The falling of the chequered flag in Abu Dhabi 47 days ago marked the end of an experimental year for Red Bull Toro Rosso Honda. No sooner had they become a works team for the first time in their history, the status had been taken away from them by their big brother down the pitlane.
After their inevitable split from the McLaren F1 Team at the end of 2017, Honda used ’18 as a test year – a welcome into the Red Bull family – as they prepare to supply Aston Martin Red Bull Racing, following a drawn-out divorce from their former engine suppliers.
Ninth place out of ten – or 11 if you count the Racing Point Force India F1 Team‘s excluded former guise – does not tell a good story. 33 Constructors’ Championship points, split unevenly 29-4 in Pierre Gasly‘s favour, is also their worst total since 2014. Indeed, ten retirements – second only to…Red Bull – fails to be classed as a highlight too.
Fear not, for there are positives to take from 2018 too. A good rapport has been founded between Honda, Toro Rosso and Gasly, which then extends to Red Bull given the young Frenchman’s promotion. After all, part of Toro Rosso’s role in Formula 1 is to develop talents that benefit the senior squad.
However, they are their own team. An outfit that found victory in Formula 1 before Red Bull and have excelled in making competitive machinery on a reasonably restrictive budget – this year, approximately €125 million.
While ninth place may not seem glittering, Toro Rosso could often be found battling in the very hotly-contested midfield battle through the year. In what can be described as an unstable environment, with drivers consistently being linked with moves further up the grid or out of Formula 1 altogether, their efforts are not to be overlooked.
The first glimpse of a Honda powered Toro Rosso came with good news at a wet Misano World Circuit, the venue for the STR13‘s shakedown, a week before the car’s official launch in Barcelona.
Brendon Hartley‘s initial feedback reported that the driveability from the new Honda power unit was pleasing, a trademark of the Japanese company’s engines over the years. Team principal Franz Tost was also beaming about the new partnership.
“I must say that the cooperation is working really well,” Tost told RACER back in January. “I am also convinced that they will come up with a reliable and powerful engine.
“We can be concentrated on each other. We saw it already when we needed to design everything to fit the engine into the car, we don’t need to ask others for any compromises, we can do it like we wanted.”
It was clear that Honda were going to enjoy a better relationship with Toro Rosso than McLaren. And given Christian Horner‘s plans, Red Bull will follow the junior team’s philosophy of building with the engine in mind instead of backing them into a corner.
Winter testing in Barcelona also saw improvements in reliability, with Gasly and Hartley recording a combined total of 820 laps in a weather disrupted two-part, eight day test.
The opening round of the season in Australia failed to impress. Both cars knocked out in Qualifying 1, Gasly’s race lasted just 13 laps with engine problems. Hartley limped to fifteenth one lap down on victor Sebastian Vettel. Not the way they envisioned the start of their first full seasons in Formula 1.
Bahrain, two weeks’ later, brought a huge upturn in form. Gasly qualified on row three, with Hartley narrowly missing out on a top ten berth. The good pace of the Toro Rosso and retirements to Max Verstappen, Daniel Ricciardo and Kimi Räikkönen saw the young Frenchman mark his arrival with a stunning fourth place and 12 points. The haul made for over a third of his points across the year.
A farcical collision between the team-mates in China, as the two tried to execute a planned switch of positions at the hairpin of Turn 14, brought the team crashing down to Earth with an almighty bump. The two also found themselves in each other’s way at the next round in Azerbaijan, Hartley crawling round the streets of Baku with a puncture as Gasly embarked on a flying lap. A potential aeroplane crash after the blind, full-throttle left-hander of Turn 14 (funnily enough) was avoided through good fortune and lightening reactions from both drivers. Turning the air blue, Gasly gave his opinion to the watching world over the radio.
A reprieve followed a day later; the previously sheepish Hartley took advantage of another chaotic Azeri race to score his first Formula 1 point.
