Now that all three Scuderia Toro Rosso hopefuls have shown their worth in one of the Red Bull-descended cars, the little team with big results already in their pocket have to make a decision; Sebastien Bourdais, Sebastien Buemi and Takuma Sato are all looking for race seats, and STR have two vacancies. Also in the wings and not completely out of the picture are Rubens Barrichello, Bruno Senna and Lucas Di Grassi. Who deserves the race seats at the Red Bull junior squad?
On the first day of testing, STR fielded Takuma Sato and Sebastien Buemi. Sato has driven for Jordan, BAR/Honda and Super Aguri, but after the Honda junior team went into administration earlier in the year, the Japanese driver has been on the look out for a way back into the sport. Some say third time lucky, others say Sato has had plenty of chances to prove himself already.
A test earlier in the year with STR showed signs of hope for Takuma, and a recall to the post-season session in Spain has added to the speculation that Sato could be the experienced driver they are looking for. However, in his 90 race starts, Sato has only scored 44 points and stood on the podium once – a third place in the 2004 US Grand Prix – so while Sato may have experience of races, he lacks a race-winning mentality, it would seem.
Sebastien Buemi on the other hand has never driven in a Formula One grand prix, having spent the past year as Red Bull’s test and reserve driver. Buemi has also spent the past two years competing in GP2, finishing 21st with ART in 2007 (after racing in only 11 of the 21 events) and came 6th this year with the Arden International team. Sebastien has also enjoyed taking part in many of the Red Bull roadshows, showcasing their Formula One machinery around the world. What Buemi lacks in experience he seems to make up with enthusiasm.
The third option, and possibly the best option is to retain Sebastien Bourdais. The team brought Bourdais over from America for the 2008 season, the French driver entering Formula One with four consecutive Champ Car titles – an impressive feat by anyone’s standards. However, Bourdais’s debut year in Formula One could have gone better, with only two point-finishing results, amounting to a total of four by the end of the year. In comparison to his team mate – Sebastian Vettel – Bourdais looked to be a pretty weak choice. Vettel claimed the team’s (and his own) maiden pole position and victory, as well as a total of 35 points. His year was much more successful.
Day one of the test went to Sato, with the Japanese driver claiming the fastest lap of the day, raising eyebrows around the paddock as he went – Sato was certainly focused. Buemi managed second-fastest as well, although the times were perhaps indicative of the team running a more closely resembling 2008 machine than a 2009 machine. The difference between the pair was 0.3s.
The second day saw the cars being shared by all three hopefuls, and once again Sato stamped his authority on his rivals, posting the second-fastest time behind Sebastian Vettel, now in a Red Bull RB4. Bourdais managed third-fastest, just 0.017s shy of Sato, while Buemi placed his car in fourth, 0.2s behind the French driver. The times, it seems, were pretty close.
Day three was between Bourdais and Buemi, and the experience of Bourdais in the car he’s driven for the past year shone through with a second-fastest time. Sebastien Buemi though was only 0.3s down in third. As with the previous two sessions, the times were very close and differentiating between all three is difficult.
Elsewhere in the pitlane, Bruno Senna and Lucas Di Grassi got their hands on a Honda RA108 and managed some respectable times. Senna outpaced Di Grassi on day one, but was outshone on the third day by regular driver Jenson Button. The difference between the two hopefuls on Tuesday was 1.2s. On Thursday though, Senna got within 0.3s of Button’s fastest time. The middle day was Di Grassi against Button, the Briton going 0.5s faster than the Brazilian.
So, in terms of lap times (and crudely speaking), STR should go with Sato and Bourdais. Le Seb has experience with the team and did put in some fine performances last season, only to be cruelly let down with reliability woes. Sato is eager to return to racing and fair is fair, the man posted some competitive times. Sato also comes with the added bonus of improving Red Bull’s marketing strategy in Asia, but has also been known to throw cars off the road on occasion. If they wanted some youth in the squad, Bruno Senna looks reasonably handy, but his performance over these past days could result in Honda snapping him up to replace Rubens Barrichello.
So what would you do if you were team-boss Gerhard Berger. The possibilities are numerous, and suffice to say I don’t think any of them can match Vettel for raw pace. So is it better to balance the team with old and young, or go the gutsy way – much in the vein of Eddie Jordan – and hire to young drivers in the hope they can work it all out in time? What would you do?
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