Feature: Why we shouldn't cry for Pierre Gasly or decry Red Bull
The only surprise really was that anyone was surprised.
Unless you have been living in some sort of seclusion you’ll be aware that Red Bull’s Pierre Gasly has been demoted to ‘B team’ Toro Rosso forthwith, with Alex Albon making the reverse journey to replace him. And the news admittedly was something of a surprise, at least in the timing.
Yet it should not have surprised that Gasly’s tepid form since his step-up made him vulnerable. Nor should F1’s capacity for ruthlessness have been a surprise. Particularly not Red Bull’s.
Not that you’d know any of this though from the outpouring of mawkishness that has followed Red Bull’s decision. It’s almost as if F1’s very fundamentals have somehow, up until now, passed much of F1’s commentariat by completely unnoticed.
We’ve outlined a few of those fundamentals already, and it’s worth reiterating a few more. F1 drivers get their gig for one of two reasons. They are either a) the best driver for the job or b) bring money to help the team keep going. At Red Bull the latter scarcely applies, and Gasly this season has looked nothing like the former.
There is not – and in all probability never has been – a single F1 driver kept on out of sentiment. Success is key. The stakes in F1, financial and otherwise, are high.
Gasly’s team-mate Max Verstappen is a phenomenon. We know this. But it seems reasonable for Red Bull to seek a stablemate who is a bit closer to him on pace than Gasly has been. Perhaps within a tenth or so rather than the gaping half-second a lap that Gasly has on average (in qualifying) been trailing.
Gasly has barely a third of Verstappen’s points this season. He also is only five ahead of Carlos Sainz in a much less potent McLaren. And consider that if you remove fastest lap points – something Gasly is in perfect position to ‘game’ running well off the back of the leading group – and the gap shrinks to only three. Plus Sainz didn’t score in the first three races.
It should not have surprised that Gasly’s tepid form made him vulnerable. Nor about F1’s capacity for ruthlessness. Not that you’d know any of this from the outpouring of mawkishness that has followed Red Bull’s decision
And as has been noted, in Hungary Gasly’s lack of punch really cost Red Bull, possibly for the first time. Would Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes have gone for their strategy dice-roll of a second stop, which as it transpired won them the race ahead of Verstappen, had the second Red Bull been running third and within their pitstop loss time? Maybe, maybe not. But it would have put doubts into their heads. Even if they had still gone for it perhaps the time lost getting past Red Bull number two would have tilted the race Verstappen’s way.
One point we can credibly debate is whether Gasly’s 12 races in a Red Bull is sufficient time in which to establish yourself, especially in the age of testing restrictions. But still, it doesn’t strike as a ridiculously short period, particularly not for someone who had a year and a bit before that at Toro Rosso. Go back to 1972 and there were only 12 races in a season…
And the eternal flipside to the ‘give them time’ argument is the best evidence may be that giving them time is simply wasting time. We may recall the Einstein quote about doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
There also is immediacy to Red Bull’s considerations. It’s in a close fight right now with Ferrari in the constructors’ table, with the many millions that ride on that, and it’s currently fighting with one hand tied behind its back. There also is its 2020 driver selection to consider. Had Gasly been retained at Red Bull for the rest of the year and didn’t improve the team would have been in rather an unenviable position. Does it keep Gasly and hope that he improves somehow? Does it throw Albon in rather on a wing and a prayer? Or throw Daniil Kvyat in and hope he’s better than he was last time?
It’s hard to point at signs of Gasly’s progress either. At Silverstone, he showed up well and the air was rich of him making set-up breakthroughs and the like. But it proved a false dawn, as in Germany he was nowhere near Verstappen in qualifying or the race, threw in a practice crash plus ended his race by driving into Albon’s Toro Rosso. In Hungary, he was lapped by his team-mate, was some eight tenths off him in qualifying, and raced among the midfield men. While Verstappen as noted fought for victory.
The problem is he is not in the mix at all...Not having two cars running at the front does hurt us, particularly in the constructors’ championship - Christian Horner
It led to Red Bull boss Christian Horner expressing frustrations in public. “The start wasn't great, the first lap wasn't great, and we shouldn't be racing Alfa Romeos and McLarens,” he said of Gasly’s effort.
“The problem is he is not in the mix at all...Not having two cars running at the front does hurt us, particularly in the constructors’ championship.”
Sean Kelly asked on Twitter if we would object to Pastor Maldonado being dropped with Gasly’s results. A good question. Hell, we can rewind back a couple of months to Dan Ticktum being unceremoniously discarded by Red Bull to what seemed like hardly anyone’s great sympathy. And in Ticktum’s case, it appeared that his being outspoken sealed his fate as much as any shortage of driving talent.
There has also been rather a rewriting of history about how much potential Gasly showed in the first place coming into his Red Bull drive. “A year ago Gasly was widely regarded as le comingman,” David Tremayne, for one, has written.
