The swap between Pierre Gasly and Alex Albon certainly left the whole F1 universe speechless, as the news broke earlier today. Helmut Marko once again decided to disruptively enforce his apparently meritocratic criterion over the Red Bull line-up for the remainder of the season by demoting Pierre Gasly, who was promoted one year ago during the summer break.
The life of the Red Bull junior programme may possibly be drawing to a close, as Dan Ticktum was dropped by the Anglo-Austrian outfit back in June. The Briton embodied Marko’s last and desperate chance to breed a young talent and bring him to F1, mimicking his very own masterpiece with Verstappen’s move into the sport. Unfortunately, things did not go as planned. Ticktum failed to score the amount of points required to obtain the Superlicense in the Asian F3 Winter Series, and had a rather poor Super Formula run later on in 2019.
Over the past two years, the Red Bull junior programme went from being a luxuriant land of opportunities to turning into a dried up river. Why? Helmut Marko’s selective policy is to blame, now more than ever. A double demotion hitting Kvyat felt as a humiliating career-killing move rather than just compliance with the best-for-business philosophy. However, if we think about it, such a move was inducted by Red Bull’s restricted number of available seats in F1. The perpetuous inequality between seats and resources, added to Helmut Marko’s harsh way of making up for poor results, saw its ultimate degeneration in Kvyat’s forced farewell to the Red Bull orbit in 2017.
The same hyper-selective approach affected Daniel Ricciardo in his Red Bull days and Carlos Sainz as well. The Spaniard was put on a football-style loan in 2017 before parting ways with Red Bull last year, preventing Marko from managing his own career moves. Both drivers are now embarked on a long-term project with Renault and McLaren, which are definitely more alluring than an unstable position within the Red Bull family. They do not seem to be regretting their Milton Keynes days, and neither does Jean-Eric Vergne, who went from hero at Toro Rosso to zero before regrouping and finding career fulfillment in Formula E. The Frenchman revealed that Red Bull had promised him Vettel’s seat, but then Kvyat was promoted. Therefore, it is safe to say that the demotion procedure was in the air even before 2016.
Toro Rosso has completely turned into Red Bull’s personal test bench in terms of engines, technical solutions and -ultimately driver selection. As per today’s press release: “Red Bull are in the unique position of having four talented Formula One drivers under contract who can be rotated between the team 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.”
Now that the ‘rotation’ chances have become part of the team’s routine, Red Bull’s flawed mechanism has become even more evident, and the risk of thwarting two careers is worryingly high. Is switching Gasly and Albon a risk worth taking? Looking at the amount of resources Red Bull is endowed with, certainly not. But betting on Verstappen displayed Marko’s enlightening vision, as well as with Sebastian Vettel years before. The Austrian’s philosophy is built on taking risks for the sake of results and credibility, regardless of the drivers’ emotional state and of the impact a demotion would have on their psyche.
Kvyat found revenge where he hit rock bottom, Vergne did not. To which of these two opposite examples Gasly will be closer in one year’s time?
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