Red Bull’s Driver Conundrum – Today and Tomorrow

Image: @redbullracing

From 2016 to 2018, Red Bull has been been able to make a legitimate case to make when they say ‘We have the best driver lineup on the grid with Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen.’

Sure, perhaps for some Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg in 2016 may have topped that fresh lineup — with Verstappen obviously joining Red Bull after Russia in 2016 — but certainly for 2017 and 2018 Red Bull certainly boasted the best driver lineup on the grid in Ricciardo and Verstappen.

But even when that partnership was beginning to come under threat in 2017 — when rumours of Verstappen possibly leaving came to the fore — Red Bull still had options available to them in the event Verstappen left.

Carlos Sainz was still part of the Red Bull programme driving for Toro Rosso at the time and the highly rated Pierre Gasly was a potential option down the road having won the final GP2 title in 2016 before it became F2.

But those fears were allayed as Verstappen penned a lucrative new deal to stay with Red Bull until the end of 2020. Red Bull enjoyed a solid 2017 season with Ricciardo triumphing amidst the madness of Azerbaijan but saw much more convincing victories in Malaysia and Mexico, both won by Verstappen.

The partnership again came under threat in 2018 as Ricciardo entered the final year of his contract, with possible openings at Mercedes and Ferrari in the offing amidst the uncertain futures of Valterri Bottas and Kimi Raikkonen.

But similar to 2017, Red Bull were still in good shape should Ricciardo choose to leave.

Carlos Sainz had been loaned to Renault in 2017 as part of an agreement in the whole McLaren-Renault-Toro Rosso-Honda deal that saw McLaren ditch Honda for Renault, with Honda heading to Toro Rosso, Sainz heading to Renault for 2018 (which was eventually brought forward to the remainder of 2017).

It was made very clear at the time that Sainz — who was ready for something larger than Toro Rosso after nearly four seasons — was on loan from Red Bull, so the cards were still in Red Bull’s hands when it came to his future and provided an insurance policy should Ricciardo leave.

Sainz’s departure at Toro Rosso allowed Red Bull to finally bring Pierre Gasly to F1 in late 2017, and after some very average showings in the latter stages of 2017 Gasly turned heads with his 4th place finish in Bahrain in 2018 before enjoying a successful first full season in F1.

When the shock decision from Ricciardo to join Renault for 2019 was announced, Red Bull were still in a good place with both Sainz and Gasly to choose from as well as highly rated youngster Dan Ticktum waiting in the wings for a Toro Rosso drive — all three gave Red Bull the choice to choose from within their own programme, which is what Red Bull prefer to do and were always going to do for their 2019 vacancy (as fun as Fernando Alonso would’ve been in that car).

While Sainz had proven himself as an F1 mainstay in his first four seasons, Gasly had shown superstar potential in his first full season, regularly outperforming what his car was capable of and in some cases beyond that — finishing 4th in Bahrain, 7th in Monaco and 6th in Hungary to name a few.

While Sainz had more experience than Gasly, that was exactly what separated his case from Gasly’s for the Red Bull drive: experience, history.

Having entered F1 together back in 2015 with Toro Rosso, the whispers were that Helmut Marko was reluctant to pair Verstappen and Sainz together again at Red Bull after their difficulties as teammates at Toro Rosso — Sainz’s history playing to Gasly’s advantage — i.e. Gasly’s lack of history.

In the end, Red Bull chose Gasly for their 2019 vacancy.

A supposed (and I want to emphasise that word) clause in Sainz’s contract with Red Bull that stated that if Sainz was not racing with Red Bull by 2019, he would be free to choose his own team. With Red Bull wanting to block Sainz’s permanent move to Renault — the French outfit enduring very tense relations with Red Bull — it not only allowed Renault to sneak Ricciardo away from under Red Bull’s nose but left Sainz without a seat for 2019, Ricciardo replacing Sainz and Red Bull obviously choosing Gasly for its vacancy. This left Sainz free to pursue the vacant McLaren drive left by Alonso and with confirmation of that deal it freed Sainz from the Red Bull programme.

