Is Red Bull Their Own Enemy In The Constructors’ Championship?
Mercedes may be dominating, but let's take a look at why Red Bull aren't challenging more than they currently are.
I can already hear the Max Verstappen fans angrily typing away in the comments, but hear me out. There is no doubt in Verstappen’s ability as a driver – he is easily one of the best drivers on the grid at the moment and possibly one of the best drivers to have ever graced Formula 1. There is also no doubt in Red Bull’s ability as a team – building a team up from the ashes of Jaguar to winning 4 straight double titles in just half a decade. So on paper, the Verstappen x Red Bull partnership should be one to strike fear into their rivals, and often is. However, if Red Bull want to return to the top of the Constructors’ Championship, they need to change their approach.
It all boils down to 1 person: Helmut Marko. Marko has 2 roles at Red Bull – Chief Advisor and Head of the Red Bull Driver Development Programme. The controversial Austrian created the Red Bull Junior Team initially as an International Formula 3000 team in 1999, before the Driver Programme was formed in 2001.
Many drivers have been apart of the Red Bull Driver Programme, however not many actually reach F1, let alone graduate to the senior Red Bull Racing team. This is for many reasons, but Marko is known for being extremely tough on his drivers, and as soon as you have a dip in performance you will be dropped. Likewise, if you start to perform you will be given preferential treatment. As bizarre a system as this may sound, it represents the core target of Marko and Red Bull, which is to be the backers of the best racing drivers in the world.
It took until 2008 however for the Red Bull Driver Programme to produce its first F1 winner. A young Sebastian Vettel took a shock maiden pole position and victory at a wet Monza circuit, winning for the small Scuderia Toro Rosso team. And this is where we first see Marko’s extreme favouritism.
Vettel on the podium after winning his first Grand Prix
Unsurprisingly, Vettel was promoted to the senior team for 2009 alongside F1 veteran Mark Webber. Both drivers are undoubtedly top-class drivers, but there is one key difference – Vettel is essentially Red Bull’s biological son, whereas Webber is ‘adopted’, as he was never part of the Red Bull Driver Programme.
The pair remained teammates from 2009 through to 2013, a period of time where Red Bull arguably dominated the sport, even if they had more competition than Mercedes currently do, but the Vettel-Webber rivalry was very much about to kick off.
The 2010 Turkish Grand Prix. One of the most infamous races of the decade, and very much all for one reason. While fighting for the win with the McLarens of Hamilton and Button, the intrateam battle at Red Bull was hotting up. After the team denying Webber’s request to reduce Vettel’s speed, Vettel got a run on the leading Australian on Lap 40 but turned into Webber along the back straight, making contact at high speed and taking both drivers out of the race for the win.
Despite it seeming pretty obvious that Vettel turned into Webber on the straight, both Marko and Team Principle Christian Horner pointed at least partial blame on Webber. Marko was also denying claims that the team favoured Vettel with the strategy that lead him to have more available power over Webber.
Throughout the early stages of the decade, Vettel won 4 back-to-back titles (2010-2013), and eventually the favouritism lead Webber to hang up his F1 helmet after 2013 to join Porsche in the World Endurance Championship. This opened up a seat at the senior team for Red Bull Junior Daniel Ricciardo to fill, beating Jean-Eric Vergne to the drive.
The new partnership between Vettel and Ricciardo coincided with the change in engine regulations in 2014, with which Vettel struggled with massively. This led to Ricciardo firmly beating the 4-time champion in 2014, and suddenly Red Bull’s and Marko’s bias was turned towards the young Australian. This season in F1 showed just how quickly a career at Red Bull can go downhill, and with zero wins to Ricciardo’s three in 2014, Vettel left the Red Bull team entirely to join Ferrari.
Ricciardo celebrating his maiden F1 win at Canada
2015 saw young Russian Daniil Kvyat see an early promotion, and arguably the first of many that ended up ruining several drivers’ careers in Formula 1. To be fair to Kvyat, he beat Ricciardo in 2015, however this season is arguably an anomaly in Red Bull’s history with zero wins. However the start of 2016 was a prime example of Marko and Red Bull’s favouritism to drivers.
