The Red Bull Problem
A self indulgent analysis of the potential decline of Red Bull Racing: where it started, how it spiralled, and how it can be stopped.
Complacent perhaps isn’t a word you’d attach to Red Bull Racing, a team with four constructors titles in their back pocket that appear to be taking the reins in F1’s charge to stay contemporary. However, as trouble on track continues and the future of the team is called into question, I argue that complacency is to be found at the root of it all.
To find said root, we must go back to 2018 and Daniel Ricciardo’s decision to leave Red Bull Racing. This, I propose, is the catalyst for the decline of RBR as is playing out now. I’ve always found Ricciardo’s comments regarding his departure from the team on F1 podcast Beyond the Grid very revealing; he says that Christian Horner – RBR Team Principal – initially thought he was joking.
That reaction highlights exhibit A of Red Bull’s complacency: they had no contingency plan for Ricciardo leaving despite an obvious motion towards Max Verstappen as number one driver. They were complacent in planning for the future – a very real, immediate future – as they now prove they are complacent in improving for the future. Red Bull were left rushing to fill a seat they did not expect to be empty – but how did they not see it coming? Why would Daniel Ricciardo – proven race winner, a driver many would argue is easily good enough to be WDC – play second fiddle to a younger driver in a team who have been immobile in third place for years, only improving to second place due to Ferrari’s own failings?
Exhibit B of RBR’s complacency is highlighted when we turn our attention to filling that surprise empty seat. Red Bull chose to follow tradition and promote a driver from incubator B-team Toro Rosso (now Alpha Tauri), essentially transferring the empty seat from the top team to the second team to allow for the promotion of a junior driver. This ladder of progression has proven to be a great success for Red Bull in the past – take Daniel Ricciardo himself, for example, who spent two full seasons getting experience in the B-team before being bumped up to the top drive in 2014.
You don’t have to look much further, however, to find a glaring example of its failure in the tumultuous early career of Daniil Kvyat. Kvyat was promoted to Red Bull for 2015 after just one season in Toro Rosso when – lo and behold – Sebastian Vettel announced his shock departure from the team. The young Russian got the call up ahead of veteran teammate Jean-Eric Vergne, to the surprise of many despite Kvyat’s strong performances in 2014, and found himself demoted back down to the B-team midway through his second season with Red Bull to make way for the prodigal son, Verstappen. Sound familiar?
Cut to summer 2018, and we return to the catalyst of Red Bull’s current conundrum: Ricciardo to Renault. Just like in 2015, the team decided to promote a junior driver from Toro Rosso with only one full season behind him. This time the challenge was that of Kvyat’s teammate, Pierre Gasly. Gasly’s struggles with the RB15 - particularly at the Hungaroring - are well-documented and concluded with a mid-season demotion not dissimilar to that of his former Toro Rosso teammate’s three years prior. This demotion came with the subsequent promotion of brand spanking new Toro Rosso driver Alex Albon - just twelve races into his F1 career.
Albon’s whirlwind first season in F1 didn’t even start there; he was signed for Toro Rosso as late as November 2018 after committing to a contract in Formula E without ever having tested an F1 car. The rate of his ascension to the top team then - quicker even than the prodigal son himself, who had a full season in the B-team - is once again a reflection of Red Bull’s complacency. Alex Albon was hired last minute to cover the empty seat that Ricciardo created, promoted last minute to cover the poor performances of a struggling Gasly, and is now suffering the same fate of those who came before him.
These promotions and consequent repeated problems thus highlight the real Achilles heel that has befallen Red Bull’s relationship to the B-team; what was once an opportunity for drivers to become familiar with F1 in a less demanding team exists now solely as a limbo between promotion and losing a drive entirely. As an Alpha Tauri driver, you’re one bad race away from being dropped and one good race away from being promoted.
The transformation of Alpha Tauri to hellscape thus casts a shadow of doubt on Red Bull’s illustrious junior programme. Despite the team’s reputation for bringing young drivers through the ranks, there are only three drivers currently worth considering for promotion in the junior series: Yuki Tsunoda, Jehan Daruvala, and Juri Vips. Tsunoda is undoubtedly in the best position for promotion; he is sitting third in the F2 standings - which would earn him a handy forty super license points - driving for Red Bull Carlin as a Honda backed junior. Daruvala as his teammate is a less imaginable prospect with only twenty eight super license points at time of writing and none to be earned in his fifteenth place in F2. Vips, however, has an interesting case.
