When I first heard about the possible Sato – Toro Rosso connection I found it to be quite good joke. There is a lot of competition for the vacancy created by Vettel’s move to Red Bull. Well, of course. Many drivers want to get to F1 and Toro Rosso’s is so far the only confirmed vacancy for 2009 F1 season. Now it however looks that Toro Rosso guys are seriously considering Sato for 2009 season and the more I think about that connection the more sense it makes. Here is why I think why:
Japan is a big market (also for the nergy drinks) and one of the few developed ones where Red Bull is yet to make it big. There are several reasons for that but at the end, it is all about marketing. Takuma Sato is still very popular back home (nothing against Nakajima, but it will take him a while to achieve Sato’s status). The combination of Japanese F1 hero with Red Bull brand may be something what Mr. Mateschitz may be willing to try.
Toro Rosso is up for sale, looking for buyers and also partners and sponsors. I can’t read Mateschitz’s mind but I believe that as long as it makes commercial sense, he may continue his partnership with Toro Rosso in some form even after the team is sold. If the Japanese connection starts bringing some business results for his company, he may be willing to stay on board as a sponsor for example. And that is something that Mr. Berger may like too. Continuing cash flow from Red Bull would not hurt…
Unless Toro Rosso decides to return to the Minardi days of pay drivers they will also select the drivers based on their skills and experience. Berger and Tost said several times the ideal line up for 2009 season would be a combination of an experienced driver and a rookie. Until now that looked like a good omen for disappointing F1 rookie Sebastien Bourdais. But if the experience is the main criteria the numbers talk in Sato’s favour – 92 F1 races, 1 front row start, 1 podium, 10th place race finish with Super Aguri car in their first season, few points scored in their second one.
I would also say that Sato’s sometime rather erratic nature may quite fit the image of Red Bull and Toro Rosso. Few would doubt Sato’s ability to give the bull the wings
At the moment the drivers under consideration are Sato’s former team mate Anthony Davidson, Red Bull’s test driver and current GP2 racer Sebastien Buemi and currently second in GP standings Bruno Senna. Then there is of course Sebastien Bourdais whos seat is by no means safe.
Anthony Davidson is considered by many to be a better driver than Takuma Sato. It may or may not be the case, but I am afraid that the relative lack of race experience and lesser marketability would play against him.
Sebastien Bourdais is probably the main competition for Sato at the moment. But as I see it, he has only one major advantage over Sato. After Vettel’s departure Bourdais would be the one to provide some continuity. The question is if that is Berger and Tost now want and need … Continuity does not equal experience …
Sebastien Buemi (can be seen in this Red Bull Lake Balaton video) has a mountain to climb. Gerhard Berger considers him to be one of the few current GP2 drivers capable of making the step up to F1. Berger however also says that for that step to happen one needs to win the GP2 championship … At this moment Buemi is quite far away from achieving that. In any case, I do not see him to be Sato’s direct competion for the race seat.
Bruno Senna is not doing too bad in GP2 and he is still in the title fight. Although he was not mentioned yet among the drivers Toro Rosso will be testing in Jerez he is obviously one of the candidates. But same as in the case of Buemi, I do not see him to be a competitor for Sato. Buemi and Senna are probably both candidates for the same “rookie seat”. Senna’s name however is very marketable. If you are good and your name is Senna it is hard not to get in F1 …
I do not want to say that Sato would be the perfect choice for Toro Rosso, but would he be a bad choice ?
And so here is my wild guess of the 2009 Toro Rosso line up (in time of writing, August 2008):
Takuma Sato (experience, marketable in Japan)
Bruno Senna (rookie, name marketable everywhere)
Feel free to disagree …