F1’s best and worst mid-season replacements

Following the news earlier this week that Daniil Kvyat and Max Verstappen are to swap seats for the Spanish Grand Prix, let’s take a look back at some of Formula One’s best mid-season replacements of the last 25 years, along with some of the worst.

Michael Schumacher (Jordan and Benetton, 1991)

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He may be the most successful driver in Formula One history, but back in August 1991, Michael Schumacher was a relative unknown, partway through a World Sportscar Championship campaign as a Mercedes factory driver.

At the same time, Jordan driver Bertrand Gachot was busy securing himself a stretch behind bars by spraying CS gas into the face of a London taxi driver, leaving Eddie Jordan with a vacancy to fill ahead of the Belgian Grand Prix.

Schumacher duly got the call, and despite having never driven F1 machinery in anger, turned up at Spa and qualified a remarkable seventh, nearly a second ahead of teammate Andrea de Cesaris, who had been driving the car all season.

A clutch failure prevented Schumacher from taking the start, but he had caught the eye of Benetton, who promptly signed the future seven-time world champion before the next race at Monza.

There followed an impressive fifth place, ahead of triple world champion teammate Nelson Piquet, before a pair of sixth places in the next two races secured Schumacher a full-time contract with the Enstone team.

The rest, as they say, is history…

Mika Hakkinen (McLaren, 1993)

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Having started his Grand Prix career with two strong seasons at Lotus, Mika Hakkinen was supposed to race for McLaren from the start of 1993, but a last-minute decision by Ayrton Senna to race for the Woking squad and the signing of CART racer Michael Andretti left the Finn on the sidelines.

Fortunately for Hakkinen, Andretti never settled in Formula One, and with three races of the season remaining, the American was sent back across the pond to resume his career stateside. His departure gave Hakkinen his chance at the Portuguese Grand Prix, where he stunned the world by outqualifying the legendary Senna.

Hakkinen crashed out of the race the following day, but made amends by securing his maiden podium finish at the next round in Japan. The Finn had more than proved his worth at one of the sport’s most famous names.

He went onto race for McLaren for the next eight seasons, winning two world championships, 20 Grands Prix and securing 26 pole positions, earning his place among the sport’s greats.

Sebastian Vettel (Toro Rosso, 2007)

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A highly touted 19-year-old that was running away with the World Series by Renault crown, Sebastian Vettel had already impressed in a one-off cameo appearance for BMW Sauber in 2007, scoring a point for eighth place in Indianapolis in place of the injured Robert Kubica.

A member of the Red Bull Young Driver Programme, a permanent break came before that year’s Hungarian Grand Prix, when Scott Speed was ousted from the Toro Rosso outfit, reportedly after a physical altercation with team boss Franz Tost at the Nurburgring.

Vettel grabbed his opportunity with both hands, and was running in an astounding third place in torrential rain in Fuji when he crashed into Mark Webber behind the safety car, eliminating both. Undeterred by heartbreak in Japan, the youngster bounced back at the next race in China and made amends with a fine drive to fourth place.

A full-time contract for 2008 followed, where an exceptional maiden win at Monza more than justified his promotion to the main Red Bull outfit in 2009. After winning four straight championships between 2010 and 2013, a move to Ferrari followed two years later.

Robert Kubica (BMW Sauber, 2006)

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Robert Kubica’s debut at the 2006 Hungarian Grand Prix was initially billed as a one-off in place of the injured Jacques Villeneuve, but a strong drive to seventh place – a result that was later taken away from him due to a technical infringement – gave the Pole a seat for the remainder of the season.

A low-key 12th place finish in Turkey came next, before Kubica announced as a star of the future by scoring his maiden podium finish at Monza, in just his third Grand Prix.

No more points were to follow in 2006, but Kubica had done enough to earn a full season with the Hinwil squad the following year, where he would remain until BMW’s withdrawal from F1 in 2009, having won one Grand Prix and grabbed a best championship placing of fourth in 2008.

A move to Renault in 2010 followed, with three podium finishes in an underpowered car promising much for the future, but Kubica’s career was tragically cut short after a severe rally accident shortly before the 2011 season left him with serious injuries.

