Formula One: Can Vegne And Ricciardo Make The Grade At Toro Rosso?

The pair of tyros have been announced as Toro Rosso's drivers for 2012, but can they survive the merry-go-round and make the step up to Red Bull when Webber retires and if Vettel leaves?
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It’s unusual for a Formula One team to replace both its drivers at once, but that’s the bold move Toro Rosso has made, announcing yesterday that both Sébastien Buemi and Jamie Alguersuari will be replaced for the 2012 season by new kid Jean Éric-Vegne and Mark-Webber-replacement-in-waiting, Daniel ‘don’t bother to pronounce the second i’ Ricciardo.

Life is tough in the Red Bull stable, and rightly so. If you don’t make the grade, you’ll be out on your arse faster than you can say ‘I’m pretty sure that drink gave me heart palpitations anyway’. And life at Scuderia Toro Rosso, which is effectively Red Bull’s equivalent of a premier league team’s U21 squad, makes keeping your place on any other professional sports team look like a case of simply turning up and giving it the ol’ college try. Since the team morphed from Minardi into STR in 2006, the team has had eight different drivers, including the 2012 new boys, with two mid-season replacements – practically unheard of in Formula One.

If you want to take a gamble on future world champions, your money is probably safer with Di Resta or Perez

It is rarely nice to see someone lose their job, especially when it’s a job as amazing as being a Formula One driver, but ultimately Red Bull are looking for the next Vettel; and Buemi and Alguersuari* simply aren’t at that level. The STR team is a pretty strong mid-mid-field (yes, I did mean to write ‘mid’ twice) outfit, with results from both drivers that have always tended to hover in the top half of the bottom half of the grid, with occasional dips into the points-scoring positions. There has been one exception to that rule though and, somewhat unsurprisingly, it was Sebastian Vettel. In fact, during Vettel’s one and a half seasons with Scuderia Toro Rosso he scored more points on his own than the entire combined total for all STR drivers in all four seasons in which the team competed until the new points system arrived in 2010. In fact, even if you include the 2010 season, he still scores more (41 vs 29, if you’re interested); an emphatic demonstration that the driver absolutely does matter in Formula One.

So, Buemi and Alguersuari have had their chance – more of a chance than most Red Bull drivers – and even though there is no doubt that they have improved dramatically this year, it was too little too late. Webber will be gone sooner rather than later, and you have to wonder how long it will be before Vettel starts looking for a new challenge with a different team. Red Bull Racing, if they are to continue to compete, need a couple of drivers that can deliver like The Finger can, preferably from the company’s hugely expensive and so far, it has to be said, fairly underwhelming young driver development programme.

The question is though, will Ricciardo and Vergne be capable of this? Honestly, it’s hard to tell. Ricciardo has been a decent match for STR reject and perennial under-performer Vitantonio Liuzzi at HRT, while Vergne has been impressive in testing and in his pre-Formula One career, but neither have exactly set the world on fire in the same way that Alonso, Hamilton or Vettel did/have done. If you want to take a gamble on future world champions, your money is probably safer with Di Resta or Perez

* at this point there are probably some people saying, “he was 19 when he made his debut, and he’s only 21 now, how can you possibly say he’s not good enough?!”. Well, Vettel scored his first World Championship point at the age of 19 (just) and was consistently incredible thereafter – Red Bull are looking for Alonsos, Vettels and Hamiltons, not Rosbergs, Sutils and Trullis. So there.

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