Feature: Does Red Bull risk repeating the same mistake?
Red Bull is clearly not a fan of staying quiet during the summer break…
When the Belgian Grand Prix rolls around the #10 will have been peeled from one RB15 and replaced with the #23, signifying that it has lost short-term faith in Pierre Gasly and instead is taking the opportunity to evaluate Alexander Albon, a situation that appeared improbable given the public support it gave to the Frenchman prior to the shutdown.
It means that a driver once dropped by Red Bull is now racing for Red Bull, replacing a driver who will now team up at Toro Rosso alongside a driver previously demoted by Red Bull and once dropped entirely altogether. It is also the first case of a mid-season F1 replacement since… Gasly replaced Daniil Kvyat in late 2017.
Red Bull giveth, Red Bull taketh away. And then giveth again. Maybe.
It is in a fortunate position in that it has four seats available across its two teams. Red Bull’s senior management has always made clear that its drivers are interchangeable between the respective squads. Red Bull is in a fight for second in the Constructors’ Championship, has won races, and is in sight of Ferrari. It cannot finish lower than the third it currently occupies. It also gives Red Bull time and chances to work out who will partner Max Verstappen in 2020. Ie, there is nothing to lose from a team perspective.
But what about from the drivers’ view? While Red Bull can be praised for handing opportunities to drivers who otherwise may not have made Formula 1, that merry-go-round mentioned above is not an indicator of healthy career developments.
Let’s take a short view into the past.
Kvyat was promoted to Red Bull after just one year, his trajectory accelerated by Sebastian Vettel’s unexpected departure to Ferrari, and his 2015 was solid but unspectacular. A woeful start to 2016, allied to Red Bull’s fear of losing Verstappen to a rival, and his fate was sealed. He spent the next year-and-a-half looking somewhere between angst-ridden and broken. A year out did serve him well, and this season he has cut a fresh and motivated figure, regularly delivering, but the general consensus is his early promotion (GP3 to Red Bull in 18 months) was misguided.
Gasly had to wait for his opportunity to make the Formula 1 step but impressed at Toro Rosso in 2018. He finished fourth in Bahrain. Seventh in Monaco. Sixth in Hungary. When Toro Rosso, then in the early months of its Honda partnership, was in the ballpark, Gasly was there to profit. He was, though, still expected to stay with Toro Rosso into 2019. Daniel Ricciardo’s shock Renault move prompted Red Bull into a decision it never appeared to want to make, with the only other viable choice – Carlos Sainz Jr. – out of favour and en route to McLaren. Gasly has had a horrible campaign, far below even the lowest of expectations, with Silverstone’s apparent breakthrough followed by a dismal clash with Albon in Germany and a display in Hungary in which he failed to beat the midfield. Perhaps the demotion will give him a chance to re-group. But ultimately Red Bull made the call in the first place. Gasly has culpability for not performing but it’s also on Red Bull that it has not worked out. The ‘tough love’ approach may work for some drivers (Verstappen) but not for others – and Gasly falls into the latter category.
And so on to Albon. Kvyat had 19 races before his Red Bull move, Gasly 23, while Albon will climb into the senior team after just 12 races, having not tested Formula 1 machinery prior to February.
It has been quite the rise.
Albon’s ability had been lauded by rivals for years. Charles Leclerc rated him as one of the best. Lando Norris even had a poster of Albon on his bedroom wall. But Albon lacked money, and in early 2018 was on a round-by-round deal with DAMS that eventually led to a cut-price full-season. That faith was rewarded with third spot and a factory deal with the DAMS-run Nissan Formula E squad. Ironically it was Ricciardo’s exit, Red Bull’s lack of viable options, and Albon’s own displays that prompted Helmut Marko to pick up the phone to the Anglo-Thai… And so on to 2019. Albon has impressed on occasion. He bounced back from a hefty FP3 shunt in China to score. He took a fine eighth in Monaco. He was outstanding in Germany – his first F1 experience in the rain – and was unfortunate not to classify higher than sixth. As well-received as Kvyat’s podium was, Albon was better on that particular race day.
A young driver impressing at Toro Rosso. For Kvyat in 2014, Gasly in 2018, read Albon in 2019 (and, perhaps, for 2020 that will be someone else – perchance current F3 front-runner Juri Vips?) The past lessons show there is a danger of history repeating itself. Everyone – on a purely human level – will be hoping that Gasly can re-find the confidence and faith in his own natural ability to return as a more formidable racer. And everyone will be hoping that the amiable Albon can profit from an opportunity that no-one could have foreseen 12 months ago.
But if not, will anyone be surprised if in 12 months’ time another ‘New Driver Line-up for Aston Martin Red Bull Racing’ press release drops into the inbox?