Pre-season testing times in F1 may be notoriously hard to judge - particularly so in an era of considerable discrepancies in terms of tyre degradation - but all of the signs are pointing to Red Bull 'B' team Scuderia Toro Rosso emerging as one of the paddock's darkest horses in 2011.

Since 2008 and Sebastian Vettel's landmark breakthrough victory for the small Faenza-based outfit at Monza, Toro Rosso's progress has been in reverse, with no finish better than seventh position from 36 grand prix starts and respectively tenth and ninth places in the final constructors' standings in 2009 and 2010. On the basis of its eye-catching lap times around the test tracks of Valencia, Jerez and Barcelona, however, the Ferrari-powered STR6 could just be the car to turn that tide around.

"The Toro Rosso looks ridiculously fast," 2008 F1 World Champion Lewis Hamilton is quoted as having said by Reuters, and Lotus Renault GP star Nick Heidfeld concurs.

"I think they have made a huge step forward," opined the experienced German. "They have looked good in all the last tests. Also, if you look at their car it looks quite nice and special. It will be a surprise to many people, but not so much to us working here every day. I am sure they will make a big jump forward."

"They definitely have done a very good job and their car looks fast," echoed Lotus Renault GP team principal Eric Boullier. "I think it's how they develop the car during the year which will be crucial to confirm it or not."

Toro Rosso was formed when Red Bull magnate Dietrich Mateschitz purchased the erstwhile back-of-the-grid Minardi operation from Paul Stoddart at the end of 2005, but the subsequent change in the regulations stipulating that each team must design its car in-house sparked the beginning of the decline for STR, suddenly depriving the Italian squad - lacking its own wind tunnel - of the visionary genius of Adrian Newey.

The team's new baby, however - boldly incorporating a 'double-floor' concept reminiscent of early 1990s Ferraris - is an altogether more dynamic proposition, and Toro Rosso should theoretically benefit from the abolition of F-ducts and double-diffusers, innovations that it was unable to adequately exploit.

"The change in rules has led us to make some changes and yes, we think we have been a little bit more ambitious than last year," acknowledged technical director Giorgio Ascanelli, who worked for Ferrari in the late 1980s.

Should the STR6 live up to early expectations and vault Scuderia Toro Rosso back into the limelight, the pressure will be squarely upon the shoulders of drivers Jaime Alguersuari and S?bastien Buemi to deliver results, with Red Bull motorsport advisor Dr. Helmut Marko having repeatedly and bluntly asserted that underperformance will not be tolerated, and highly-regarded test and reserve driver Daniel Ricciardo waiting patiently and expectantly in the wings.

"I think the car is good," affirmed Alguersuari, heading into what is only his second full campaign of top flight competition. "The team has done a really good job in one winter - they've worked very hard, and I think we are looking better than what everyone [else] thinks, to be honest. I am realistic, but if we are in front of Force India and maybe Sauber, it will be a really good season for us.

"I think development will be better than last year. We know last year the F-duct was a big handbrake for all of us, so this year without the F-duct it will be a bit easier for us [and] we can develop more the aero balance of the car. I really hope we can stay in the points during the mid-season and at the end of the year."



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