JULY 24, 2007
Pugilism in the pits
Things are going from bad to worse at Scuderia Toro Rosso, where tensions have been high for months because of the team's unusual attitude towards motivating its drivers and because of poor reliability and disorganised qualifying sessions and pit stops.
The latest flare-up occurred after the race in Germany when Scott Speed returned to the pits after spinning off at the first corner and team manager Franz Tost became excited (some say abusive) about his driver. Speed, who is not famous for his tact, responded that it would help if the team could actually complete a pit stop in a sensible period of time, whereupon he turned away and Tost "touched him on the shoulder". That is how the Austrian described it later. This gesture was not apparently one of affection and Speed was sufficiently upset by it that Red Bull boss Dietrich Mateschitz had to become involved by telephone to calm things down.
Tost, who has a reputation of being rather authoritarian in his management style, is clearly trying to play down the incident, but the reality is that there is no affection between the drivers and the management. The drivers clearly feel that the management does not want them and is planning to replace them as both Gerhard Berger and Tost have both been highly critical. They also rarely concede when the team makes a mistake thus creating a feeling that the drivers are not being treated fairly.
In the background there is talk that the failure of the pair would break the powerful influence that Dr Helmut Marko - the man behind the Red Bull Young Driver programme - enjoys with Red Bull boss Dietrich Mateschitz. Whatever the details, there is hugh tension and things are not getting any better. The team's press release on Sunday, for example, was a black sheet of paper with "nothing to say" written on it. This attempt at humour was clearly unfair to Liuzzi, who did not spin off as everyone else did at the first corner, but rather suffered a rear suspension failure of some sort as a result of being hit from behind during the first lap. To leave that unsaid meant people would assume that he had made the same mistake as everyone else.
There is little doubt that within a few days Scuderia Toro Rosso will take up an option to run Sebastien Bourdais next year and there are rumours that there are also talks with Ralf Schumacher, although Toyota executives may yet give the disappointing German a new contract, if only because they do not want to take a risk with someone else.
Speed's future in F1 is bleak, with no obvious opportunities open to him. The American has shown himself to be quick but has run into a lot of incidents and generally does not race as well as Liuzzi. The Italian has had a lot of reliability problems and has been involved in a number of accidents which were not of his own making. It is believed that he has some chance of finding a drive elsewhere as one or two of the smarter teams has seen through the results in recent years and still believe him to be a serious talent.
There are, nonetheless, rumours that one or both drivers will be replaced before the end of the year. In Germany Gerhard Berger said that there are no plans for that, despite the fact that the relationship seems pointless and it might be best for all concerned to move on and start preparing for the future. Bourdais could be called in for most of the remaining races. There is a clash between Champ Car and F1 for the Turkish GP but the Frenchman could do Italy, Belgium, China and Japan but would have to miss Brazil because of a Champ Car race in Surfers Paradise.
There are other issues to be considered: Red Bull has invested a huge sum of money in the careers of Liuzzi, Speed and others and the Junior Driver programme would be in ruins if the team dropped both men. Thus there is the suggestion that Sebastian Vettel - a Red Bull driver, who also has a BMW contract - might be used to save the day rather than the drives going to non-Red Bull drivers, such as Nelson Piquet Jr.