Will history repeat with Red Bull’s Gasly-Albon switch?

Feature image: @ToroRosso

Formula 1 news has been pretty quiet as the one week mark passed on the summer break but that all changed on Monday morning as Red Bull announced that Toro Rosso’s Alex Albon will be making the jump to Red Bull while Pierre Gasly will return to Toro Rosso for the remainder of the season.

The news shouldn’t be surprising given how poor Gasly has been this season, but ultimately it is, it is a surprise.

Everything that had come out of the Red Bull camp — comments made at various times and various publications from both team principal Christian Horner and advisor Helmut Marko — said that Pierre Gasly would be given until the end of the season to try and turn things around, that they wouldn’t switch their driver lineup mid-season.

Comments like that aren’t thrown around for the sake of saying it and people don’t just ‘lie’ like that — it’s unprofessional and in poor taste, so I believe they were genuine at the time they were made.

But circumstances change, and I think there are a few reasons why Red Bull have decided — in spite of making those comments — that to ultimately make the switch mid-season.

The first one is the constructors championship.

It’s no secret that Red Bull have made a step recently, taking two wins in the last four races before the break at Austria and Germany, while almost taking victory at Hungary were it not for a masterclass strategy call from Mercedes. With their improvements and results through Verstappen, Red Bull are within striking distance of Ferrari in the constructors standings — sitting just 44 (blessed) points behind the Scuderia.

In all reality, Red Bull should already be ahead of Ferrari. While Verstappen has been in the form of his life and dragging that Red Bull probably further than it should, Gasly has severely let down Red Bull by scoring just 63 points to Verstappen’s 181 — just a hair over 25% of Red Bull’s total points so far this season.

With second place now a realistic target for the second half of the season, it makes sense for Red Bull to make this move, now that they are within touching distance of Ferrari and their car seems like it’s the next best after Mercedes (though, there are some power circuits coming up for Ferrari such as Spa where they have a chance to be closer).

The second reason was kind of highlighted by the Hungarian Grand Prix and some of the comments Christian Horner made after the race with regard being able to ‘protect’ Verstappen.

In the past, Mercedes have been able to use both of their cars to mix up strategies and force Ferrari into doing something that isn’t in their comfort zone. An example of this was last year’s Italian Grand Prix, where Mercedes were able to use both Hamilton and Bottas to engineer a Mercedes win from the sole Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen, a race where Lewis Hamilton’s tyres outlasted Raikkonen’s.

In Hungary, there was nothing and no one to protect Verstappen from anything Mercedes wanted to do and with Gasly being no where in that race, Verstappen was left exposed.

Let’s talk about Gasly very briefly… He forced Red Bull’s hands with this one — he’s just been awful, sitting on 63 points in the standings and only five ahead of Carlos Sainz in a McLaren. Gasly has been no where near Verstappen in qualifying or in the race all season long, and the one time he finished ahead of Verstappen was Silverstone when Verstappen was rear-ended by Vettel. This move was coming, one way or another.

Gasly now enters a very dangerous part of his career back at Toro Rosso, because now he’s fighting to show he still belongs in Formula 1. How he handles this situation and how he responds to it on the track are going to be incredibly key to his F1 future because Red Bull have shown that they are not afraid to cut ties with their drivers — whether it’s academy drivers (Dan Ticktum) or F1 drivers (Daniil Kvyat).

Unlike Kvyat’s situation, there’s no driver, really, in the Red Bull academy waiting for an F1 seat as Gasly was in 2017 when Red Bull moved on from Kvyat. Pato O’Ward is too raw yet and unless Red Bull want to thank their engine partner Honda by promoting their junior driver, Nobaharu Matsushita, from F2 then who is going to take Gasly’s Toro Rosso seat for 2020? (And for a disclaimer, sorry, I don’t really believe in Sean Galael)

The only other driver I can think of would be Sebastian Buemi, and that’s not a big of a reach as you may think. You remember Brendon Hartley after all, right?