So, Sainz was gone but Red Bull had the promising Gasly to look forward to pairing with Max Verstappen in 2019 with new Honda engines and with Dan Ticktum coming along, things seemed to be progressing at Red Bull. There were no regrets, not from Red Bull and not from Sainz, who was indebted to Red Bull for his career.

But Red Bull suffered a minor setback.

Ticktum’s road to F1 was proving to be tricky, with the Englishman finding difficulty  acquiring a super licence, with matters not being helped after he intentionally took another driver out in a junior category race in 2015.

After recovering from that after being handed a two-year race-ban (with the second year being a suspended ban), Ticktum found himself leading the Formula 3 championship in 2018 but saw his title challenge slip into Mick Schumacher’s hands, with the German eventually winning the title and securing his road to Formula 2 at the expense of Ticktum’s hopes for a super licence.

It all ultimately meant that Red Bull turned to Alex Albon to fill one of their Toro Rosso vacancies for 2019, which seemed less than ideal to Red Bull at the time, who were very high on Ticktum and wanted him in an F1 car, their hopes of having him participate in mid-season testing in 2018 shot down by the FIA.

Still, plenty of reason for optimism ahead of 2019 despite that minor setback — new promising driver in Pierre Gasly, new Honda engines…

There were high hopes for 2019.

But things…haven’t gone according to plan.  Well, they have from Max Verstappen’s side.

While Red Bull are further from Ferrari and Mercedes than they would like to be, the Dutchman has consistently punched above his car’s weight and has been mixing it up with the Ferraris are more than a few occasions this season, recently taking a stunning victory at Austria.

Pierre Gasly…hasn’t enjoyed the same success.

Gasly has been consistently a long way off of Verstappen’s pace and has often found himself either eliminated in Q2 or Red Bull having to use the soft tyres (and probably their Q3 party modes in other instances I’m sure, which they would never admit) to advance to Q3 whenever the top two teams and Verstappen have used mediums to advance to Q3.

In the races themselves, again, Gasly has been nowhere — not only finishing behind his teammate in every race they have finished so far this season, but has found himself at times behind the likes of the McLaren’s, Renault’s, Sergio Perez and even Dany Kvyat’s Toro Rosso in Australia. Not all at once, mind you…he’s not that bad.

Now, to be fair, Gasly had a few good races — well, two, really, come to mind. He finished 5th at Monaco and was on course for a good result in Azerbaijan before retiring with a mechanical issue.

Most recently in Austria, Gasly looked like he was on the pace in practice, and though, it was only in practice, he showed signs maybe that this weekend was going to be the one where he could at least finish 6th again.

In other words, back where he always should’ve been.

But when it came to getting the job done in qualifying, with P5 up for grabs with Sebastian Vettel’s problems in Q3 and with everyone running on the same soft compound, Gasly qualified P9 — last in Q3 since Vettel never got to set a time — behind Lando Norris, both Alfas and Kevin Magnussen.

And when the race came and Verstappen’s awful start allowed Gasly to pass his teammate on lap 1. This was, of course, very temporary and Verstappen quickly re-passed him and then only went and won the race, lapping Gasly in the process in what was, emphatically, the worst result of Gasly’s disastrous season so far — a lap down behind the race-winner (that wasn’t a first for Gasly this season) but his teammate in the same breath.

Austria is a short track, mind you, but there is no excuse for such a result.

Why Gasly has struggled so much is hard to say but what’s easier and fair to say is that Gasly has, so far, failed to live up to expectations after his stellar 2018. In fact, there probably hasn’t been a disappointment bigger than Gasly (well, besides maybe Mercedes having dominating again at the front).

If this was 2016 and there was a Max Verstappen or a Carlos Sainz waiting in the wings at Toro Rosso, Gasly might have lost his seat already. It certainly took a run of form that wasn’t nearly as bad for Daniil Kvyat to lose his seat after four races, despite a podium at China. Though, to be fair, Kvyat already had a full season where he found himself behind his teammate too.

But between having no ready replacements at Toro Rosso — and Red Bull extending some grace — it seems Red Bull are going to continue with Gasly, at least for the moment and for 2019.

