Silverstone. An iconic name in Formula 1, the home of the British Grand Prix is a spectacular high speed test of an F1 car. Throwing it into Copse corner at nearly 200mph, followed by the rapid change of direction throughout the spectacular Maggots and Becketts section; the circuit pushes a car to its limit.
But it’s not just the drivers who are revelling in such a challenge. For a technical director, too, Silverstone provides the ability to see just what your team’s chassis can do. And as a circuit that has been used intermittently since hosting the first ever round of the inaugural F1 World Championship in 1950, it is a significant venue on the calendar.
“I think when you get into it, you treat it as you do every race, I think you have to, but naturally you want to do well,” Toro Rosso technical director James Key explains of his home race. “And I think Silverstone is one of those tracks, because we used to test there a lot in years gone by as well, like Barcelona, you have an affinity for it, you kind of understand it quite well, and know what to look for.
“Even though the configuration has changed in recent years. So you’ve kind of got a good feeling for it. There's not so many tracks around at the moment like that. Suzuka is one of them, Monaco, Monza, Spa, Silverstone, probably Barcelona.
“Others, like Baku for example, still take an awful lot of understanding. So, there's a big mix of different tracks that you have in your head, and Silverstone is very firmly in the ‘I know this place’ kind of camp. But I don't think there's any extra pressure particularly.”
The question of extra pressure crops up because for many of the Toro Rosso team as well as Key, Silverstone is a home race. With a facility in Bicester - just 15 miles away - Key splits his time between Faenza and the UK, but Britain is where home is.
“It does feel more special for me, because Silverstone was the first Grand Prix I went to. I'd badgered my dad for a couple of years, when I was about ten or something, and he was a racing fan anyway, so it wasn’t difficult. But eventually, we went.
“And I remember, I stood on Club Corner and watched Nigel Mansell win the race that year. So, it's always been a special track for me anyway, and I've always loved it because it's such a great track to be at.
“It's the atmosphere, of course, with the fans, and the whole set-up is one of those very happy kind of feelings. But also, the track itself is awesome. When you watch a Formula 1 car go through Copse, it's just brilliant.”
Much like team principal Franz Tost’s home weekend in Austria, Key makes the most of his closest grand prix to ensure those closest to him get the chance to see a slice of the day job.
“I have family, and I have some friends who will come along. Several of the UK guys have had some visitors over, and I'll be having family over again this year, and that’s always really nice. And again, because of the atmosphere at Silverstone, it's a full day of just enjoyment for them.
“My kids in particular really enjoy it. So yeah, it's a weekend I enjoy. And it's one of the few tracks where you can see the people and hear the crowd. There's a few other places like that, but very much here at Silverstone.”
While there are friends and family at the race, it doesn’t detract from the job at hand. In the first year of our partnership, Key and his team have produced another competitive chassis for Toro Rosso, but exploiting its potential on a regular basis has proven tricky.
“This season has been just a rollercoaster, really. I think we’re not happy at the moment, I have to say, with where we are. But there's lots of different reasons for that. I think when we've shown a ton of pace, we've used it well, particularly with Pierre [Gasly] in Monaco and Bahrain. But we haven’t quite had the consistency that we've wanted.
“I think, definitely, some of that is down to chassis. We've got upgrades coming to try and improve that consistency. But the frustration is that you kind of know you can do it, you’ve just got to get all the things right. And when they do fall into place, it works really well.
“But the thing is, this year, inconsistency is a swing of just 0.3s of lap time. That could be the difference of being in the top ten and being P14 or even out in Q1.
“So actually, it looks kind of very up and down, but when you look at the lap times, it's very, very compressed. So you’ve got to be on top of your game, and I don't think at some events, for various reasons, we've been a hundred per cent on top of our game. So that’s something we’ll try to turn around.”
Toro Rosso’s desire to produce even better results on a more regular basis is one matched by Honda, as both the chassis and power unit sides striving for improvements since the start of the partnership.
Reflecting on the first half of the season, Key is encouraged by the gains he is seeing from a power point of view, following the introduction of an upgrade in Canada that delivered a step forward.
“The good news is, although there's been a few glitches, but because it's been only a few, they’ve been able to concentrate on performance development, and that sort of thing. And it is actually beginning to come quite prolifically now.”
Most headlines have focused on the Honda side of the partnership, especially with the recent confirmation of a deal to supply Red Bull from next season onwards. But Key insists the ongoing pursuit of better performance from a manufacturer dedicated to Toro Rosso this season is something that brings its own pressure to the chassis side, too.
“It's the first time the team have had the opportunity to have a works partnership. And it's funny, because you always wish for that when you're a customer and you just have to take what you’re given, and you don't get any dyno time, and that sort of thing. But when it's suddenly put there for you, particularly with the resources of funding, you think, ‘Christ, how are we gonna do this?!’
“So, actually, it was an enormous challenge, and a very big responsibility. You’ve got a massive company putting their faith in a chassis team, and you’ve got to live up to that expectation. I have to say, we didn’t take on extra people to deal with this, we did it all with the existing team, and everyone rose to that challenge really well.”
Agreeing with Tost that the Red Bull partnership is a good deal for all parties involved as both Honda and Toro Rosso will benefit, Key doesn’t believe the eyes on the future should detract from the progress made so far this season, and his team’s role in it.
“Lots of people have said that it's gonna be less pressure than the previous team, but that’s not the case at all. Of course the pressure is on. But we've tried to make it a positive pressure rather than a negative one. So, we’re very transparent, we’re very honest with each other. And that’s helped us work our way through issues very easily, and in a very straightforward way.
“There's no finger pointing or anything like that. So we’re able to have honest conversations. When we first met, there was obviously a little bit of apprehension and stress about what they'd just been through. It was clear that we needed to let them reset a little bit, and get their house in order, which they’ve done really well.
“I think there was some organisational changes, which have helped. A very, very high workload for one person has been split now into two, and that’s allowing a very complex task to be covered a little bit easier.
“I think the big thing is with Honda is, they’ve got a lot of resource, a lot of fire power, but I think they needed a fresh input. And because we'd experienced a different power unit the year before, we had a generally good idea of what’s going on, and how certain things were working, and what’s achievable.
“So we were able to talk about where we thought they should be with some things. And because they’ve got that fire power of people, and talent, and investment, and so on, they were able to react to that pretty quickly.
“What we've seen recently is their reaction to some of that, but also, predominantly, a lot of their own internal work just coming good, now that they’ve got the opportunity to do it without reliability concerns.
“I think the other thing that I've noticed a change in is just their confidence is higher. They’re willing to stick their neck out a bit and try stuff, compared to maybe when we first started working together. So, if that continues, then it's a good way to go.”