If Mercedes has been the best team of the 2019 Formula 1 season to date, then McLaren has run it pretty damn close.
Comfortably holding fourth in the constructors’ championship, and with nearly double the amount of points of the team in fifth – Toro Rosso, bolstered by Daniil Kvyat’s podium in the chaos in Germany – McLaren has been a breath of fresh air this season compared to what went before.
The team has undergone a major overhaul to help facilitate its turnaround. And yet, there is something familiar underpinning its current position.
The more experienced Spaniard alongside a rookie from the team’s young driver program, Carlos Sainz is really coming of age. Given the security of a two-year contract for the first time in his career, the 24-year-old has played a big part in ensuring there is no hangover from the departure of Fernando Alonso.
If only the same could be said about the situation at Red Bull.
Admittedly, McLaren had more warning that Alonso was going to step away from Formula 1 and could plan accordingly, but Red Bull also moved quickly when Daniel Ricciardo made the much more unexpected decision to depart for pastures new at Renault.
But at the time of Ricciardo’s announcement, Red Bull appeared to have two obvious options: Pierre Gasly and Sainz.
It was always going to promote from within the Red Bull family, and at that point Sainz was still on loan to Renault. With Nico Hulkenberg under contract, Renault was essentially replacing Sainz with Ricciardo: an understandable move, given the statement that signing a proven race-winner from Red Bull sent out.
But for Red Bull, it created a subliminal message that to then take Sainz in Ricciardo’s place would be settling for second-best to the French manufacturer that had become the focus of its criticism from a power unit standpoint over the past few seasons.
And let’s be fair to Gasly. At the point that decision was being made, the Frenchman had just finished sixth in Hungary to follow up on a stunning fourth place in Bahrain, and seventh in Monaco. For a driver in an inconsistent Toro Rosso that was finding its feet with Honda, those were signs that he could deliver when given the opportunity.
Heading into the mid-season break last year, Gasly’s tally of 26 points was only four shy of the total Sainz had managed in a more consistently competitive car. So in some ways, you could understand Red Bull’s thinking in opting for the less experienced of the two drivers.
But in other ways, McLaren was making the same call. Zak Brown had been chasing Ricciardo once it became clear the Australian was seriously considering leaving Red Bull, and talks reached an advanced stage. But knowing that McLaren’s recent results would not prove enticing to a driver leaving a winning team, Brown was also working on other options. And top of that list was Sainz.
Old enough to have significant experience to deliver on a regular basis, but young enough to develop further and be a long-term prospect, Sainz was signed to a two-year contract as Alonso’s replacement. And right now it looks like a masterstroke that surely has Red Bull reflecting on its own decision to let Sainz leave.
After failing to score in the opening three rounds, Sainz picked up 58 points in the next nine, including back-to-back fifth places in Germany and Hungary. Prior to that, he pulled off an excellent defensive drive to keep Ricciardo, of all people, at bay in a faster car at Silverstone.
And that scorecard from the Azerbaijan Grand Prix onwards compares to just 50 points for Gasly. As it stands, there are only five points between them in the drivers’ championship.
It’s a return that just isn’t cutting it with Red Bull at the moment, which is watching opportunities to close the gap to Ferrari in the constructors’ championship slipping away. Team principal Christian Horner has become increasingly frustrated with the lack of results – stridently so after Hungary – and now has the summer break to reflect on the decision the team made when replacing Ricciardo 12 months on.
It’s pretty admirable that Red Bull only wants to promote from its young driver program, even when there’s a lack of experience to worry about. It’s a team that is willing to give young talent a chance, and in the example of Daniil Kvyat, give it a second and potentially even a third.
But it didn’t do that with Verstappen, instead opting to attract the Dutch prodigy with the promise of a Toro Rosso seat at just 17 and fast-tracking him into the front-running team a little over a year later. It’s tough to pretend it didn’t play some part in the lack of alternatives below the F1 seats at this point, with other prospects having chosen different programs.
And having worked so hard to get Verstappen, it could be said that Red Bull is working just as hard to keep him happy.
When you break down the options it had on the table a year ago, wouldn’t the sensible choice – even trying to avoid the benefit of hindsight – have been to promote the more experienced driver who had just spent a year with a full constructor, over the rookie? As Red Bull should have learned from Kvyat’s first two years in F1, a strong debut with Toro Rosso doesn’t automatically mean a driver is ready to step up.
Though beaten, Sainz had shown up solidly against Verstappen throughout their time as team-mates, and a year at Red Bull would have likely yielded, at worst, another solid performance. Had it not been enough to convince the team, then Gasly would have had another year’s development at Toro Rosso, and either been more prepared for the promotion, or not seen as ready yet. Some drivers just need time, but Gasly is less likely to get it at the top team.
Red Bull has history of managing a pair of warring drivers in Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber, and has not shied away from allowing its line-up to race each other and earn the right to top billing internally. So if the rumored difficulty in keeping Verstappen, Sainz and their respective fathers happy was a genuine issue, was it really one worth releasing the Spaniard for?
Right now, you’d have to say no.