Mika Salo (BAR and Ferrari, 1999)

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Mika Salo had spent the latter part of the 1990s forging a reputation as a solid midfield runner, having enjoyed spells with Lotus, Tyrrell and Arrows. Without a permanent drive for 1999, Salo first found temporary solace at BAR when he replaced the injured Ricardo Zonta for three races. A seventh place finish at Imola proved to be the team’s best result in a wretched debut year.

Salo’s most notable opportunity that year came when he was drafted in to replace Michael Schumacher at Ferrari after the German suffered a broken leg in a crash at the British Grand Prix. Despite having never driven the car, Salo worked himself into the lead of his second race for the Scuderia at Hockenheim, and only missed out on the win when he was forced to concede to Eddie Irvine, who was fighting for the championship.

The rest of Salo’s six-race spell was less fruitful, but the Finn enjoyed a second podium finish when he took third place in front of the tifosi at Monza. Salo’s efforts at Maranello helped to earn him a full-time drive at Sauber in 2000.

And three that didn’t fare so well…

Luca Badoer (Ferrari, 2009)

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In his defence, the odds could not have been stacked further against Luca Badoer when he was called upon to replace the injured Felipe Massa at Ferrari in 2009.

Badoer had several seasons of F1 experience with the unfancied Scuderia Italia, Forti and Minardi teams, but his most recent Grand Prix had been in 1999 and the Italian had not raced in any meaningful championship in the intervening ten years. Added to that, the Ferrari tester was tasked with racing a car he had never driven, and which, fitted with the hybrid KERS system, was notoriously difficult to drive.

He was given the drive as a “thank you” for his service to the Scuderia after Massa’s intended replacement Michael Schumacher was declared unfit to race due to a neck injury, but Badoer did little to repay his long-time employers on the track. He qualified last in Valencia – having been fined four times for speeding in the pit lane in practice – and his most notable moment during the race came when he forgot to disengage his pit lane speed limiter after a stop and was overtaken by Romain Grosjean.

Badoer was given a second chance at Spa, but after he again qualified and finished the race last, this time almost a lap behind teammate and race winner Kimi Raikkonen, he was replaced by Giancarlo Fisichella, the man who had taken pole and finished second that day. To put Badoer’s struggles into context, Fisichella also failed to score a point in his five races.

Romain Grosjean (Renault, 2009)

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At 23, Romain Grosjean was embroiled in a fight with Nico Hulkenberg and Vitaly Petrov for the GP2 title when he was given his F1 break with Renault in 2009, in place of the sacked Nelson Piquet Jr.

The Frenchman made his debut in Valencia, the same race where Badoer began his temporary spell with Ferrari (above) but in his seven races, he struggled to match teammate Fernando Alonso and ended an unimpressive debut season without a point.

It was during this period that Piquet Jr, incensed by his firing, revealed all about his role in the Crashgate scandal at the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix and left the Enstone outfit in tatters.

Renault sold the team at the end of 2009, and Grosjean found himself out of Formula One. Knocked back, he went on to rebuild his career in the junior categories over the next two seasons, culminating in him finally winning the GP2 title in 2011.

He earned a second chance at Enstone – now rebadged at Lotus – in 2012, where after a topsy-turvy campaign that saw a succession of first lap crashes and a one-race suspension, Grosjean is now regarded as one of the sport’s most consistent drivers.

Jacques Villeneuve (Renault, 2004)

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Jacques Villeneuve was riding the crest of the wave at the end of 1997, having clinched the world championship with Williams following a now-infamous showdown with Michael Schumacher.

That day at Jerez was as good as it was ever going to get for the French-Canadian, who after a winless 1998 with Williams, moved to the all-new BAR team the following year. Five years, and just two podium finishes later, Villeneuve walked out on the Brackley squad shortly before the end of 2003 and took a sabbatical from Formula One.

Villeneuve was given the chance to drive the last three races of 2004 with Renault after Jarno Trulli was sacked following a fall out with team principal Flavio Briatore, but finished outside the points on each occasion. In comparison, Fernando Alonso scored 14 points in the same car, and Villeneuve’s failure to perform had helped the team lose second place in the constructors’ championship, ironically to BAR.

Villeneuve would join Sauber in 2005 and remained with the team when it was bought out by BMW the following year. He was released partway through the season when Robert Kubica impressed in his absence at Hungary (above), ending his Grand Prix career.