A BLEAK MIDSEASON
13 points from the first four races was probably above the team’s initial targets. Averaging over three points a race is perfect for a team looking to step away from the mire of bottom of the midfield. The next seven races brought just seven points, six of which were gathered by Gasly in a fine first Formula 1 outing on the streets of Monte-Carlo. Six retirements, four for Hartley, did not aid their cause.
Failures, Hartley’s misfortune, poor strategic decisions and an overall lack of pace stunted the team’s progress. The New Zealander’s next venture into the top ten came in a wet/dry German Grand Prix, infamous for Sebastian Vettel slithering off the road at the Sachskurve and swinging the championship pendulum firmly towards Lewis Hamilton.
Vettel’s mistake gave Toro Rosso a chance to sweep their own Hockenheim wrongdoings under the rug. A nonsensical decision to bring Gasly in for full wet tyres on a damp – at worst – track ended all chance of points for the exasperated Frenchman. After just one lap and a trip through the gravel, they called the risk quits and put on a more sensible choice of tyres to salvage fourteenth.
The summer break continued to be heralded in by adverse conditions in Hungary. This time, Toro Rosso got their tyre choice and timing exactly correct in qualifying to see Gasly match his Bahrain grid spot of sixth at a soaking Hungaroring. Hartley excelled too, recording a career best start of eighth. Come race day, Hartley struggled for pace and finished just outside the points in eleventh as Gasly continued to impress by holding sixth. One race brought more points than the previous seven combined.
With the announcement of Ricciardo’s move to the Renault Sport Formula 1 Team for 2019, Gasly’s status as a Toro Rosso driver was to end along with the season in Abu Dhabi.
A TAME END
And there lies the issues with Toro Rosso’s 2018. Great promise did not always bring the best results. The year’s final real high point came at Honda’s home event at the Suzuka International Race Course in October. A capacity crowd, the majority decked in Toro Rosso blue, willed Hartley and Gasly to sixth and seventh in qualifying respectively.
It provided a welcome release for the double world sportscar champion.
“Honestly, that felt awesome. It was quite emotional on the in lap, which is not something that normally happens to me,” Hartley told Sky Sports F1 afterwards.
“But it was just all the build-up of crap over the last six months and knowing that I’ve got better and better, but haven’t always had the chance to show it or things haven’t gone my way.
“Today felt good.”
Tost gave him further encouragement as rumours over his future swirled around.
“If he’s doing a good job, and if he continues like this, there’s no reason to change him,” he said to Motorsport.com.
Once more, poor pace soured the mood come Sunday and brought no points.
Hartley was to finish in ninth at the Circuit of the Americas, eleventh on track – Esteban Ocon and Kevin Magnussen‘s transgressions of fuel usage rules saw them disqualified, to celebrate his one year anniversary in Formula 1.
Gasly could only register two minimal points finishes after Hungary, in Belgium and Mexico, before ending his season and time with Toro Rosso on an escape road at the Yas Marina Circuit with an oil leak.
For 2019, it’s all change once again. Honda stays, but a key cog in the machine bids his farewell. Technical Director James Key has been pivotal to Toro Rosso’s neat chassis design in recent years and leaves for McLaren. The only saving grace for the Faenza-based team is that his move comes to late to make a meaningful impact on McLaren’s next car.
A new driver pairing is also on the horizon. Gasly moves on to Red Bull and Hartley has been shown the door after failing to reach the standards expected by the Red Bull and Toro Rosso hierarchies. Former Red Bull junior Alexander Albon has had a contract with the Nissan e.dams Formula E team ripped up as quickly as he signed it, the former Formula 2 series frontrunner with his heart set on Formula 1.
He’s joined by a familiar face in Daniil Kvyat. Having driven for the team in 2014, ’16 and ’17, the Russian brings experience and, hopefully, a more measured and assured approach after a year with Scuderia Ferrari as their development driver.
Can he pass on any secrets from the top? Time will tell, as Toro Rosso look to return to consistency in 2019.