The FIA’s recent announcement of changes to the super license system has, in some circles, been nicknamed ‘The Juri Rule’ - and it’s not difficult to see why. Vips’ campaign as a Red Bull driver in Super Formula this year was dramatically thrown off course when COVID restrictions stopped him entering Japan for round one in Motegi leading to a drive in FREC. His Formula Regional campaign, however, was similarly disrupted when he was called up to F2 in Spa to replace injured DAMS driver Sean Gelael. As a result, Vips finds himself sixteenth in the F2 standings and sixth in Formula Regional (with four rounds to go) for a haul of only five super license points for the year. Under normal FIA rules, this would leave Vips with thirty points going into the 2021 season with a net loss of seven points from the chaos of this year. This is where ‘The Juri Rule’ comes into play; new FIA rules would allow Vips to discount this year’s low points and keep hold of his twelve from 2017 to stay within touching distance of the all important forty. Furthermore, the consideration of drivers with over thirty points who have had super license opportunities dashed “due to circumstances out of their control or reasons of force majeure” would suggest that Vips’ Super Formula troubles may indeed prove enough to make him eligible for a drive in 2021.
So, to summarise, Red Bull have two junior drivers knocking on the door of eligibility and an Alpha Tauri seat for the 2021 season. But the key problem remains: who can partner Max Verstappen? By all accounts, there seems to be three options on the table.
Option one is sticking with current number two driver, Alex Albon. Despite an outwardly difficult 2020 season so far, Albon has scored points in eight of the nine races he’s seen through to the chequered flag. Amongst those, five have been top six finishes including his maiden podium in Mugello. Albon evidently struggles on a Saturday - outqualified by his teammate in every session so far with a couple of Q2 knockouts - but his poor starting positions often lead to some incredible overtaking demonstrations during the race. His charge from 13th to 5th in Hungary particularly springs to mind, despite eventually finishing over a minute behind Verstappen. If Albon can deliver consistent top six finishes and show improvement on Saturdays between now and the end of the season, it’s not inconceivable that Red Bull Racing might abstain from their usual trigger finger and keep the Thai driver for 2021.
Option two, and strike one on the case against Albon, is Pierre Gasly. Red Bull find themselves in unexplored territory this year with regard to their usual philosophy of bumping up from the B-team: both Gasly and Kvyat have already had the promotion-demotion treatment. A second chance in the top team might sound inconceivable if not for Gasly’s unbelievably impressive run since his return to Toro Rosso/Alpha Tauri: points in twelve of eighteen finishes since demotion including a podium in Brazil and that incredible win at Monza. As Albon seems to struggle in the Verstappen-built RB16, Gasly has found his feet in remarkable fashion in the AT01 and, whilst many are suggesting he’d be wise to pull a Carlos Sainz Jr. and take his talent out of the Red Bull family altogether, Pierre himself hopes “these strong results will be rewarded” by the team. Whether that reward will be the seat opposite Verstappen for 2021 will ultimately depend on Red Bull’s willingness to reverse their decision of last year - unlikely, if rumours of the paddock are to be believed.
The third and most intriguing option is for Red Bull to sign from outside the family, a move they’ve not made since Mark Webber joined the team in 2007. The thirteen year run since is admittedly a testament to the success of the junior programme; as mentioned, the only stumble in the Red Bull progression ladder until recently had been the Kvyat situation in 2016. It appeared that Red Bull had struck gold with their combination of top driver loyalty (seven years with Webber, six years with Vettel, five years with Ricciardo) and a steady stream of young driver talent to develop (Kvyat, Verstappen, Sainz, Gasly) making outside hires unnecessary. So why may it be necessary for 2021?
Criticism of both Gasly and Albon’s performance at Red Bull often comes back to inconsistency and being unable to extract the maximum performance from the car, shortcomings that inarguably stem from - no prizes for guessing - a lack of experience. The team might therefore be convinced to look elsewhere for drivers with track records of reliable performances to bolster Verstappen’s fight against Mercedes. As it happens, two such drivers are available for the 2021 season: Nico Hulkenberg and Sergio Perez. At time of writing, both drivers have been connected to a Red Bull seat to varying degree through whispers in the paddock; Perez in his search for a drive after being fired from Racing Point (though rumours have linked him to just about every team on the grid) and Hulkenberg most recently via discussions with Dr. Helmut Marko after an inconclusive COVID test for Alex Albon (though such talks were for a temporary 2020 seat, of course). Dr. Marko himself has named both Hulkenberg and Perez as options should a seat become available, though he went on to suggest that neither could perform any better than Albon when on form: “I don’t think anyone would get closer [to Max] than three tenths. On good days, Albon is able to create this proximity.” From this, then, we might assume that Red Bull are eager to stick to tried-and-true philosophy and intend to keep Albon for 2021 provided he can return to form for the remainder of the season. As we learnt in the Summer break of 2019, though, ‘intentions’ do not always reflect in actions.
It’s difficult to conclude a piece such as this with so much resting on speculation and decisions held in limbo. What remains true, however, is this: the Red Bull problem lies in fundamental complacency that must be replaced by foundations for the future to prevent situations such as these from repeating and spiralling out of control. After all, it takes two drivers to win a world championship - and with Honda's 2022 departure and Verstappen’s contract due to expire in 2023, the ‘future’ may be closer than they think.