Stephen D’Albiac

Daniil Kvyat an unfortunate victim of ruthless Red Bull regime

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Credit: Getty Images

Formula One can be a ruthless world, as Daniil Kvyat found out to his cost earlier this week.

No more than two weeks after a combative display earned him a podium finish in the Chinese Grand Prix, Kvyat finds himself demoted from his seat at Red Bull to Scuderia Toro Rosso, his crash-strewn performance at his home race in Sochi proving his last act at the energy drinks company’s premier outfit.

Kvyat’s unceremonious fall from grace paves the way for 18-year-old Max Verstappen to seize a chance at Red Bull that, while seemingly inevitable for 2017, comes surprisingly soon for anyone on the outside looking in.

Although Red Bull and its driver development programme chief Helmut Marko will say that there is a clear rationale behind making the switch at this stage of the season, one cannot help but think that this is a rash move, and one that is unduly harsh on the Russian.

Taken as a collective, Kvyat’s performances this season have not set the world alight. His podium in China – which nearly saw beat teammate Daniel Ricciardo by less than seven seconds despite the Australian’s puncture early in the race – aside, the 22-year-old has consistently found himself wanting in terms of speed, with early exits from qualifying in Melbourne and Bahrain an early cause for concern.

Following the race in Shanghai, for which his robust, yet fair, first corner move on Sebastian Vettel earned him his place in the headlines, the spotlight fell on the youngster as he prepared to take part in his home race. There unfolded disastrous first lap in which he hit Vettel twice, consequently ruined Ricciardo’s race and earned a stop-go penalty, restricting him to a 15th place finish in front of Russian president Vladimir Putin.

It would be naïve in the extreme to suggest that Kvyat’s performance in Sochi is the reason for his demotion to Toro Rosso. All drivers make mistakes, and even a regime as bloodthirsty in their dealings with young chargers as the Red Bull Young Driver Programme does not simply make changes off the back of one torrid afternoon.

But even a sub-standard start to the season does not justify Red Bull’s decision. With 17 races to go, there was ample time for Kvyat to raise his game and begin to perform to a consistent level. Let us not forget that he actually beat Ricciardo in the drivers’ standings and came out 7-6 ahead when both drivers made it to the chequered flag last season. Ricciardo may have suffered more than his fair share of misfortune in 2015, but Kvyat was, more often than not, there to capitalise when needed and with strong drives in Monaco, Hungary and Mexico, justified the faith Red Bull showed by signing him to replace Vettel.

If the Russian was deemed not good enough for the senior team, then why was the switch not made before the start of the season? Verstappen has begun 2016 strongly, but is yet to reach the astonishing heights of his debut campaign that may well have earned him a promotion in the off-season.

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Max Verstappen will make his debut for Red Bull at the Spanish Grand Prix

There is talk that Red Bull has moved quickly to prevent potential suitors in Mercedes and Ferrari from snatching Verstappen’s signature, but was the Dutch prodigy likely to sign elsewhere with the promise of a race seat at the senior team in 2017? It would seem far-fetched, given the regulation changes that are set to come into play, giving Red Bull the chance to close the gap to the front of the field.

As things stand, the chances of Mercedes replacing Lewis Hamilton or Nico Rosberg are extremely slim, while even if Kimi Raikkonen were to leave Ferrari at the end of the season, it would have been an extraordinarily adventurous move for a team which has been extremely cautious when it comes to signing inexperienced drivers to bolster their title assault with a teenager.

While that would not have staved off the risk of Verstappen signing a pre-agreement with another team for 2018, it is difficult to imagine that his signing of a new deal at Red Bull until 2019 to coincide with his promotion hinged solely on him leaving Toro Rosso with immediate effect.

Other reasons given for the switch include the opportunity to better evaluate all four drivers within the Red Bull stable, and the increasing friction between Verstappen and Carlos Sainz Jr at Toro Rosso. Both seem plausible, but with the vast reserves of data available to all teams nowadays, does a worthwhile comparison between drivers really depend on them driving the same car?

Verstappen and Sainz Jr may be at loggerheads, but is a team marshalled by such experience in the form of Franz Tost and the recently arrived John Booth really unable to control the situation?

The fundamental reasons for the move are simple. Red Bull clearly see Verstappen as the future. That is why they went to such lengths to prevent him signing for Mercedes in 2014, by offering him a drive at Toro Rosso aged just 17. Kvyat, on the other hand, is clearly not seen as someone with world championship-winning potential.

