At this point, it is uncertain whether Alexander Albon is that driver (Max Verstappen’s team-mate) – but Red Bull Racing seem pretty certain that Pierre Gasly isn’t.
- Former Red Bull Racing driver Daniel Ricciardo whose seat Gasly actually filled explained the situation, saying, “The reality is that Red Bull gave Gasly six months.”
- Accordingly, the team needs a second driver who is quick and reliable so they can charge with both guns blazing
- Only time will tell whether Red Bull Racing’s gamble will pay off – or will they crash and burn the career of yet another young driver?
Pierre Gasly remembers the exact hour and minute when Helmut Marko, the head of the Red Bull Driver Development Program, called to inform him of his demotion to Toro Rosso. It was 8:42 am.
Rued Gasly in a heartfelt conversation with the media which included Firstpost, “It was a shock. I was disappointed because this is not what I was told before and after Budapest. I think everything was clear and discussed then. I don’t know what changed.”
‘Change if the law of life. And those who look only to the past, are certain to miss the future’ – a quote famously displayed in the Red Bull Racing motor home
Red Bull Racing: Step up or step away
Gasly’s demotion sent shockwaves through the paddock, especially since he was being replaced at Red Bull Racing by Alexander Albon, the young rookie who has raced just 12 races in Formula 1. Nobody could have predicted this swap, but at the same time, nobody was surprised. In fact, Gasly’s mid-season demotion seems like a deja-vu of the team’s demotion of Daniil Kvyat in early 2016.
New F1 team mates from this weekend in Belgium
— Formula 1 (@F1) August 29, 2019
‘The easiest to change in a racing car is the driver’. It is an age-old quote in the world of Motorsport, and it seems like Red Bull Racing takes this very seriously. In recent memory, Red Bull Racing have raced through a slew of drivers – switching them around at whim, usually without warning or sensitivity. Take the 2017 season for example: Toro Rosso had four driver changes with four different drivers in just the last 7 races of the season.
Since Red Bull Racing have two teams on the grid – and hence four racing seats, they have the power and flexibility of switching drivers around without the stress of contractual obligations. No other team on the grid has this unique ability. More damagingly, the team’s junior driver program seems to be built around a “fast” culture. This is much like energy drinks Red Bull manufactures – demanding immediate results, a high that wears off just as quickly, and drivers as disposable as the cans their drinks come in. Their philosophy demands that drivers step up or step away (and out).
As shared by Gasly, “It is a tough team, the level of excellence is really high. Their way of working is really strong and very competitive.” Carlos Sainz, a former member of the Red Bull family also shared, “We all know how the Red Bull Racing world works and how quickly they can change the opinion of a driver.”
RBR’s reasons behind the ‘risky’ swap
Having established that Red Bull Racing is a team that operates on targets, results and zero excuses, the team has used Verstappen as a benchmark to evaluate – and reject – Gasly. As teammates, Verstappen has three times as many points as Gasly – a staggering difference. Verstappen has clinched five podiums in total including two wins, while Gasly’s best-placed finish was P4. More often than not, Gasly has been beaten by at least one of the midfield drivers, despite having a faster car. Marko has been brutal in his criticism of Gasly, saying that the Frenchman had problems in traffic, lost places and could not overtake.
Former Red Bull Racing driver Daniel Ricciardo whose seat Gasly actually filled explained the situation, saying, “The reality is that Red Bull gave Gasly six months. I don’t think there was that much sign of progression or momentum. I am speculating – they were probably not expecting Gasly to beat Verstappen, but be closer and to get more points on the board. Maybe they expected Gasly to score at least one podium.”
Through the 2019 season, Red Bull Racing has leapfrogged Ferrari on pace. Second place in the Constructors’ Championship seems well within reach. The difference between second and third place is a whole lot of millions of dollars in prize money, apart from the added paddock clout and positive PR. Accordingly, the team needs a second driver who is quick and reliable so they can charge with both guns blazing. At this point, it is uncertain whether Albon is that driver – but Red Bull Racing seem pretty certain that Gasly isn’t.
A fairytale for Albon – or not?
Ten months ago, Albon thought his Formula 1 career was over before it even began. In fact, he had signed up to race in Formula E. And now after a whirlwind time, he is racing in one of the fastest cars on the grid. In a season where lots of rookies have joined Formula 1, Albon’s performances till date have been impressive. His delight was evident as he spoke to the media, of which Firstpost was a part. He shared, “It is quite laughable really, when I look back at it. I’ve had a few ups and downs and just to be in this position is incredible. I think there are a lot of drivers who have done an amazing job in F1 who have never been given an opportunity to be in a race-winning, championship-winning team. So, it’s a big opportunity for me and I really know that.”
Albon is young and inexperienced – and comes into a high-pressure environment. Even though he wishes to “take it step-by-step” at Red Bull Racing and “start from the beginning,” will he run out of time? After all, he only has nine races before the season ends to prove that he deserves the seat in 2020 as well. Looking at drivers like Kvyat and Gasly, we know that a premature promotion followed by an unceremonious demotion can wreck a driver’s confidence – and career. How will Albon stay strong mentally, despite being understandably “nervous?”
I just noticed something eerie about @kvyatofficial. In his media session today, he said strange things have happened after he’s scored a podium. But actually, there’s more. In 2016, he scored 3rd (China) & 15th (Russia) only to get demoted from Red Bull to Toro Rosso. In 2019…
— Kunal Shah (@kunalashah) August 29, 2019
Apart from his own performance, the other main factor in Albon’s success at Red Bull Racing is Max Verstappen. Red Bull Racing are building their team around the young Dutchman, who is widely seen as a future world champion. Tellingly, the team informed Verstappen of their decision to switch Albon and Gasly much in advance. When Verstappen was asked whether other drivers were nervous being his teammate as it could damage their careers, he brushed it off saying, “I don’t know. I think everybody always tries to do the best they can, don’t they?” But of course, the truth is that Albon needs to keep up with Verstappen on pace and points. There’s the added complexity that if Albon goes too fast, Verstappen may feel threatened and cause their dynamic to spiral – especially since the two are old rivals who raced together in 2010 and several karting championships. But that would be a problem Red Bull Racing would be glad to have.
The road ahead
Only time will tell whether Red Bull Racing’s gamble will pay off – or will they crash and burn the career of yet another young driver? Not long ago, the team was spoilt for driver choices with an overfull pipeline. Suddenly, it is apparent that they are struggling in this regard – bringing back drivers previously dropped by them, and even recruiting in drivers from other series. How quickly will Gasly be able to adjust back to Toro Rosso, and Albon to the Red Bull Racing car? To quote Toro Rosso driver Daniil Kvyat, who knows a thing or two about switching teams, “You might adapt to the car straight away, or you might not. It is difficult to predict, it is personal to every driver.”
But would Kvyat, who was fair in expecting a promotion to Red Bull after a podium finish in Germany, be in the reckoning for a seat next to Verstappen in 2020? Or would the wild speculation of Nico Hulkenberg joining Red Bull actually come true? At Spa, Horner confirmed that Red Bull would be choosing from their existing pool of 3 drivers for next season. As for Kvyat, he wisely signed off saying “My year has been fantastic, so I look at that, rather than other things that are a bit more out of my control. I focus on doing my own thing and will do my best for the 9 races of the year. In the end, you never know what the future holds. One thing with Red Bull is that it is always open.”
This post was first published in the build up to the 2019 Belgian Grand Prix on Firstpost