment is by no means a certainty. 

“We want to pick the best candidate for that role,” Horner said. “We are fortunate that we have a pool of talented young drivers from Toro Rosso to draw upon, but we will also gauge what else is available in the market place. Kimi Raikkonen is a driver you would be foolish to ignore and it is important we evaluate the options available to us and make the right decision.”

Ricciardo, a former British F3 champion, has competed in 38 grands prix, including 11 at HRT, the now-defunct Spanish backmarkers. His best result came earlier this year in China where he finished seventh, however the 23 year old Australian has struggled in recent weeks, retiring in Monaco and finished 15th in Canada.

Vergne, also a former British F3 winner, has meanwhile started 27 races all with Toro Rosso and finished a career-high sixth in Montreal two weeks ago. If such a thing as momentum between the two is to be considered – and Horner suggested yesterday a decision will be made before the end of the summer – it is undeniably with the Frenchman. 

Horner is keeping his options open while also refusing to question the role of Red Bull's sister team.

“There is no prerequisite that [Daniel or Jean-Eric] have to end up in a Red Bull Racing seat,” Horner told The National. “They have to earn that and they have the opportunity. They are both in the Toro Rosso on merit through what they have achieved in the lower categories. The fundamental question though is whether one of them is ready. 

“That is something we will to have to contemplate quite carefully, but they both certainly merit their place in Formula One and Toro Rosso does an excellent job in developing those young drivers.”

During the first on-track session since Webber's decision was made public, it was Ricciardo who finished fastest, clocking the quickest lap in a rain-affected morning session ahead of tomorrow's British Grand Prix. He finished sixth-fastest in the afternoon, 0.119 seconds ahead of Vergne in seventh.

“I've always said to myself, if I have a really strong year, then it would line me up well [for a move to Red Bull],” Ricciardo, who made his debut at Silverstone Circuit, said. “I mean, if I was to win the race this weekend, I would probably sign the contract on Sunday night, so it's in my hands.”

Ricciardo also dismissed suggestions that were Red Bull to overlook the two Toro Rosso drivers, that it would bring into question the objective of the sister team. 

“It wouldn't defeat the purpose of the team,” he said. “If they were to choose Kimi, then he would be the guy who deserves it the most. It would be probably because me and Jean-Eric are there or thereabouts, but maybe not showing world championship class. Ideally though, they want one of us to step up and show we can to take charge. They want to choose someone from Toro Rosso, it's just whether we can provide them with that.”

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae