Toro Rosso enjoyed its best qualifying of the season at the Japanese Grand Prix, the home race of engine supplier Honda. Meanwhile, the irony of McLaren and its struggles in the same session was not lost on the Italian team.
Honda came to Suzuka with a new and improved power unit and Toro Rosso’s drivers delivered, with under-pressure Brendon Hartley qualifying sixth ahead of teammate Pierre Gasly. It was the first time the team had both cars in Q3 since the Hungarian Grand Prix.
By contrast, Honda’s former partner added another dismal chapter to its miserable 2018 story. McLaren drivers Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne were eliminated in Q1, only finishing off the very bottom of the order because Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson spun out of the session early on.
After three acrimonious years together, McLaren cut its Honda partnership short last year and switched to a Renault supply deal for 2018. At the Australian Grand Prix, the opening race of the season, Alonso boasted “Now we can fight!” after finishing fifth, which was seen as a dig at McLaren’s former partner. It is a phrase Toro Rosso and Honda have remembered since, with Gasly using the same phrase in response when he finished fourth at the next race, the Bahrain Grand Prix.
Alonso’s quote made another appearance on Saturday afternoon, this time on Toro Rosso’s official Twitter account.
Since Alonso’s Melbourne declaration the team has been in freefall, with a major reshuffle of its race operation earlier this year and the Spaniard’s decision to quit at the end of 2018. It has been a regular casualty in Q1 in recent races.
Hartley’s performance could not have come at a better time. Red Bull’s Helmut Marko, who oversees the team’s driver programme, has said the New Zealander will stay with the team in 2019 if he beats Gasly over the remaining races of the season. Hartley admits it was an emotional moment to finally deliver a strong result.
“Honestly, that felt awesome,” he said. “It was quite emotional on the in lap, which is not something that normally happens to me, but it was just all the build-up of crap over the last six months and knowing that I’ve got better and better, but haven’t always had the chance to show it or things haven’t gone my way, strategy in races haven’t been in my favour if I’ve been the tailing car, or missing out in qualifying to Pierre by half a tenth, one tenth, whatever it was.
“Today felt good. It was high pressure. The track was tricky, my first time in Suzuka on what is a real driver’s track. Really proud of the qualifying session and also for Honda, grateful for the PU update. Toro Rosso’s strategy put us on the track at the right time, fine tuning the car so it was in a place where I was really happy with it. Really stoked to start P6.”
The main Red Bull team is ending its own Renault engine partnership at the end of 2018 to switch to Honda for next season, meaning the Japanese company will supply both of the energy drinks company’s F1 teams.