Red Bull operates like a business. As Christian Horner stated in an interview at the Chinese Grand Prix: “We have a stable of four drivers and two are on loan at Toro Rosso. All the drivers are essentially on the same contract and we have the ability at any point in time to move things round should we so wish.”

They will argue that if Verstappen jumps into the senior team and is closer to the pace, or even at the same level as Kvyat to begin with, their decision will be the right one. But that does not make the timing, or manner of this switch seem fair.

Kvyat now has the opportunity to regroup and try to rebuild his Formula One career. The chance that he will race again for Red Bull is extremely limited, and with this now being his third season, it is difficult to imagine him remaining at Toro Rosso beyond the end of 2016, especially if Pierre Gasly performs well in GP2 and shows that he is good enough to drive in F1.

Good results over the rest of the year may put him in the frame for a Renault drive, albeit with competition from Esteban Ocon and Sergey Sirotkin, while Haas could be seen as another possibility, with Romain Grosjean possibly on the shopping lists of the big teams and Esteban Gutierrez having failed to live up to expectations so far this season. Otherwise, Kvyat’s place on the grid in 2017 may well come down to whether he can muster enough sponsorship to bag a drive with one of the other, and less well off, midfield runners.

It would be a huge shame if Kvyat were to find himself without a drive next year. He may not be on the level of the very best in the sport, but at just 22 he has time on his side and has the potential to at least be a very capable asset for one of the midfield teams for many years to come.

Red Bull’s sink-or-swim strategy has cost several drivers their Grand Prix careers in the past. Just ask Sebastien Buemi, Jaime Alguersuari and Jean-Eric Vergne to name but three. Let us hope that the name of Daniil Kvyat will not soon be added to that list.

Stephen D’Albiac

Solving Formula One’s prize money problem

 

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Credit: Bleacher Report

Last week, Autosport revealed that Formula One teams had been awarded a prize pot of some $965m for their performances last season.

The money was given by Formula One Management (FOM) to the ten teams that competed in the 2015 world championship, with newcomers Haas not yet eligible for a share of the pot.

While the teams were all awarded some part of the cash for participating in the series, as well as for performance, a staggering $295m of prize money was awarded not on merit, but to a select few teams as a result of pre-signed agreements with Bernie Ecclestone.

It means that Ferrari – which benefits from a $35m constructors’ championship bonus as well as a controversial $70m payday for its status as Formula One’s most historic team – took home $192m for its 2015 efforts, while runaway champions Mercedes – which enjoys $74m in bonus payments – earned just $171m.

A further $74m in bonuses for Red Bull meant that the Austrian concern was given $144m, while Williams – which is entitled to just $10m in added payments and beat them to third place in the constructors’ standings – earned just $87m.

McLaren – which endured a wretched 2015 and placed a disastrous ninth – were the fifth most successful team in the earning stakes, with a generous $32m bonus handout netting the Woking outfit $82m.

Beneath McLaren are the teams not deemed eligible for these funds in the eyes of the sport’s elite. Force India earned $67m, while Lotus (now Renault) took home $64m. Toro Rosso was rewarded with a $57m piece of the pie, while Sauber benefitted to the tune of $57m. Manor, the only team not to score a point in 2015, earned $47m.

A full breakdown of the prize fund for 2015 can be seen here:

Pot 1 ($335m) Pot 2 ($335m) Pot 3 ($295m) Total Prize Money ($965m)
Ferrari $33.5m $53.5m $105m $192m
Mercedes $33.5m $63.5m $74m $171m
Red Bull $33.5m $36.5m $74m $144m
Williams $33.5m $43.5m $10m $87m
McLaren $33.5m $16.5m $32m $82m
Force India $33.5m $33.5m N/A $67m
Lotus $33.5m $30.5m N/A $64m
Toro Rosso $33.5m $23.5m N/A $57m
Sauber $33.5m $20.5m N/A $54m
Manor $33.5m $13.5m N/A $47m

Thanks to gift-wrapped bonus payments, what these figures create is a huge disparity between the teams fortunate enough to have been around long enough or been successful enough in the past, and those whose efforts have not been rewarded on the track.

That Formula One currently finds itself in a situation where teams at the back of the grid are struggling to make ends meet while the sport’s coffers are being divided in such an unfair manner is a damning indictment of those at the top.