But should he continue on as he has all season so far and shows no sign of picking up the P6’s that he should be collecting at the very least (let alone ever hoping to challenge Verstappen), Gasly is going to leave Red Bull with no choice other than to replace him, whether it’s at the end of 2019 or a situation similar to Kvyat where a quick change occurs after a few races into 2020 should things not go to plan.

But the question would be ‘with who?’

Carlos Sainz is no longer an option, enjoying a fine season with McLaren so far (while enjoying some of the company perks along the way), having finished ahead of Gasly on multiple occasions this season despite the McLaren being slower than the Red Bull on outright pace.

Incidentally, can you imagine how Red Bull’s season would be going if Sainz was in that car instead of Gasly from the start? I’m not saying Sainz is banging through the field to take the win at Austria or beating Verstappen, but you’d imagine he’s certainly finishing 6th at the very, very least. With Verstappen ahead of both Ferraris in the championship standings after Austria, it begs the question how close could Red Bull be to Ferrari in the constructors standings if they had a competent driver in their second car?

Anyways, Sainz is no longer an option for Red Bull — the best option Red Bull would’ve had but they made their choice. Hindsight is 20-20 but alas…

Both Toro Rosso drivers are enjoying solid seasons — despite the car sliding back on the grid somewhat of late — but do Red Bull really roll the dice with Kvyat again? I like Kvyat but long term in the Red Bull? I’m not sure Red Bull goes down that road again.

Alex Albon has looked good in his rookie season — better than I think pretty anyone could have expected — but Red Bull are surely going to be wary with rushing into early promotions. In both previous examples their hands were forced as Kvyat and Gasly were probably promoted a little sooner than planned as both Vettel and Ricciardo surprised Red Bull with their exits.

Gasly has clearly shown he isn’t ready for the big-time right now, and him falling flat on his face so far can’t have inspired any confidence for Red Bull to just replace him with Albon after one season of experience. They could, but having seen how this Gasly experiment has gone so far, it surely doesn’t help decision making

I’m not saying Albon couldn’t go in to Red Bull after one season and perform, just that Red Bull will surely be wary, especially seeing Gasly just slide. So, perhaps Albon could be an option down the line if he continues to impress but perhaps not as soon as next season? If Gasly is kept for 2020 but replaced after a tough start, Albon would have similar experience as Verstappen did when he made his jump to Red Bull in 2016, which is an interesting thought.

Dan Ticktum’s future as a Red Bull driver has also seemingly gone down the drain as he was released from the Red Bull Driver Programme in late June, having lost his backing for his Super Formula drive where had been hoping to earn the final few points he needed for his super licence.

So, that avenue for the future is now seemingly gone with Ticktum’s place in the Red Bull programme seemingly now taken by Pato O’Ward — in addition to O’Ward taking over Ticktum’s Super Formula seat, who recently debuted in Formula 2 as a one-off and is making more and more noise within the Red Bull academy.

Red Bull had been keen to get Ticktum into F1 but after a poor start to his Super Formula season, maybe saw too much of a hurdle for him to acquire his super licence? Either way, they have to take a step backwards with driver readiness with, O’Ward seems to be a ways off of Formula 1 — we’ll see what his Formula 2 situation is later this season, if he participates any other events this season.

So, where do Red Bull go from here?

Their prospects from within maybe aren’t viable in short-term. Albon is probably the closest thing to being ready but maybe not as soon as 2020.

If Red Bull wanted to do go in a different route for the future, they could perhaps groom Nobahru Matsushita — Honda’s junior driver (aged 25) in Formula 2, recently taking a great race win in Austria — for a Toro Rosso drive, and maybe see how that goes? Certainly an interesting option — and that link now exists between Red Bull-Toro Rosso-Honda — but not one that solves Red Bull’s problems today…or for 2020.

Again with Kvyat, is that something Red Bull want to go with again? He’s only 25 years old with plenty of F1 experience, but do Red Bull roll the dice with him again?