But was that really the case? Gasly had promise, was considered someone who might turn out to be good, but he was never a stick-on like Verstappen or even Charles Leclerc. He performed very well in certain races last year – Bahrain, Monaco and Hungary being standouts. But for much of the time, he didn’t put away his team-mate Brendon Hartley as convincingly as the topline numbers suggested. And Hartley was discarded as not good enough with barely a backward glance.
There is evidence that the Red Bull collective had doubts too. When Gasly was winning the 2016 GP2 title, putting him in a Toro Rosso F1 race seat right away looked a no brainer, particularly as incumbent Kvyat was struggling at the time. Yet Red Bull waited near enough a year before giving Gasly a go, only doing so in late 2017 and packing him off to Super Formula in Japan between times (with this there’s the auxiliary debate about how effective F2/GP2 has been at preparing young drivers for F1. Its record can generously be described as patchy).
Grand prix drivers…for us that’s not enough. We want grand prix winners - Helmut Marko
We could also add that Red Bull is affording opportunities to young drivers that likely would never have been afforded otherwise, short of having a rich parent. Drivers join its scheme as a matter of choice and with their eyes open; one presumes there’s no shortage of drivers wanting to do so. And, once joined, they are well rewarded in more than one sense.
Jaime Alguersuari after his own abrupt dropping at the end of 2011 – while he was later critical of the abruptness itself – rather summed this up. “I will not judge the decision because since 15 years old Red Bull gave me everything,” he noted. “Second, I am not a victim because for seven years I have enjoyed the privilege because of them.”
“It might be seen as a harsh decision,” added Toro Rosso boss Franz Tost at the time, “but Formula 1 is a tough environment and Toro Rosso has always been very clear about the principles behind its driver choice.” He could just as easily be talking about Red Bull now.
And even were Gasly to reach the level of fairly good, we have seen repeatedly that for Red Bull fairly good is not good enough. “Grand prix drivers…for us that’s not enough,” said Red Bull kingpin Helmut Marko a few years back. “We want grand prix winners.”
Gasly would have known all of this.
Autosport's Scott Mitchell has noted too that it’s even hard to make a case that Red Bull’s young driver program is particularly more ruthless than that of other F1 teams. Pascal Wehrlein has many admirers but was dropped by Mercedes; Stoffel Vandoorne had a similar fate at McLaren; then there’s Raffaele Marciello in Ferrari’s scheme. The crucial difference perhaps, Mitchell notes, is that the presence in F1 of Red Bull’s ‘B team’ Toro Rosso means Red Bull’s discarding is done amid much more glare and scrutiny and having more drivers on its program means there are more to drop, almost by definition.
Red Bull is affording opportunities to young drivers that likely would never have been afforded otherwise. Drivers join its scheme as a matter of choice and with their eyes open
Also one way or another Red Bull’s good at providing soft landings for those discarded. Kvyat and Sainz remain in F1 (as do Sebastian Vettel and Daniel Ricciardo of course). Jean-Eric Vergne has won the last two Formula E titles and is gainfully employed in LMP2. Sebastien Buemi has been kept on as a Red Bull tester plus has a brace of World Endurance Championships and Le Mans wins, plus an FE title of his own. Hartley also has two WEC titles and a Le Mans victory. Heck, next F1 weekend check out the Porsche Supercup and you’ll find Michael Ammermuller.
It’s something Marko has noticed. “We got a lot of criticism, which I would say is not fair because most of these drivers, 90% or more are in other categories,” he said. “Looking at the Spa 24 Hours or in DTM or LMP1 or Formula E. They all make [a living] out of it. What more can you expect from your life?”
And with this, it should not be forgotten that the Red Bull collective is not discarding Gasly altogether. He will finish the season in F1 at Toro Rosso, with an opportunity to re-establish himself at the top table, an opportunity it also gave to Kvyat (twice). On this measure, Red Bull can even be considered an outlier in its generosity.
There are of course things we can credibly criticise the Red Bull young driver program for. Not keeping Sainz on some kind of leash looks a clear error; he would have been perfect for the seat alongside Verstappen (assuming their respective fathers can coexist peaceably). One way or another Red Bull let Ricciardo slip through its fingers, which in turn rather forced its hand to accelerate Gasly into the big team. Ticktum’s ditching arguably was premature and certainly left its cupboard rather bare. There is a risk that Albon falls on his face in a similar way to Gasly, particularly as he’s being promoted mid-season.
Yet Red Bull also provides four of the 20 F1 cars, stumps up the cash for one of its most popular races, and has developed four of F1’s finest current drivers in addition to plenty of other handy drivers in F1 and elsewhere. And it pays telephone numbers to bankroll drivers’ careers and develop their talents.
If you do this then you have the right to set the standards. And to be ruthless.