Ferrari may be the longest serving and most successful team in Formula One history, but what gives a team that has won nothing in the way of championships since 2008 the right to a healthy bonus of more than $100m, while teams like Sauber and Manor earn nothing as they face a desperate struggle for survival?

Mercedes may be the team of the moment, and Red Bull, McLaren and Williams have certainly enjoyed many a day in the now firmly set suns of yesteryear, but in the here and now, prize money should be what it says on the tin. It needs to be distributed in a fair way, based on performance, and not as a note of thanks for their contributions to the sport.

That a team like Force India has produced such fine cars in the face of such a raw deal from the sport’s kingmakers is a glowing testament to the talents of their workforce back at Silverstone. With a fairer share of the prize pot, their potential to achieve would only be greater still.

A redistribution of funds

F1 Grand Prix of Italy

Credit: Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

Now, armed with a calculator and with my Bernie Ecclestone-styled wig firmly donned, I have devised an alternative prize pot with the aim of rewarding teams on performance rather than prestige.

To make this a fair experiment, I will be playing with the $965m that the teams were given in the real world, but I have changed the way in which it is handed out.

I have split the total prize fund into three distinct pots, the first two worth $432.5m apiece, with the third pot containing $100m.

Pot one will be given to teams for their participation in the sport, ensuring that, straight out of the box, everyone earns a nice starter of $43.25m.

Pot two is a tiered performance bonus, with Mercedes, as champions, earning 14.5 per cent, with Ferrari netting 13.5 per cent for coming second and so on until you get to Manor, which gets 5.5 per cent of the pot. This ensures that each team earns a minimum of $67.05m, more than Force India got in real life for finishing fifth.

This brings us to pot three, which is a pure $100m performance bonus, and is shared between teams based simply on how many points they scored in the previous season.

Mercedes finished with 703 points in 2015 – 36.6 per cent of those available, and therefore, they take away $36.6m, with Ferrari – who amassed 22.3 per cent of the possible points on offer – bagging $22.3m. This filters down to McLaren, which earned just 1.4 per cent of the points last season. Manor, which failed to score in 2015, gets nothing from this pot.

This leaves us with the following breakdown:

Pot 1 ($432.5m) Pot 2 ($432.5m) Pot 3 ($100m) Total Prize Money ($965m)
Mercedes $43.25m $62.7m $36.6m $142.55m
Ferrari $43.25m $58.4m $22.3m $123.95m
Williams $43.25m $54.1m $13.4m $110.75m
Red Bull $43.25m $49.7m $9.7m $102.65m
Force India $43.25m $45.4m $7.1m $95.75m
Lotus $43.25m $41.1m $4.1m $88.45m
Toro Rosso $43.25m $36.8m $3.5m $83.55m
Sauber $43.25m $32.4m $1.9m $77.55m
McLaren $43.25m $28.1m $1.4m $72.75m
Manor $43.25m $23.8m $0 $67.05m

As a result, the amount of prize money that each team earns reflects fairly their on-track performance during the 2015 season.

While in real life, the difference between the amount of money awarded to the highest-earning team and the lowest was $145m. Under my system, this disparity falls to $75.5m. Mercedes, Ferrari, Red Bull and McLaren all find themselves worse off, but the four richest teams in the sport aside, every other constructor benefits to the tune of at least $20m.

This boost in revenue would give the midfield teams more funds, which could be used to invest in better personnel and facilities, increasing the chances of added competition on the grid. Teams would be less likely to need to procure the services of pay drivers, opening up more room for the most talented youngsters to progress to Formula One.

At present, teams only begin to earn prize money at the end of their second season, and only the top ten in the championship benefit from the system. I would change both of these factors, which would allow the Haas team to immediately reap the fruits of their vast investment into the sport and prevent the risk of any one team being cut adrift as a result of a lack of money.

With a formula in place that rewards teams on current endeavours rather than past glories, the message would be simple: if you want more money, do your talking on the track.

Stephen D’Albiac

Maldonado out, Magnussen in: A refreshing change…

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A growing poison within Formula One in recent years has been the way in which able talents have been so readily cast aside for no other reason than the lack of contribution they have been able to make in the funding department.

Since 2010, no fewer than nine drivers, all of whom had proved themselves worthy of a place in the cutthroat world of Grand Prix racing, have been left unceremoniously dumped from the sport.