In the wings of the Red Bull Driver Programme at this time was Max Verstappen. The Dutchman was already making headlines before his full F1 debut, by making his Free Practice debut in 2014 at just 16 years old, and in 2015 he became the youngest F1 driver and youngest points scorer in F1. Verstappen backed up all the hype by showing supreme racing ability, if a bit rough around the edges, an example of which being an incredible overtake on Sauber’s Felipe Nasr around the outside at Blanchimont at Spa, and scoring two P4 finishes at Hungary and Texas.
Back to Kvyat – at the third round of the season at China, Kvyat scored Red Bull’s first podium of the year, despite being labelled a ‘Torpedo’ by Vettel for his move at Turn 1. In the next race at Russia, Kvyat’s home race, he had another run-in with Vettel, rear ending the Ferrari driver into Turn 2 on Lap 1, before hitting him again at Turn 3 and taking Vettel out of the race.
Marko, eager to get Verstappen into the senior team as soon as possible, jumped on the opportunity to demote the Russian and get Verstappen into the car. The team cited the decision to have been made to ‘relieve pressure on Kvyat following criticism for his role in a first-lap accident in the Russian Grand Prix’, and to ‘ease ongoing tension between Verstappen and teammate Carlos Sainz Jr at Toro Rosso’, however in my opinion it was still an incredibly harsh decision on Kvyat to demote him for one mistake.
Kvyat suffered this huge crash during qualifying for the 2015 Japanese Grand Prix
Unfortunately for Kvyat, his fate within the Red Bull family was secured when Verstappen took a shock maiden F1 win on his debut with the Red Bull team at the Spanish Grand Prix. This became very much the start of Verstappen’s rise, and Kvyat’s fall.
I feel the way Kvyat was treated by Red Bull was just wrong. From the outside at least, it seemed that Red Bull were beating a broken man – in 2017, before the end of the season, Kvyat was dropped from the team entirely, and with Sainz moving to Renault, Toro Rosso saw an all-new lineup to see out the 2017 season in Pierre Gasly and Brendon Hartley.
Let’s start with Brendon Hartley – the Kiwi was part of the Red Bull Driver Programme from 2006 to 2010, and was then dropped. Because Red Bull had put all their eggs in one basket in Verstappen, they had a significant lack of junior drivers, which meant recalling on former junior drivers like Hartley. Now, Hartley is certainly no slouch, being a 2x Le Mans winner before his F1 debut (now 3x), and a World Endurance Champion.
Unfortunately, Hartley’s sole F1 season was plagued with bad luck, getting caught up in incidents and mechanical issues meant finished a lowly P19 with just 4 points to his name, and was subsequently dropped once again from the Red Bull family.
Pierre Gasly had a much better 2018. After an incredibly successful junior career, Red Bull were earmarking the Frenchman as their next big talent, and in just the second race of 2018 he scored an amazing P4 with the Toro Rosso team.
Meanwhile at the senior team, the partnership with Daniel Ricciardo was breaking down. After the first 6 races, Ricciardo, Hamilton and Vettel had 2 wins each, setting up for an amazing title showdown. However, torrid reliability and claims of the team favouring Verstappen plagued Ricciardo’s season, and his Monaco GP win remains his last win and podium to date. At the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, in a titanic battle with Verstappen, Ricciardo crashed into the back of the Dutchman into Turn 1, taking them both out of the race and giving the team flashbacks to Turkey 2010. At the end of the season, Ricciardo left the team for Renault, freeing up a seat alongside Verstappen that was unsurprisingly taken by Gasly.
Going into 2019, Red Bull were confident that they could finally take on the Mercedes dominance head-on, with their two star drivers of Verstappen and Gasly. However, this is where we address the main topic of this article – why Red Bull will never win the Constructors’ title with Verstappen.