So, in that regard, Gasly should be safe for 2020, because as bad as he has been this season, he’s still better than any other option Red Bull have outside of F1.

Let’s talk about the switch from the opposite perspective… Red Bull ultimately went with Alex Albon for the remainder of 2019 and not Daniil Kvyat.

Firstly, I get it, I understand why.

Gasly may have been able to turn it around before the season ended but 12 races is a large enough sample size to read between temporary struggles and who he is this season, and things weren’t getting better near the summer break to warrant Red Bull waiting to see if a corner had been turned.

It’s a great decision by Red Bull — harsh as it may be — to give up on Gasly this season and start getting their ducks in a line for 2020.

Regardless if they kept Gasly for the rest of the season, Red Bull had a big decision to make with their second driver seat and it was probably going to involve them replacing Gasly anyways. You can understand why they may have shown hesitation promoting Alex Albon to a full-time seat for 2020, given how this Gasly experience just ended. But with Red Bull promoting Albon for the last nine races — with no guarantee for 2020 — they can get an eye in with Albon in that Red Bull seat and see what’s what, and this will only help in their decision making process for 2020.

And look, let’s get this out there. Albon has been impressive this season and deserves this shot in his own right — he’s been so much better than anyone, including Toro Rosso and Red Bull, could’ve ever imagined. For someone who, I still think, was a stopgap for Toro Rosso because Dan Ticktum failed to acquire his superlicence. And I said prior to the season he was probably the worst F2 driver coming up this year (and I still think that’s the case) but the gap is considerably smaller than I thought it would be.

But as is the case with Red Bull, they’ve opted for upside in their decision making rather than who is the better driver right now.

They lost out on a better driver in Carlos Sainz and got caught up in the potential of Gasly. Had they had Sainz from the beginning, none of these headaches would be bothering Red Bull… But alas…

Are Red Bull about to go down the same path and make the same possible mistake again by choosing Albon over Kvyat for these remaining nine races?

I think Kvyat is a better driver than Albon right now and I think he’s unlucky not to have been chosen for that seat for the remainder of the season.

I know, I know… People will say Kvyat had his chance etc. etc. but the reality is he’s not the same driver now than he was then: he’s better (not that he was ever bad to begin with) and I think deserves a second chance at Red Bull, I think he’s going to feel hard-done by that he wasn’t chosen and Albon was.

In their indecision last year, Red Bull lost Sainz to McLaren and while there aren’t as many open seats this year as there were last year, there’s a chance the same could happen this year with Kvyat.

Like Sainz, I’m sure Kvyat is ready for life outside of Red Bull and there’s a potential opening, maybe even two, at Haas. If Kvyat feels undervalued by Red Bull in light of this decision, Haas — or another team — can make their pitch and secure Kvyat, and that would take that option off of the table for Red Bull for 2020.

And if Albon, like Gasly, underperforms, where would Red Bull look for 2020 in the event Kvyat doesn’t want to wait for Red Bull to make their mind up, now that they’ve shown possible preference to Albon going forward by giving him this shot?

At first, I wasn’t sure Red Bull made the right decision but having thought about it, I think they’ve made the right decision for their team long-term by giving Albon this Red Bull trial, as much as I think Kvyat should’ve had it. And while they risk losing Kvyat in the process, I think Albon will impress enough to earn a 2020 seat.

For Kvyat, the worst case scenario is he’s at Toro Rosso next year again, but that isn’t awful because, most importantly, he’d still have a seat for 2020 before the absolute circus that’s going to be the 2021 driver market, where Kvyat has a chance at another seat. Best case for Kvyat, Albon flunks his test and Kvyat is promoted.

Once again, Red Bull are banking on upside (Albon) instead of experience and, right now, the better driver (Kvyat). What Red Bull are doing is risky but Albon surely can’t do any worse than what Gasly was doing and I think there’s more chance this move succeeds than fails — despite Albon’s limited experience — even if it means losing Kvyat.

It’s a risk worth taking.

 

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