Jaime Alguersuari’s Chinese Grand Prix ended prematurely as the Spanish driver coasted to a halt on lap 10 of 56 with only three wheels on his Toro Rosso STR6. The fourth, not fully attached in the pits, bounced away. In terms of a race, Shanghai was a disaster; in terms of a season, Jaime and Toro Rosso have a lot of plus points to consider on the flight back to Italy.
The first is getting both cars into Q3; the first time since Sebs Vettel and Bourdais achieved the same feat at Interlagos in 2008. Significantly, it was Jaime’s first visit to Q3 and, more significantly, it was the first time this year he’s out-qualified team-mate Sébastien Buemi. Conventional wisdom has suggested over the last season and a half that Buemi is the better qualifier while Alguersuari is the more aggressive racer. Both men dispute that, and Alguersuari is at pains to point out that besting the Swiss driver in qualifying is not something he focussed on.
“I don’t think it works like that. The main philosophy is just to make the team work. I think me and Sébastien are doing a good job in qualifying – he might be one or two tenths up; I might be one or two tenths up, but at the moment it’s not my aim to be faster than him.
“Obviously I would like to go faster, but the priority is to work on the car and when you have everything together, when you know exactly how the car is going to react and what you’re going to do with the tyres – then you can aim to be the number one.”
The issue of getting the car to work has been an obsession for Jaime since he came into F1 in 2009. Sister team Red Bull Racing might be able to collect trophies with the car functioning at 90 per cent, but for Toro Rosso the difference between a car that’s not quite right and one performing at its peak is the difference between fighting Mercedes for points and fending off Lotus for the wooden spoon. Jaime is candid enough to admit he and the team aren’t getting it entirely right just yet.
'We’ve made some good progress but we’re still looking around for things to improve'
“I still don’t think I have 100 per cent of the car’s potential. We are learning a lot about the tyres, about the setup of the car, we’re still, y’know, on the learning curve. We’ve made some good progress but we’re still looking around for things to improve. I’m getting more comfortable every time – but I know there’s still a margin to improve.”
Grand Prix drivers don’t particularly need external motivation – if they did they would never have made it through the junior ranks – but if Jaime, or Sébastien Buemi, were in need of that little extra nudge, they only need to look as far as Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull Junior Team’s latest superstar and the man widely tipped as F1’s next cab off the rank. He’s been very steady and assured driving the car in Friday practice this year, and team principal Franz Tost has articulated what most people believed anyway, that if one of the race drivers doesn’t perform to the expected standard, Daniel will be racing sooner rather than later.
It must be a distraction, though Jaime shrugs it off as just another one of those things. “We have another driver in the team who is fast and very talented. No one in the team is wanting me or Sébastien to go slower or Daniel to go faster, and that’s why I don’t really mind the situation.
“What is important is that we have another viewpoint in the garage. Daniel is very important for the team because he has been working with a winning team – Red Bull Racing – last year; he knows how their teams works and how ookour team works and he can compare the garages, the setup and the car, which means we get good data. He’s part of the family too; we’ve all come through the same Red Bull driver programme, so in the end it can only be good for us.”
In the early exchanges of 2010 Jaime often cut a pensive figure in the paddock, constantly grappling with the intricacies of setup and tyre management. As the season wore on and he got a better handle on the car and conditions, the spring returned to his step. By the end of the season he was confident enough in the car and on the Bridgestone tyres to finally exclaim “I think I have it now.” So it must be galling to have to start all over again with a different car and different tyres.
“It is a little bit annoying, but it’s the same for everybody with a new car, a new setup and a completely different driving philosophy for all of us. We have the tyres we have, and we have to adapt ourselves to them.
“For the moment we are still working on our one-lap performance. When you get to the point where you have a car that doesn’t understeer or oversteer, then you can do some amazing lap times – but I’m not there yet.
“We have made improvements, but in general we still need to work to get that last bit we had at the end of 2010. We need to keep on working on the setup of the car, to understand temperatures and tyres and tyre degradation and so on. Eventually there will be a point – I don’t know when or where, but hopefully it will come sooner rather than later – where we can extract the maximum performance from the car.
“It’s not easy, because so many things have changed in F1 over the winter. Last year you would, for example, change a front spring and know what the effect of that change would be. This year you make the same change, but the car acts in a different way; maybe a way you weren’t expecting. It means maybe you miss two or three tenths of performance that maybe your team-mate got. And all you can do to get past that is watch, learn, gain the experience and hopefully get better.”
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