MEDLAND: Here's Red Bull's real driver problem

MEDLAND: Here's Red Bull's real driver problem

Formula 1

MEDLAND: Here's Red Bull's real driver problem

Even by Formula 1’s standards, Toro Rosso has not historically been a team associated with stability.

Just look back to the end of last year, when Pierre Gasly replaced Daniil Kvyat, then Kvyat replaced Carlos Sainz, then Brendon Hartley replaced Gasly, and then Gasly replaced Kvyat. Again.

So when you consider that Hartley has scored a touch over five percent of the team’s points so far this season, you can understand why the pressure is beginning to grow.

When he got the seat late last year, Hartley was a surprise appointment. The New Zealander clearly deserved it based on his excellent World Endurance Championship performances and F1 testing experience, but second chances are something that Helmut Marko rarely offers

And in many ways, Hartley has been on the back foot from the beginning. For starters, his more recent career trajectory had been within sports cars rather than single-seaters, but as a previously discarded Red Bull junior driver, the attitude from Marko leaned more towards ‘prove me wrong’ than ‘prove me right’.

But Red Bull’s attempt to loan Lando Norris from McLaren to replace Hartley is a symptom of a gap in its young driver program that can be traced back to that instability. And the current driver situation could become the latest chapter in an ongoing problem.

Aside from his talent, Toro Rosso turned to Hartley to partner Pierre Gasly because there were no other drivers ready. Its other juniors were all in karts or making their first forays into single-seater racing, because the successes of Daniel Ricciardo, Max Verstappen and Sainz had created a roadblock at the main team.

For the talented young prospects also being chased by the likes of Mercedes, McLaren and Renault, Red Bull was no longer the holy grail that offered the best chance of a future F1 seat, but the risky route that could result in your being brutally discarded. And the risk only increased when there seemed no guarantee of being promoted even if you delivered for Toro Rosso, given the limbo Sainz finds himself in at present.

Norris was one such prospect. He was attracting interest from Red Bull at a younger age, but opted for McLaren. Another Formula 2 race winner this year – Jack Aitken – made a similar decision and ended up joining Renault’s academy. With George Russell at Mercedes, there’s a whole generation of talent that Red Bull failed to secure after fast-tracking Verstappen into a Toro Rosso seat back in 2015.

So perhaps now is the time for patience.

Hartley hasn’t been setting the world alight, but he has also been unfortunate. We could have a very different outlook on his season but for Q1 in Monaco. The Kiwi had been quick all weekend and a first Q3 appearance was a real possibility, but a poor first run and then a badly timed yellow flag bumped him out.

Gasly ended up starting in the top 10 and bringing home solid points once again, but Hartley appeared to have at least the equal of his teammate up to Saturday afternoon. The 28-year-old still delivered a strong race, rising from 15th on the grid to chase Sainz for the final point until getting hit by Charles Leclerc late on.

With no obvious replacement available, Toro Rosso should be seeking stability this year for a number of reasons, none more so than the age of the Honda partnership. Both drivers were told at the start of this season to expect a difficult opening few races, with performance starting to improve later in the year.

Image by Mauger/LAT

At the beginning of the year many were writing off Toro Rosso as a certainty for 10th place in the constructors’ championship given how McLaren’s past three years worked out but the reality has been much better, with the car capable of fighting in the midfield. As the drivers gain experience, results should continue to pick up – and that will only be helped further if the power unit improves too.

It’s the latter point that is of such great interest to Red Bull, which is looking increasingly likely to switch from Renault to Honda power for 2019. In trying to get a good understanding of Honda’s strengths and weaknesses and the progress it does (or doesn’t) make this year, Red Bull could do without rocking the boat at Toro Rosso from a driver standpoint and giving the team the additional headache of incorporating a new, inexperienced driver into its line-up.

The impact of such a change was felt at the end of last year, when Toro Rosso became a revolving door for drivers and the team scored a grand total of one point in the final six races, having picked up 52 prior to that. Technical director James Key said as much when discussing the importance of the drivers gaining seat time in those races before their first full seasons this year.

“I think that preparation period was sorely missed in many ways for them because they were straight in in the middle of a situation where the season was reaching its conclusion,” Key told RACER. “There was a lot of things going on, there were many complications to worry about with tire management, power unit management, the car itself and all its parameters and so on.

“So there was no preparation time for them at all and you could kind of see that, it was really learning on the job when you’re coming into races. That was not so good from a team point of view, even though they did a fantastic job considering the circumstances.”

In light of those comments, giving Hartley only six races of this year before attempting to replace him seems premature even by Red Bull’s standards, and would surely not do anything to convince other prospects that it’s a better program to be aligned with compared to other F1 teams.

Ultimately, what does Red Bull stand to gain? In Ricciardo, Verstappen and Sainz it has three talents to fit into the two seats at the senior team, and Gasly is showing the sort of development that suggests he, too, could be a future option.

You could argue the other way that there is little to lose by taking a punt on another driver, but Norris is far too highly rated for McLaren to let him go, so he would only be a short-term fix. Red Bull needs its own next talent that it can keep hold of, not to borrow one for half a season and face the same issue at the start of next year.

It may already be too late after the Norris approach became public knowledge, but showing faith in Hartley and giving him the full season to try and turn things around would likely restore some confidence that the next wave of young drivers have in the Red Bull system.

If it can do that, then there shouldn’t be another gap in the conveyor belt of talent in future. If it can’t, it will only have itself to blame if it misses out on someone like Norris again.

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