I’ve got to admit, I did not predict that Red Bull’s driver change would come as early as this summer.
A number of people have asked me in recent weeks whether I thought Pierre Gasly would see out the season or be replaced, and I always replied he’d stay put. As recently as Saturday, I was adamantly explaining that it wouldn’t be the right move to drop him.
That’s not to say Gasly has done a good job; it was just whether enough had been learned about him or either of the obvious replacement options.
Gasly has had just 12 races as a Red Bull driver. Admittedly, he did not come close to Max Verstappen’s level at most of those, and was notably off in the last two rounds. That said, at Silverstone he was much more competitve, and a poor start in Hungary proved massively costly given how hard it is to overtake there.
But, it’s not the decision to drop him that I’m so strongly against; it’s how that could play out for the man replacing him, too. And I feel that Red Bull could have learned a lesson from its own history.
Red Bull’s decision to replace Daniil Kvyat with Verstappen in 2016 really set the Russian back. He eventually lost his drive completely, and it took a year as a Ferrari simulator driver – coupled with a lack of Red Bull juniors holding an FIA Super License – to conjure his surprise return this season.
Twelve months ago, Gasly looked worthy of a chance. I’ve already written about why I believe Red Bull got it wrong letting Carlos Sainz go, but also that at the time of Gasly’s promotion you could see the thinking behind that decision. You only had to look at the Frenchman’s 2018 teammate – former Red Bull junior Brendon Hartley – to realize that the team was short on options.
Gasley wasn’t being benchmarked against another driver on the rise because there’s a gap in the conveyor belt of talent. Red Bull has been chasing Pato O’Ward because it thought he would have a Super License; it turns out he isn’t eligible for one yet. With no one else ready to step up from the program at the moment, Red Bull needed to show patience.
Instead, Gasly has been demoted and history in the form of Kvyat would suggest he may find it hard to bounce back quickly. He struggled at Red Bull in the first place, remember, because he was promoted after just one full season in F1 (plus a handful of races at the end of 2017).
Given the way Gasly has fared despite standout races in his rookie year aboard the Toro Ross – fourth in Bahrain; seventh in Monaco; sixth in Budapest – it is also asking a huge amount of Alexander Albon to step up after just 12 races in Formula 1. If Albon had been stunning everyone, then yes, a promotion would make more sense. You only have to look at what happened with Verstappen to understand that.
And while the 23-year-old has done a very impressive job so far in his first season, he is also still learning and making mistakes, the latest coming when he crashed heavily in FP2 in Budapest.
Albon could well be a future world champion given a bit of time to develop, but now he has to gain experience in the spotlight at Red Bull – a spotlight that was apparently too bright for Gasly, despite signs to the contrary last year.
I’d love to see Albon do really well alongside Verstappen, in the same way I’d love to see Gasly step up when he returns to Toro Rosso. But – and I hope I’m made to eat these words in the future – it’s asking a huge amount of both to expect that to happen. Essentially, the British-Thai driver is being asked to deliver sooner because the Frenchman is underperforming, rather than being allowed to develop at his own pace.
What’s more likely is Albon will post results similar to Gasly’s because he has to learn a new car mid-season, and likewise, Gasly may struggle to match Kvyat (who has a podium to his name this season let’s not forget, even if the German Grand Prix was somewhat of a lottery).
And what then? Does Albon get written off based on these next nine races? Or similarly, is he then deemed the next big thing if he betters Gasly’s performances in what appears to be a rapidly improving car?
Let’s not forget, Albon was deemed ‘not good enough’ after just one year as a Red Bull junior in 2012 and was dropped. He then managed to get himself to Formula 2, where he did not have the budget for a full season a year ago, but delivered excellent results that convinced Helmut Marko he was worth another shot.
But even though it has dropped both Albon and Kvyat in the past – and has now demoted Gasly – it must be pointed out that Red Bull funded the junior careers of all three drivers at some stage at least, and in giving them an opportunity in Formula 1 – and owning two teams there – it is well within its rights to do whatever it pleases with them.
Still, it’s hard not to feel that Albon would be much more likely to succeed in a Red Bull after a full year spent learning the ropes with Toro Rosso. Similarly, Gasly deserved a full season to prove himself or otherwise, in which case, if you were being particularly harsh, you could discard him at the end of the year.
In the perfect scenario, Albon thrives while Gasly rebuilds his confidence and gives Red Bull a headache at the end of the season. In the nightmare one, both are deemed not good enough at the end of this year based on nine races for one and 12 for the other.
If the latter happens, then Red Bull could be turning back to Kvyat, who it dropped for not being good enough, when it turned out all he needed was time to develop.
See a pattern developing?