If I redacted the names and told you that with five races to go in a season, a driver for Red Bull’s junior team would have a win to their name and be just one point behind one of the Red Bull Racing drivers in the drivers’ championship, I imagine you’d be on the edge of your seat wanting to know who this wonderkid was.
Then, when I told you that the driver in question wasn’t being promoted, you’d be very confused.
But that’s the situation as it has played out with Pierre Gasly and Alex Albon so far, with Gasly confirmed for another season at AlphaTauri. And I can completely understand Red Bull’s thinking.
I’m a big fan of both drivers, so it’s difficult to balance the desire to see Albon turn his form around with the feeling that Gasly deserves another chance at Red Bull. But if one happens then the other won’t.
The thing is, Red Bull has ended up in a very difficult position, and it’s not really the team’s fault.
Red Bull provides four seats for its drivers in Formula 1 – two at Red Bull and two at AlphaTauri – and it was through excelling for the junior team that both Gasly and Albon got their chance. Albon’s promotion probably came a bit too soon because of Gasly’s struggles, but he took that chance and was a solid performer for the rest of last season.
For both to endure such tough spells at the senior team suggests there’s a root cause. Team principal Christian Horner highlights the car’s sensitive rear end as being particularly unnerving for many drivers, and while Max Verstappen’s exemplary talent has helped him find ways to live with the problem, Horner believes it is central to the difficulties being faced by both Albon and Gasly.
Albon’s struggles have underlined that those problems are still there, and therefore it is likely Gasly would still find life very hard in a Red Bull if he were to be promoted. Similarly, the fact that Gasly has performed so well back at AlphaTauri – despite Albon doing a better job when he replaced him a year ago – also suggests Albon would be a match for the Frenchman in the same car.
If a swap were to happen and Gasly struggled again, you still don’t know with any certainty how Albon stacks up against the Italian Grand Prix winner, but Red Bull is also left with a growing feeling that it can’t provide a good environment for a driver alongside Verstappen.
At the moment though, all we’ve got are educated guesses. They haven’t been in the same car at the same time, and they won’t get the chance to do that in a Red Bull while Verstappen is there. So how does Red Bull work out the potential of each of them?
The simple answer is to pair them up at AlphaTauri, and that could well happen. Gasly has now been confirmed for 2021 – ruling out a promotion – but Albon’s position is far less certain. If Red Bull opts to replace him, then he’s likely to get a second shot in the junior team just like Gasly did, and from there both of them have a proper chance to rebuild their reputations.
Of course, there would have to be a winner and loser, but for each it provides the opportunity to answer the questions that remain: essentially, who is the better fit for Red Bull?
But that alone doesn’t help Red Bull to understand whether both drivers are hugely talented and struggling in the senior team, or just well-matched against each other but far from Verstappen’s standard.
And that’s exactly why the likes of Nico Hulkenberg and Sergio Perez are being touted as the likely replacements if Albon is dropped. By bringing in an experienced, highly-rated driver in that second seat, you get a more reliable barometer. One of those two performs well, and Red Bull gets better results as well as learning what Albon and Gasly are lacking. Or if a Hulkenberg or Perez struggles then the junior drivers have the talent but something needs to change with the Red Bull car and team approach.
It all sounds so simple, but there are downsides. For one, Albon races under the Thai flag and 51% of the overall Red Bull company is owned by Thai billionaire businessman Chalerm Yoovidhya (the other 49% being Dietrich Mateschitz). Having a Thai driver racing for the team must surely remain an attractive proposition.
On top of that, picking from outside the current crop of drivers it has under contract would be a departure from the junior program that Red Bull pumps huge amounts of money into, and reduces the value for money it gets out of the sister team in terms of preparing drivers.
Plus, while it seems the writing is on the wall for Daniil Kvyat, an AlphaTauri line-up of Albon and Gasly closes the door to the talented Yuki Tsunoda. The Japanese driver is not only Honda-backed, but he is part of the Red Bull junior team and has impressed in his rookie year in Formula 2. Third in the standings and with an outside chance of the title, Tsunoda appears on course for an FIA Super License and is scheduled to drive in the Abu Dhabi F1 test.
Next week, Tsunoda will drive an old Toro Rosso car at Imola and he was also being lined up for an FP1 appearance, so it is clear he was being prepared to step up, but that would likely need revisiting if Albon is replaced.
In a perfect world, Red Bull doesn’t want to change too much at all. It wants Albon to perform to a high enough level he keeps his seat, and Tsunoda to come in alongside a strong Gasly to show his potential.
The ongoing uncertainty is because Red Bull wants its drivers to succeed, but the longer Albon fails to do so, the more difficult a position it finds itself in. Turning to an outside option shuffles the younger talents further back down the order, and if that outside option markedly outperforms the likes of Gasly and Albon, the whole junior program comes off badly.
In a strange way, now he’s not being promoted Gasly could actually do with Albon’s performances improving so he retains the seat, because if the pair end up as team-mates they will both need the replacement to fail before they even begin to worry about beating each other.