The sole reason? Simply that their pockets were not deep enough to satisfy a litany of teams who are struggling to survive in this age of rising costs, declining sponsorships and an ever-growing calendar.

Although some of these drivers list fell victim to the ruthless world that is the Red Bull Young Driver Programme, that the likes of Sebastien Buemi, Jaime Alguersuari and Jean-Eric Vergne were unable to find drives at other outfits after they were culled by Toro Rosso had little to do with performance.

Similarly, Kevin Magnussen did little at McLaren to show that he could not cut it in the pinnacle of motorsport.

And yet, of these ‘cast-offs’, only Nico Hulkenberg managed to get a proper second chance en route to becoming arguably the best racer on the grid currently plying his trade outside a top team.

Instead, the volume of money is only increasing when it comes to earning a place in the promised land. Forgetting Pastor Maldonado, and the likes of Marcus Ericsson, Esteban Gutierrez and Max Chilton – among others – can all claim to have bought their way onto the grid at one time or other at the expense of their more talented companions.

That is why the news that Maldonado is to be replaced at Renault by Magnussen comes as a welcome relief.

In five seasons of broken front wings, rebuilt cars and a permanent pass to the stewards room, only the odd flash of brilliance prevents the Venezuelan’s CV from amounting to nothing more than a high-speed dodgem.

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The sight of Pastor Maldonado in a barrier became an all-too common one during the Venezuelan’s five years in Formula One.

It is easy to look no further than the PDVSA petro-dollars that have funded Maldonado’s career and forget that he was more than deserving of a Formula One drive when he made his debut for Williams in 2011.

An inconsistent yet occasionally brilliant junior career that earned him a reputation as a specialist around the fabled streets of Monte Carlo and culminated in the GP2 Series crown of 2010 would have made Maldonado a candidate for graduation to the top tier, even without his grotesque level of backing.

His second season in 2012 that saw the still scarcely fathomable win in Spain and a number of top three qualifying performances showed that he had the speed to survive in Formula One, if not the temperament.

And that was always Maldonado’s problem. A driver who earns his staying power in Formula One on merit cuts out the silly collisions, reckless petulance and embarrassing prangs by the time he enters his second season, but far from honing his speed and developing into the well-rounded midfield runner that he had the potential to be, he became little more than an imitation of a Wacky Races character.

It was why his move from Williams to Lotus in 2014 was met with indignation by most, why a website charting his every collision in exquisitely humorous fashion continues to flourish, and why his continued presence in a team famous for its true racing spirit has become little more than a frustration.

But where one door closes, another one opens, and Maldonado’s demise now looks set to give Magnussen a refreshing opportunity to revitalise a stalled career.

Cut adrift at McLaren for the sole reason that Fernando Alonso became available, the Dane should have had teams queuing up to secure the signature of a man who bagged a remarkable second place on his Formula One debut and proved more than an able foil for Jenson Button.

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Kevin Magnussen spent 2015 on the sidelines through circumstance more than any lack of performance.

Yet until Maldonado’s funding dried up, he was left high and dry and faced with a switch to IndyCar or the World Endurance Championship just to get some racing under his belt.

Thankfully, the buyout of Lotus by Renault has turned the financial situation at Enstone into one of rude health, and means that placing a driver of Magnussen’s quality alongside Jolyon Palmer, himself a beneficiary of high value backing, is now a reality rather than a far flung dream.

Once the transition season of 2016 is done and Renault prepares its first fully-fledged manufacturer entry since 2010, one can only hope that a second opportunity for an established driver will arise at the team.

Although not a necessity, the prospect of a French driver delivering the goods at a French team would do Renault’s image across the Channel no harm. Of the talented cast-offs, Jean-Eric Vergne, a man who proved more than a match for Daniel Ricciardo at Toro Rosso, is another, like Magnussen, just crying out to be given a second opportunity.

Just imagine, a year down the line, the prospect of Renault signing Vergne to partner Magnussen, and in so doing securing one of the most exciting young driver line-ups on the grid.

If so, it would make a welcome, and refreshing change.

Stephen D’Albiac

Performance Podium: China

The Chinese Grand Prix proved to be a thrilling battle of strategy. So which three drivers made Torque F1’s Performance Podium this week? It’s time to find out.

