With the F1 season half gone the Constructors’ Championship has split into four distinct struggles: at the front, Red Bull Racing are holding off the charging McLarens and Ferraris, and at the back Lotus, Virgin and HRT are all desperate to avoid the wooden spoon. Between those is the often overlooked midfield where the competition is fiercest.
Mercedes, Renault and a feisty Sauber are duking it out for fourth, fifth and sixth, while Williams, Force India and Toro Rosso are all desperate to finish the year seventh – or more accurately, not finish ninth.
Toro Rosso's formidable technical director Giorgio Ascanelli has forgotten more about Formula One than most people learn in a lifetime: in a career that hasalos taken in Benetton, McLaren and Ferrari, he engineered Gerhard Berger, Nelson Piquet and Aryton Senna, before going on to look after track operations at Ferrari when a certain Michael Schumacher was at his best.
Last year Toro Rosso were ninth and this year the target is eighth, but a consistent run of points sees the team from Faenza occupy the heady heights of seventh – a few points behind Force India and a surprising distance in front of Williams. Giorgio gives us his usual candid assessment of the season so far and the challenges ahead.
RB: Can Toro Rosso finish seventh this year?
GA: Probably not – but we are trying. Why not? Because we have had our ups and down. The performance of the car has been sometimes better, sometimes worse than Force India and usually better than Williams.
You can see distinct steps in each team's performance when they have something that works really well. I’d say in terms of sheer performance we haven’t had the upper hand, but I think our racecraft has been a little cleverer – or luckier – than the others. I’d like to think cleverer but I have to admit that luck comes into it.
At this stage the 13 points we have over Williams is a definite advantage going into the second half of the year. The small gap between Force India and ourselves can disappear in one race. But at the moment Force India’s performance looks pretty strong. They looked fast at Silverstone and the Nürburgring.
Do you think you can get ahead by the end of the season?
What happens next depends on how much people are still prepared to devote to this year, and how much they will concentrate on 2012. Williams don’t usually follow a heavy development programme in the second half of the year and this year they have a large change of technical management. Force India, I assume, will push at least as late as the Indian Grand Prix. So, it’s hard to finish seventh, eighth is a more reasonable target, which we would be happy with.
Recently we've seen the STR6 is stronger in the race than it is in qualifying. Is there a technical reason behind that?
When something occurs consistently there is always a reason. But this is probably not down to one single reason but a combination of factors. Our DRS is not as developed as those around us. With limited resources that was a choice we made. The DRS can be activated through the full lap in qualifying whereas in the race it cannot be activated at all unless you are overtaking. That indicates there is a massive difference there, and technically it’s as good a reason as any.
Ayrton Senna – with over 60 poles – said that a qualifying lap is like knotting a tie: only when it’s finished do you know if you’ve got it right.
So we do not put a lot of emphasis into qualifying, we tend to work more for the race, because DRS makes overtaking a little more important [than grid position]. The best race we’ve done, I would say, we’ve started from the back of the grid, saving tyres to allow them to be at their best in the race, rather than in qualifying.
With new tyres and upheavals in the technical regulations, is the car more difficult to understand this year?
No I don’t think this season is particularly tough, you are just facing different problems. When we were getting the car from Red Bull Technology, we had the benefit of their analysis and some excellent predictive and development tools that allowed us to study a lot of data. The first year [as a constructor] we didn’t have much data and this year I have to prioritise development over the production of the data required to have a better understanding of the car.
We are still calibrating our models. The wind tunnel is still not giving answers that are completely relatable. It isn’t something we make a fuss about, I think it’s just normal: a model is just a model. What’s important is understanding the level of accuracy: in which areas is your model correct? At the end of the day the wind tunnel started blowing in November 2009 so we are less than two years into our programme and there are still some teething problems.
We’ve seen the minnows all announce deals to use the wind tunnels of bigger teams – HRT are working at Mercedes; Lotus at Williams and Virgin at McLaren – are you concerned that might give them an advantage?
Our situation was not too dissimilar: Red Bull Technology had two wind tunnels, one became surplus so we took it. Williams has two tunnels, one is now surplus and Lotus are using it, Mercedes had two, one is now surplus and HRT use it etc, etc,
But I don’t know what those facilities are like. A bigger question is the level of expertise with which the tunnel is run.
The wind tunnel we have was like being given a Ford Cortina that has been off the road for a while and didn’t come with an instruction manual. You have to learn, you have to work on it and eventually you will finish up with a decent car. When we took charge of the tunnel in Bicester we didn’t have the expertise. Red Bull Technology gave us all the help that they could, but the tunnel hadn’t been running for two years.
And finally, how are the drivers doing this year? Can you see progress from them?
They are improving and trying to do things better. But their strong points and their weak points are the same. If you look at their relative pace in what TV pompously calls the ‘qualifying battle’, the circuits where Jaime was faster than Seb last year, or Seb was faster than Jaime, have generally remained the same.
So, I would say they are at a stage of their development where they understand more about the car, more about racing and are more self-confident. In fact, they are done: they are made as Formula One drivers. It’s time for them to go and get a better car to see how good they really are.