Toro Rosso's reputation of grooming potential aces for Red Bull Racing had taken a knock in recent years, with only Sebastian Vettel looking like the real deal. But though the Ferrari-powered STR7 is some way off the pace of the Adrian Newey-designed, Renault-powered RB8, it has at least proven a solid platform for Jean-Eric Vergne and Daniel Ricciardo, the 2010 and '09 British Formula 3 champions, respectively. There was much criticism of “the Red Bull system” in the last off-season, when Sebastien Buemi and Jaime Alguersuari were let go after three seasons at Toro Rosso. Now, however, many have come to feel that the right move was made.
Ricciardo has been the driver that Toro Rosso has looked to for outright speed, outpacing his teammate 15-3 in qualifying, but they have been more evenly matched in the races and the Frenchman is currently 12-10 ahead in championship points. Having said that, Ricciardo's 10th place in Abu Dhabi gave him his fifth helping of points in the past seven races.
The Toro Rosso pair sandwiched the Mercedes of Schumacher there, and there have been similar performances in races throughout the season. Unfortunately for all concerned, however, that means playing on the fringes of the points-scoring positions. If both STRs make it into the top 10 this weekend, as they have in two other races this year, that will be like a victory to them.
If Grosjean had a rival for the “Wildman Crash-Magnet” award this year, it was Pastor Maldonado. The Venezuelan got himself quite a reputation for rubbing other drivers the wrong way by nudging them off the circuit, taking excessive chances and making some unforced errors. But as usual, not everything he was blamed for was his fault and, like Grosjean, he was always likely to be forgiven because his pace is so strong. That won't work forever, of course, but for a sophomore with his first chance in a sporadically fast car, his incident tally stopped just short of being excessive.
And in the middle of a season in which his pace has often promised more than his race craft could deliver, Maldonado drove to an excellent victory in Spain, scoring the first win for Sir Frank Williams' team since the 2004 season finale. It was no fluke, either; a fantastic qualifying run saw him start from pole and a well-judged tire-nursing race pace kept him out of reach of local hero Alonso. Going by Mario Andretti's old adage that “you can tidy up speed but you can't speed up tidiness,” the 2010 GP2 champion should have a bright future and it has started already.
Maldonado's rise to prominence has totally shaded Bruno Senna, and the last hopes of Ayrton's nephew becoming a grand prix star must surely now have flickered out. Just twice this year has the Brazilian outqualified his teammate and sometimes the gap between them has been a chasm by F1 standards. Senna has finished races ahead of Maldonado a few times this year, but it's usually been achieved by staying out of trouble rather than through superior speed. With hugely talented test driver Valtteri Bottas waiting in the wings, Williams has a clear choice for 2013.
Williams itself has blown hot and cold all year (which is a vast improvement over the years in which it varied between cold and freezing). Should Austin suit the FW34, Maldonado could be on the podium.
Like Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Eddie Irvine in the 1990s, and Giancarlo Fisichella and Nick Heidfeld in this century, Heikki Kovalainen is one of those drivers who has gained far more kudos for pushing a mediocre car into prominent positions than he achieved while driving for a top team. There are reasons for this, of course, and the harsh might say it's because all of them lacked the steely edge necessary at the top of F1. Others might point out that, in Kovalainen's case, he just needed the role of team leader thrust upon him to give of his best.
Whatever the truth, the Finn has done a great job for Caterham – he outperformed the mercurial Jarno Trulli over the previous two seasons, and this year he has outclassed Vitaly Petrov. The sad thing is that few truly appreciate it, as Caterham seems stuck in the middle of nowhere – not on the level of Toro Rosso, but usually ahead of Marussia and HRT. Force India could do a lot worse than hire Kovalainen to replace Hulkenberg.
Petrov appears to have reached his natural plateau and his spectacular style is great to watch, less great against the stopwatch in qualifying, although his race pace is often close to his teammate's. Nonetheless, it's a pity we won't get to see America's Alexander Rossi at least perform on the Friday morning in Austin.
A Formula 1 team that was sold even before it made its debut in 2010, HRT has been stuck at the back of the F1 grid ever since. Slowly, it has inched up on F1's other relative newcomers, Marussia and Caterham, and this probably has much to do with employing native son Pedro de la Rosa. The Spanish veteran was respected as one of the finest test drivers in F1 over the past decade, and he also still has a decent turn of speed – enough to keep him ahead of talented Indian teammate Narain Karthikeyan, who never got the right breaks when he was in his prime. Still, it is Karthikeyan who has scored the team's best finish, a 15th place at Monaco. Anything better than that this weekend, from either driver, is highly unlikely.
In Timo Glock and Charles Pic, Marussia has a very respectable driver lineup. Glock's aggressive style and pace in low-speed corners has long served him well, while Pic has outqualified the German on six occasions this year – very respectable for a rookie. Given that it's his first year, it should be no surprise that he's also been less consistent than his teammate.
Like Caterham and HRT, Marussia have not scored points this year and these three teams are locked in a battle for 10th in the constructors' championship; whoever prevails gets its travel paid for by Formula 1 in 2013, and on a 20-race calendar that spans the globe, that's a bonus well worth fighting for! Right now, Marussia holds the coveted 10th spot, courtesy of Glock's 12th-place finish in Singapore. Should a Caterham finish 12th this weekend, or an HRT 11th, that would hand the initiative to them. So expect to see some vigorous driving among the backmarkers both here and in the season finale in Brazil next week.
• CLICK HERE: F1 teams and drivers offer their thought on the Circuit of The Americas.