Maybe Gasly can turn it around, whether it’s this year at Red Bull or back at Toro Rosso if he is sent back. For all Gasly’s faults this season, he’s still young. There’s always time to bounce-back, Daniil Kvyat is showing that — even after a year’s absence.

Red Bull’s best option both short and long-term was Carlos Sainz, and I would be hesitant to say he’ll come running back to the Red Bull family — he’s very happy at McLaren, and why wouldn’t he be, especially with McLaren back on the rise.

So, the options within perhaps don’t suit for 2020 and Red Bull, generally speaking, don’t hire drivers externally — it’s obviously happened at Toro Rosso with Brendon Hartley (who had some previous ties with Red Bull) and Kvyat technically wasn’t part of the Red Bull programme when he was signed for Toro Rosso for 2019, but generally speaking it doesn’t really happen.

Mark Webber was the probably the last instance, and even then he had some history — racing for Jaguar, which later became Red Bull.

But they might have to go the external route this time around. And if they are going the external route, it makes sense for them to hire a driver who is a bit more experienced, a bit more short term if they want to either wait a bit on Gasly to return to what Red Bull signed in the first place/Albon or O’Ward down the line.

Nico Hulkenberg fits the bill perfectly — even if it’s just for a year or two until Albon/Gasly are ready. No one doubts Hulk’s abilities and there wouldn’t be a single person who wouldn’t be happy to see him in a car that can finally deliver him that elusive podium.

Valterri Bottas — a race winner — wouldn’t be an awful choice either should Mercedes decide they need Esteban Ocon back in F1/should they want to move on from Bottas. Unlikely but interesting to throw out there. Throw in Checo Perez too as another unlikely possibility.

If Red Bull decided to go somewhere in between mid/long term, (possibly preparing for a Verstappen exit), Kevin Magnussen would be a really interesting choice. It provides Red Bull with a good option to go with Verstappen right now and also leaves them in a decent spot should Verstappen leave and they promote Albon/Gasly to replace him.

Again, it’s worth saying that none of these are likely because Red Bull do not like going outside their walls if they can avoid it for drivers but their need may force them to… And it’s going to be fascinating if they do, who do they select?

Whatever Red Bull decide to do, their choice has been so much harder for themselves because they got caught up in one year of Pierre Gasly and forgot about the consistent, steady and quality performances over the last four years from Carlos Sainz — with multiple teams.

Four years is a large sample size — Sainz proved he belonged in Formula 1, that he deserved to stay not because he was part of someone’s programme but because he’s a damn good racing driver.

But look, it’s obviously worth saying that Gasly is even half the driver Red Bull chose to promote last year, their choice will be justified and everything I’ve mentioned above completely pointless…but that just hasn’t materialised yet with Gasly.

Christian Horner has been on record saying that they want to support Gasly and that there won’t be a change this year but you can tell that patience is wearing thin, and that was before Austria.

What Red Bull do with their second driver is a problem for them to think about in the short term, their long term future may also extend to their first driver too — Max Verstappen.

If Verstappen leaves after 2020 — and Gasly doesn’t recover/become the driver Red Bull hired him to become — Red Bull are in real danger, for the first time probably since 2008, of not having an elite driver partnership and this is something they need to be thinking about right now and thinking about hard, because 2021 is not far away.

O’Ward might become something and be ready by 2021 — for Toro Rosso at the very least — but outside of him and Albon, what do Red Bull do if Verstappen leaves? What is their driver future long term? What was once a nice clear reflection is now a murky labyrinth.

What if Gasly never becomes the driver Red Bull envision him to be? What if Verstappen, a super competitive driver, decides that he’s sick of not competing for titles, swaps Red Bull for Mercedes or Ferrari? Is Red Bull’s long-term driver future dependant on Alex Albon becoming a far better F1 driver anyone everyone could have ever anticipated? That’s a question that Red Bull certainly won’t have asked themselves in early 2018, when they had both Ricciardo and Verstappen, Pierre Gasly on the rise and Dan Ticktum — spoiled with choices in the present and the future.

They may be celebrating a fantastic victory at Austria but Red Bull have a lot of questions to ask themselves when it comes to their driver lineup for 2020, and possibly beyond…

 

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