So far we’ve had a great response to our mid season assessment of teams and drivers. We’ve chosen to do it in match-ups between pairs of comparable teams, with our own JA on F1 Ratings for Drivers and teams.
Here we look at the performances of two teams fighting for ‘best of the rest’ status behind the Top 4 – Force India and Toro Rosso.
Force India vs Toro Rosso: Overview
Force India’s 2015 season got off to a less than ideal start. Financial issues over the winter meant the team skipped the initial pre-season test at Jerez and turned up to the first Barcelona test with its 2014 car. The team introduced an updated 2014 car (with 2015 nose and safety structures) on the second day of the final test, leaving the squad with just three days of running prior the start of the championship. The early races yielded a relatively impressive 31 points with that car and its pace has improved steadily, especially since the team rolled out a B-spec car at the British Grand Prix.
Toro Rosso began the year by regularly embarrassing its parent team Red Bull thanks to its efficient chassis design, but like Red Bull it has encountered huge problems with the reliability of its Renault engine. With two rookie drivers, including 17-year-old Max Verstappen, performances were always expected to be erratic. However, both drivers have already shown that they are the real deal with good qualifying speed and some strong races.
In the first six races of the season, Nico Hulkenberg made it into Q3 just once and scored points on only one occasion – with a charge up to seventh place at the Australian Grand Prix. Hulkenberg made it back into the points in the Canada, but his season was transformed after that when he won the Le Mans 24 Hours driving for Porsche in June. Since that triumph – his first win since the final feature race of his title winning GP2 season in 2009 – Hulkenberg seems to have stepped up, with a battling drive to sixth at Austria and he was the last driver on the lead lap in seventh at Silverstone. After a great start he looked set for another bumper points haul in Hungary when his front wing failed spectacularly on the pit straight and sent him into retirement. Hulkenberg has dominated his teammate Sergio Perez in qualifying but the Mexican leads 6-4 in race results. Hulkenberg has amassed more points than Perez and has been able to get much deeper into the top ten.
Like Force India, Perez also started the season slightly ignominiously when he took much longer the necessary to pass Jenson Button’s underpowered McLaren-Honda for one world championship point in Australia, but for the rest of the first quarter of the year he had the better of Hulkenberg. He was back in the points in Bahrain and climbed higher than Hulkenberg during the team’s torrid Spanish Grand Prix. Perez then put in a polished performance at Monaco when he scored his best result of the year in seventh, but since Hulkenberg’s mid-year resurgence he has been largely anonymous – save for a dramatic roll in practice for the Hungarian Grand Prix and a crash with Pastor Maldonado in the race.
Despite all the hype surrounding his meteoric rise to F1, Verstappen has lived up to the billing; he looked set to score points on his debut in Australia only for his engine to fail as he ran ninth. He then became the youngest points scorer in F1 history with seventh in Malaysia – a record that will almost certainly never be bettered with the FIA requiring superlicence holders to be at least 18 years-old from 2016. He put in a stunning series of overtakes during a great race in China before mechanical issues forced his retirement again. Another engine failure masked a poor weekend in Bahrain and Verstappen then didn’t get back into the points until the Austrian Grand Prix.
That poor run included his low-light of the season so far when he clattered into the back of Romain Grosjean at Ste Devote during the Monaco Grand Prix and suffered a huge impact with barriers. After spinning out of the race at Silverstone, Verstappen was at least able to go into the summer break on a high with a career-best fourth place in Hungary. He looks a truly exciting prospect.
Carlos Sainz Jr scored points in his first two F1 races and his consistency has been impressive all year. He heads Verstappen 6-4 in qualifying and in the race, but has been unlucky with mechanical failures scuppering his chances. The standout moment of Sainz’s year so far was his fifth place on the grid for his home race in Spain and he converted that into two points, despite Toro Rosso’s poor race pace at that event. He made it into the top ten in Monaco but he lost out to mechanically induced retirements while running in the points in Austria and Britain. Sainz had the chance to score well during the chaotic race in Hungary but was unable to do so as he his car let him down once again.
JA on F1 Verdict
Hulkenberg – 7
Perez – 6
Verstappen – 7
Sainz – 7
Prospects for the rest of the season:
If Hulkenberg can carry on his good form in the second half of the year he should be able to bring home many more points for Force India – but podium finishes look a step beyond the team in normal circumstances. What will be a concern to Hulkenberg is the uncertainty surrounding his future in F1. The suspicion that he has missed the chance to race for a top team remains and rumours continue that he will join the Haas F1 team for its debut next year. His Le Mans win will also lead to speculation he could leave F1 and take his chances in the World Endurance Championship.
Perez needs to up his game if he is to match Hulkenberg’s points tally and he’ll want to put on a good show for his home fans and sponsors when the Mexican Grand Prix returns to the calendar in the final stages of the season. The uncertainty surrounding Hulkenberg’s future and the backing Perez brings should guarantee his continuation with Force India.
Verstappen needs to add consistency to his pace and overtaking skills during the second half of his rookie season. His fourth place in Hungary is a great starting point but needs to cut out the mistakes – he hit Valtteri Bottas and earned a drive through penalty in that race. A second year (at least) at Toro Rosso is inevitable and should give him plenty time to learn from his rookie errors.
Sainz will be hoping his bad luck has been and gone in the first half of the year and he can score the points that his consistency deserves. Renault are rumoured to be bringing a major upgrade to the Russian Grand Prix and if Toro Rosso’s pace increases, his overtaking skills in battle will be under more intense scrutiny.
Force India’s pace has increased since it introduced its B-spec car at the British Grand Prix. However, like most of the independent teams on the grid, the financial stability of the team remains a concern. The updated car also endured a torrid time in Hungary – Perez’s practice crash was caused by a broken rear suspension and the team missed the second practice session while they beefed up those components and Hulkenberg’s front wing also broke spectacularly in the race.
Toro Rosso will be pleased with the aerodynamic efficiency of its chassis and the speed it has shown in qualifying. However, on nine occasions (split between the two cars) its drivers have fallen down the order in the race. The unreliability of Renault’s power unit has cost the Red Bull junior team a number of points so far this year.
JA on F1 Verdict
Force India – 7
Toro Rosso – 6.5
Prospects for the rest of the season:
If it can continue to develop its faster B-spec car, Force India should be able to hold onto fifth place in the championship but a close fight with Toro Rosso and Lotus is to be expected. The team also needs to make sure the failures that blighted the Hungarian Grand Prix aren’t repeated so it can be on track to pick up valuable points in any more races with high attrition rates.
Toro Rosso’s season will see a dramatic improvement if its cars can get to the chequered flag and if Renault’s upgrade for Sochi brings a considerable step in performance the team will hope they can go forward in races rather than backwards. More sparkling performances combined with rookie errors from its drivers are pretty inevitable. The possibility of losing technical director James Key to Red Bull will be a concern.
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