1) Fernando Alonso

Fernando Alonso was at his magnificent best in China. After the disappointment of Sepang three weeks ago it was crucial that the Spaniard had a good race to kick-start his title challenge.

Having passed Kimi Raikkonen for second at the start, Alonso then tracked Lewis Hamilton for the first few laps, before making the best use of the DRS to pass the Mercedes driver at the start of lap five.

From then on Alonso never looked back, and consistently pulled away from the rest of the field. He also managed to cut his way through the traffic after his pit stops better than anyone else, which proved instrumental in gaining extra time over his rivals.

Alonso continued to set the pace even after he was told to stop pushing after his final stop, and romped home for his first win since last year’s German Grand Prix, a result which now leaves him third in the drivers’ standings.

2) Daniel Ricciardo

It may have gone unnoticed with all the action at the front, but Daniel Ricciardo produced a stunning drive in Shanghai to finish a career best seventh.

Having surprised many to make it into Q3 yesterday, Ricciardo refused to be overawed by running at the front and remained in the points for the entire race, finally beating his previous best finish of 9th (something he achieved four times last year) and scoring Toro Rosso’s best result in two years.

With the likely departure of Mark Webber, who looks set to be leaving Formula One at the end of the season to join Porsche’s Le Mans efforts, there is a seat at Red Bull up for grabs in 2014, and if Ricciardo can continue to produce drives of this quality, the chances of earning a promotion next year can only increase.

3) Jenson Button

Jenson Button made the best use of a two-stop strategy to overcome the shortcomings of his McLaren and take a strong fifth place.

Button drove an incredibly strong opening stint, making his tyres last for 21 laps, and he made his first stop at the same time as the rest of the leaders made their second.

The strength of the Englishman’s first stint of the race was such that after he pitted for the first time, he was actually running a net second. And although he didn’t have the pace to keep the trio of Raikkonen, Hamilton and Vettel behind him, an impressive fifth place finish will give both he and his team confidence as they look to fix the issues with the car over the coming races.

2013 Performance Podium Rankings
1) Fernando Alonso (Ferrari) – 12pts
2) Kimi Raikkonen (Lotus-Renault) – 10pts
2) Mark Webber (Red Bull-Renault) – 10pts
4) Adrian Sutil (Force India-Mercedes) – 5pts
4) Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) – 5pts
4) Daniel Ricciardo (Toro Rosso-Ferrari) – 5pts
7) Jenson Button (McLaren-Mercedes) – 2pts
7) Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) – 2pts
9) Jules Bianchi (Marussia-Cosworth) – 2pt

The Performance Podium rankings are calculated depending on where each driver places in each race. 1st place receives 10 points, 2nd place = 5pts, 3rd place = 2pts and an Honourable Mention = 1pt

Stephen D’Albiac

Season Preview: Toro Rosso

In many ways the 2012 season was a disappointment for Toro Rosso. The Red Bull sister team only managed ten points scoring finishes all season and finished well adrift of the rest of the midfield in ninth place.

The team suffered from having a narrow set-up window on their car all year, which meant that how well the car worked was down to the characteristics of each circuit, and if the car didn’t work when Friday practice got underway, they were then stuck with it for the whole weekend with no way of making the car better.

This is something that Toro Rosso have worked hard to rectify over the winter, and it appears from testing as though progress has been made. The new car has shown some impressive pace, and although maybe not quick enough to catch the likes of Force India and Williams, the team will be confident they can at least compete with them on a more regular basis this year.

Both Jean-Eric Vergne and Daniel Ricciardo had solid first full seasons in 2012, and with a year’s experience in the team and a potential seat at Red Bull up for grabs in 2014, it is an important season for the pair as they look to further their career prospects.

18) Jean-Eric Vergne

2012 proved to be a solid rookie year for Jean-Eric Vergne. The Frenchman struggled at times, particularly in qualifying where he failed to make it through Q1 on eight occasions, but he did show promising race pace throughout the season, with four eighth place finishes enough for him to beat teammate Daniel Ricciardo in the drivers’ standings.

Vergne’s drives in Malaysia and Brazil highlighted the Frenchman’s strong talents in changeable weather, and he also impressed in the rain in testing at Barcelona, which shows that he is extremely proficient in low grip conditions. He was also set for an exceptional points finish at Monaco before a strategy error from his team relegated him to 12th place.

