Opinion with Leveridge: Biting the Red Bullet

15 August 2019 | adminleveridge

The Formula One silly season is in full swing and the rumour mill is churning out gossip and speculative stories about drivers’ futures to keep us sufficiently interested and amused during the sport’s summer shutdown.

The Formula One silly season is in full swing and the rumour mill is churning out gossip and speculative stories about drivers’ futures to keep us sufficiently interested and amused during the sport’s summer shutdown.

However, Red Bull Racing isn’t known for conforming to the conventional cycle where drivers are locked-in to their race seats for a full season, and it wasn’t a complete surprise to receive a press release announcing Pierre Gasly’s demotion back to Scuderia Toro Rosso earlier this week.

On Monday (12 August), Red Bull confirmed it will have a revised driver line-up from the Belgian Grand Prix onwards, having promoted Alexander Albon to the seat formerly held by Gasly, who will return to Toro Rosso’s ranks after failing to keep pace with teammate Max Verstappen during the first half of 2019.

In its statement, the team said: “Red Bull are in the unique position of having four talented Formula One drivers under contract who can be rotated between Red Bull Racing and Toro Rosso. The team will use the next nine races to evaluate Alex’s performance in order to make an informed decision as to who will drive alongside Max in 2020.”

Of course, this came just two weeks after Red Bull Racing Team Principal Christian Horner categorically denied any possibility of a mid-season change in the team’s driver line-up.

During the Hungarian Grand Prix weekend, Horner said: “There are no plans to replace Pierre during the course of this season. He’s got the second half of the year to really get it together because then there will be a lot of pressure on what we do for next year. But we’re not looking at replacing him or switching drivers around, it’s really in his court now to get it together and build on some of the promise we have seen flashes of. He just needs to put it together more consistently.”

Red Bull has been on an upward trajectory since the start of the year; Honda introduced its second F1 specification engine in Azerbaijan, its spec-three powerplant then followed at the French Grand Prix, and a raft of aero and chassis revisions appear to have settled the RB15’s early-season balance issues.

The Milton Keynes-based team predicted small incremental gains in power and balance would make a big difference, and recent performances suggest it’s doing very well in the development race against the might of Mercedes and Ferrari.

However, only Verstappen has truly maximised the package, and the current state of the championship is rather damning for his now former teammate, Gasly.

At the mid-point of the season, Verstappen is third in the Drivers’ standings with 181 points and a 69-point deficit to current championship leader Lewis Hamilton, having accrued two race wins, three podium finishes and a breakthrough pole position last time out in Budapest.

Gasly, on the other hand, is sixth with only 63 points and a relatively small advantage over McLaren’s Carlos Sainz, and a season-best fourth place in the British Grand Prix at Silverstone is something of an anomaly, having spent most of the season in the bottom half of the top ten.

In fact, qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix was a more representative demonstration of the pace differential at Red Bull this season, because while Verstappen was securing his maiden F1 pole, Gasly was unable to get within 0.8s of his teammate and go better than sixth.

As a result of this imbalance of performance, Red Bull Racing remains third in the Constructors’ standings, 44 points adrift of the floundering Ferrari, when it now has a car capable of surpassing the Scuderia and threatening Mercedes on a regular basis.

Ultimately, these cold, hard results have prompted Red Bull to make a change, but Gasly is just the latest victim of a brutal system that has claimed many scalps, and you can’t help but feel for the young Frenchman.

It’s hard to forget that Daniil Kvyat was almost destroyed when he was dropped from the senior Red Bull team three years ago, in favour of Verstappen, and you wonder how Gasly will be impacted by his demotion back to Toro Rosso after only 12 races.

You could argue that Red Bull should have been more patient and given Gasly a full season to settle in to his new role, but results have not improved and it seems wise to make a switch now while the team still has a chance of bridging the gap to Ferrari in the Constructors’ Championship.

But is it too much too soon for Albon? The London-born Thai driver – underrated in comparison to fellow rookies Lando Norris and George Russell – was first recruited to the Red Bull junior programme after finishing second in the 2011 Karting World Championship.

However, a failure to score a single point during his maiden car racing campaign in the 2012 Formula Renault 2.0 Eurocup prompted the energy drinks brand to terminate his contract, and the Thai racer’s future in motorsport looked uncertain for quite a while thereafter.

Challenging Russell for the 2018 F2 title was his saving grace. He was signed to lead the Nissan e.dams Formula E team.

Meanwhile, Red Bull’s Doctor Helmut Marko was in a bind after losing Daniel Ricciardo to Renault. Marko duly promoted Gasly to Red Bull Racing, and after lengthy negotiations with Nissan and DAMS, Albon was released from his Formula E contract and placed in the vacant Toro Rosso seat.

There’s no denying that Albon has excelled on his F1 debut with Toro Rosso; he has proven to be very fast and very capable in among a super-competitive midfield.

But the stakes have been raised, as he now has the chance to win races and a seat at Red Bull in 2020 with some strong performances in the latter half of this campaign.

Albon knows what it’s like to be dumped by Red Bull and there’s an argument that piling on the pressure this early in his F1 career could be damaging to his future prospects.

You could say Red Bull has unrealistic expectations of its young racers by giving them such a narrow window in which to shine, but I would argue that it’s a good test of a driver’s talent and resolve.

The cream will always rise to the top and, if a driver is intimidated by the prospect of going up against somebody of Verstappen’s calibre, perhaps they aren’t cut out for F1.

Verstappen himself was a mid-season graduate. Sure, he was erratic and made several careless mistakes during his early Red Bull career, but his talent and speed were always undeniable, he has been fearless and self-assured against his most esteemed rivals and he has matured into a well-rounded racer, particularly in the last 12 months.

In fact, most World Champions and serial race winners from the last 15 years have all been unfazed by the reputations of their competitors; whether it’s Fernando Alonso versus Michael Schumacher, Hamilton versus Alonso or Ricciardo versus Sebastian Vettel, they have all stamped their authority.

Ultimately, drivers enter Red Bull’s programme knowing they’re competing for a drive in the senior F1 team alongside Verstappen and that they must stand out to keep their place.

They begin preparations for such an opportunity the moment they step into a go kart and, while this decision is devastating for Gasly and potentially damaging for Albon, it will be a true test of their mettle.

Who will come out on top in the fight for the second 2020 Red Bull Racing seat is anybody’s guess, but there’s certainly nothing more Gasly can do.

It seems to me that Albon has an opportunity to walk through an open door to a top-line drive with a team that has a great deal of forward momentum. It’s simple: he has nine races to get on terms with new teammate Verstappen, in what is very much “Verstappen’s team”.

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