Much is made of the potential loss of Red Bull from Formula 1 next season, but, as Valentin Khorounzhiy argues, the disappearance of Toro Rosso could also have far-reaching consequences for a risk-averse sport.
With the seemingly never-ending Red Bull engine crisis appearing to be nowhere near a satisfactory resolution, Formula 1 still faces the very real possibility of the Austrian team packing up its bags and leaving.
And the consensus among the F1 fanbase is that, should they exit the sport, they would’ve had it coming.
Whether that’s true or not, whether Red Bull treated its partners fairly, gave Renault enough credit or demanded too much from Mercedes and Ferrari is a topic for an entirely different column, but it might just be irrelevant in light of the possibility of F1 coming up four cars short next season.
And, perhaps, the most tragic outcome of that potential exit would be the loss of Scuderia Toro Rosso – a team that has been a driving force of change in the stagnant, risk-averse F1 driver market.
The massive, expansive junior ladder below F1 produces potential future stars every year and it is crucial that the sport somehow finds a way to slot them into the sport.
Usually, that role is played by the minnows, but the uncompetitive nature of F1’s newer teams (and their subsequent demises) combined with the fact more established midfield squads have been swimming in debt means that the best and brightest juniors are not having an easy time entering the sport.
This is how we’ve arrived at a situation the likes of Robin Frijns and James Calado have not gotten a shot at F1 despite superb stints in FR3.5 and GP2 respectively – and a situation where Stoffel Vandoorne, who ruled GP2 with an iron first in 2015, is facing a 2016 on the sidelines.
Hiring juniors is, understandably, a risk, and you shouldn’t expect financially embattled teams like Sauber, Force India and Lotus to do so unless absolutely necessary.
Ferrari and Mercedes on the other hand can theoretically afford to take a punt on the best juniors out there – but they don’t, unwilling to sacrifice one of the points-paying seats for the goal.
Toro Rosso, meanwhile, means Red Bull has no such problem.
Over its 10 years in Formula 1, Toro Rosso gave eight drivers their debuts – and 10 racers spent their first full season with the squad. No other organisation can boast that record and understandably so, for providing a launchpad for emerging F1 careers is STR’s very purpose.
But while lots of very valid questions can be raised about STR’s treatment of its drivers, the famous late December firings of Sebastien Buemi and Jaime Alguersuari being a vivid example, the fact remains that its services have been invaluable to F1.
Four-time champion Sebastian Vettel had his debut season with Toro Rosso, Daniel Ricciardo honed his skills under the team’s wing to later become the sport’s ‘MVP’ last year, and it now fields two spectacular drivers in Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz.
Perhaps all of those four would have been able to find a place in F1 without STR being around, but it would’ve been at someone else’s expense – and the sport didn’t exactly have many drivers undeserving of their seats over the past few years.
Stagnation at the top
Despite having Toro Rosso at their disposal, it’s arguable that Red Bull held on to its Webber/Vettel line-up for a bit too long – five seasons, between 2009 and 2013.
But its approach seems to have changed more recently as it opted for the relatively unproven Ricciardo over a more experienced candidate like Kimi Raikkonen when Webber retired, and then replaced Ferrari-bound Vettel with Kvyat with little hesitation.
Meanwhile, the Brackley squad, despite having gone through two major identity changes, has switched all of three drivers over the past 10 years. Ferrari’s record, if you exclude replacement drivers Luca Badoer and Giancarlo Fisichella, is basically identical, despite the fact the team’s second drivers have gotten slack for being uncompetitive year after year.
That’s not to say frontrunning F1 teams have completely refused to take chances with rookies or, at the very least, line-up changes – McLaren has given two drivers their debuts and both, in their first F1 race, stood on the podium.
For some reason, however, it’s no longer fond of that approach, and an obvious third debutant will have to wait until at least 2017.
If Red Bull and Toro Rosso exit, the grid could be stuck at 18 cars and four super-strong drivers will be out of a seat.
Even if we assume that that quartet won’t be in the hunt for ’16 seats with other teams, that still leaves the market in a rather precarious position, with no changes at Mercedes, Ferrari, Williams, Force India or Sauber.
And while Romain Grosjean’s decision to switch to Haas could’ve shaken things up, Enstone’s remaining driver Pastor Maldonado has made it clear he wants an experienced teammate alongside – while Haas is extremely unlikely to take on a rookie as well.
In other words, all ports of entry to F1, save for Manor (which could very well keep its current line-up), will be closed.
Of course, the solution could be third cars – it certainly seems favored by Mercedes’ boss Toto Wolff among others – but for that to be meaningful in terms of opportunities for juniors, F1 would probably have to write in a rule, limiting those cars to drivers with less than a certain number of Grands Prix under their belts.
But would that really make up for a loss of four cars, supplied by an organisation that has been willing, able and successful at introducing new stars into the sport?