The season is set to be an important one for Vergne. Although his qualifying speed let him down last year, he was generally more than a match for teammate Ricciardo, and with there being a potential opening at Red Bull for a race seat in 2014, if he can produce strong results on a more consistent basis then he has a great chance of landing a seat at one of F1’s top teams in the future.

19) Daniel Ricciardo

Daniel Ricciardo had a reasonably strong year in 2012. The young Australian showed plenty of promise in his first full season and produced plenty of good drives. Although he lost out to teammate Vergne in the championship standings, Ricciardo finished in the points more times than his teammate and with a bit more luck could have ended the season as the higher placed Toro Rosso driver.

Ricciardo, who drove in 11 races for HRT in 2011, also proved himself to be quick over a single lap last year. He outqualified Vergne 16 times in 20 races and produced arguably the qualifying performance of the season when he put his car in an incredible sixth place on the grid in Bahrain.

The Australian driver will be eager to push on from a promising 2012 and, with a little bit more consistency in the races, could well establish himself as the favourite for that Red Bull drive in 2014 if Mark Webber decides to move on.

Hopes for the season
The high point in Toro Rosso’s history came in 2008, when the team finished sixth in the constructors’ championship and Sebastian Vettel took an outstanding win at Monza.

However, that was back in the days when Red Bull supplied the team with a car, and since they have had to design their own chassis, Toro Rosso have struggled to match those heights, with an eighth place finish in 2011 their best performance.

Although expecting the team to challenge at the front of the midfield once again is probably being optimistic, if they can deliver on the potential they’ve shown in testing Toro Rosso should be aiming at joining Sauber, Force India and Williams in regularly fighting for points and there’s no reason why the team can’t go on and beat at least one of them in the constructors’ championship if they do take a step forward this year.

Stephen D’Albiac

Barcelona testing – Day five analysis

A largely rain-affected day at the Circuit de Catalunya meant that, as on the final day of running last week, laptimes were largely irrelevant.

The timesheet was topped by Mark Webber, with Lewis Hamilton, Jean-Eric Vergne and  Valtteri Bottas rounding out the top four. Webber’s benchmark of 1:22.693 was just under a second slower than the fastest time set by Sergio Perez last week, underlying the fact that although the track conditions were improving vastly towards the end of the session, they did not get down to a completely dry level.

Hamilton showed Mercedes’ wet-weather potential in the morning session with the quickest time, two tenths ahead of Felipe Massa. The stand-out performance, however, came from Vergne, who set the third fastest time in the morning and lapped one and a half seconds quicker than Webber in the sister Red Bull. Although that could mean nothing when it comes to a wet Grand Prix, that result will give Toro Rosso plenty of confidence that they can punch above their weight in those conditions.

The rain would not have been welcomed by any of the teams, with this week being the last chance for them to test out their new cars before the season opener in Melbourne. A lot of them will also have been running significant upgrades ahead of the first race, so the loss of dry running is not something that will have been popular around the Barcelona paddock.

There is more rain forecast to hit the Circuit de Catalunya tomorrow, but the outlook for the weekend currently looks dry, which means we should be set for a frantic last couple of days running before the teams pack up their cars and head Down Under.

Timesheets
1) Mark Webber (Aus) Red Bull-Renault – 1:22.693 (90 laps)
2) Lewis Hamilton (GB) Mercedes – 1:24.348 (113 laps)
3) Jean-Eric Vergne (Fra) Toro Rosso-Ferrari – 1:25.017 (59 laps)
4) Valtteri Bottas (Fin) Williams-Renault – 1:26.458 (85 laps)
5) Sergio Perez (Mex) McLaren-Mercedes – 1:26.538 (100 laps)
6) Esteban Gutierrez (Mex) Sauber-Ferrari – 1:26.574 (92 laps)
7) Paul di Resta (GB) Force India-Mercedes – 1:27.107 (57 laps)
8) Felipe Massa (Bra) Ferrari – 1:27.541 (112 laps)
9) Max Chilton (GB) Marussia-Cosworth – 1:28.166 (78 laps)
10) Charles Pic (Fra) Caterham-Renault – 1:28.644 (83 laps)
11) Romain Grosjean (Fra) Lotus-Renault – 1:34.928 (52 laps)

Stephen D’Albiac