Indeed, Verstappen did have a very strong 2019, with a car that he found very easy to drive, whereas Gasly struggled to drive the car massively. That is because Red Bull had essentially built the car around Verstappen’s driving style in order to give him the best chance of being World Champion. And this is the issue Red Bull currently have – they are focusing too much on trying to make Verstappen World Champion that whoever is in that 2nd seat is just forgotten about.
This lead to Gasly not being able to get out of the midfield, despite driving a seemingly race winning car, leading to speculation about the security of his seat at the team, especially with rookie Alex Albon impressing in the Toro Rosso, and Kvyat on his return to the Toro Rosso team scoring a podium at the German Grand Prix.
And this is the icing on the cake – Red Bull lied. They lied over and over again, always saying that Gasly will see out the season, only for the summer break to roll along and Gasly to be dropped in favour of Albon. And it’s this toxic environment that Red Bull’s 2nd driver is in that will make it impossible to win the Constructor’s title. Not only do you need a car that both drivers can race at the front instead of building the car around 1 of your drivers only, but you need to have a good relationship with your drivers. Now, after the most public case of Red Bull’s poor 2nd driver treatment, any driver in that seat will always be on edge about the security of their contract.
Albon did do well for the rest of 2019, demonstrating extremely good race craft on several occasions, and was taken out by Hamilton while on course for his maiden podium at Brazil. Awkwardly for Red Bull, the driver that inherited that podium was Pierre Gasly, finishing P2 to take his maiden podium instead. Even more embarrassing, after Hamilton was penalised for his collision with Albon, it was former Red Bull junior Sainz that inherited his maiden F1 podium in P3.
Unfortunately, Red Bull seemingly didn’t learn from this for the 2020 season. The car was an evolution of the 2019 RB15, meaning once again Verstappen was able to drive the car much better than Albon, however both drivers admitted to struggling with drivability in mid-speed corners. Once again, Albon was taken out by Hamilton while on course for a podium in the opening round at Austria, and with Gasly running very strongly in the renamed AlphaTauri, questions were being asked about swapping the drivers back around.
Red Bull jumped to Albon’s defense, however just a year earlier the same words were coming out of the same team’s mouth only for them to be a lie, and understandably Albon was not at ease at the situation. Thankfully for him, he finally claimed his first podium at the Tuscan Grand Prix, which will hopefully give him some security over his seat for the rest of the season and for 2021. Just a week prior, Gasly won his first race in F1 at the Italian Grand Prix, 12 years after Vettel won for the same team, proving that outside of Red Bull, drivers such as Gasly can certainly flourish.
A crazy looking podium at the 2020 Italian Grand Prix, with Pierre Gasly on top
As for Red Bull’s Constructors’ Championship hopes, it is unlikely they will be in a position to fight for the win before the 2022 regulation changes. However, that gives them the perfect opportunity to address their approach to F1, which they will need to do if they truly want to win the Constructors’ as well as the Drivers’ title. You can’t win the Constructor’s Championship if only 1 car is fighting at the front, and the treatment of that 2nd seat has certainly not given them good publicity. I think there are two things Red Bull can do, the first of which is to get rid of Helmut Marko.
Marko is a backwards person, someone who’s views do not belong in modern society, especially in a sport that is pushing to secure its future in an ever changing world, both environmentally and in diversity, and is the main source of Red Bull’s problems at the moment. Without him at the team, the 2nd driver will immediately feel more at ease, and with the right support from the rest of the team I am sure Albon or whoever is alongside Verstappen in 2022 will be able to fight at the front with the Dutchman.
The second thing Red Bull could do is to get rid of Verstappen. Now it’s pretty obvious that this isn’t going to happen unless Max isn’t happy with the performance of his car, but if Red Bull were to fluff up the 2022 regulation change and Verstappen was to leave as a result, it could well be a blessing in disguise, as it means they no longer have all their eggs in one basket, and they can design a racecar to suit both of their drivers, not just Verstappen.
So there you have it, my opinion as to why I think Red Bull is their own enemy in their fight for the Constructors’ Championship crown. I hope you enjoyed the read and feel free to let me know your opinions on the topic in the comments.