After a sometimes fraught 2010 F1 world championship campaign, pre-season testing showed that Scuderia Toro Rosso might be on the verge of something more promising in 2011 and, after three races, the Italian team believes that it is a genuine midfield contender.
While dreams of challenging the likes of Red Bull and McLaren remain just that, the Faenza equipe sits seventh in the constructors' standings, between Sauber and Force India and reckons that it can compete with them for the remainder of the season. Although it only has four points to show from its three starts, chief engineer Laurent Mekies says he is happy with the level of performance shown by the STR6, and points to the close competition at the foot of the top ten as the likely divider between the midfield runners.
“From a Toro Rosso point of view, we discovered more or less what we had expected after the winter testing, when the car proved to be well born,” the Frenchman told redbull.com, “At the first race, we found we had a reasonable race pace and our direct competition came, as expected from Williams, Force India and Sauber. We found ourselves fighting these guys throughout the opening three races of the championship, [and] our STR6 appeared to have the potential to fight them, which was good news.
"Qualifying went well in all three races, converting that into points in Melbourne, but not in the next two rounds. I think that, from a performance level, we were right there at all three races, [but] it is part of the game that, in some races, you manage to put everything together properly and, in others, you do not. This happened to us, it can also happen to our opponents, and this explains our position, just trailing a few points behind Sauber in the table. We are going to have an interesting fight with these three or four teams all season long – if you like, this is our championship battle within the championship.”
Mekies admits that, if Toro Rosso is to keep fighting, with Sauber and Force India in particular, development of the car will be a key factor, and reveals that work can now take place on two different levels. Sebastien Buemi is the team's only point-scorer in 2011, collecting four points from Melbourne following Sauber's dual disqualification, but both the Swiss and Spanish team-mate Jaime Alguersuari have made it through to the final phase of qualifying, starting ninth and seventh respectively in China.
“We have planned major steps for car development during the year that have been established since before the start of the season,” he explained, “At some point pre-season, you have to sign off the car to go into production to be built and maybe you have a good idea for a component the next day, so these are the building blocks for your next development update. This has indeed been the case with us and we will see a significant step introduced in Monaco and another one later in the season.
"These two steps are planned and will hopefully provide good performance improvements, but it is also true that, with minimal testing allowed, we have been trying different set-ups at the races and these can lead you down different paths in terms of ride height, or the type of springs to use, or in terms of the aero balance on the car. These elements can also impact on the development strategy for the car.”
Looking at the bigger picture, rather than just the Toro Rosso angle, Mekies admitted that he has enjoyed the spectacle that the new 2011 rules - notably those concerning the introduction of Pirelli new tyres - have produced.
“From the point of view of the show and what the spectators actually see, what is happening at the moment is simply fantastic,” he enthused, “In the past, we had some races where it was a bit predictable, with most cars making just the single compulsory pit-stop all at around the same time within a couple of laps of one another. Now, in Malaysia for example, we saw two-stoppers, three-stoppers and even four-stoppers, and no-one could have dreamed of a better combination than that from the spectacle point of view. Those stops are necessary because there is a large drop in tyre performance which is good for the show.
"On top of that, it is throwing up different strategies, creating the need for multiple pit-stops but, above all, it also produces a lot of overtaking situations, because there is now a big difference in lap time between a guy on fresh rubber and another on worn tyres. All this adds spice to the race.”