The Second Red Bull Seat: Is It The Driver Or The Car?
Gasly and Albon are undoubtedly talented young drivers, but they couldn't match Verstappen in equal machinery. What exactly the problem is?
Arguably, in the current F1 season, only 2 teams can challenge for a podium position. Instead of saying Mercedes and Red Bull, I would say it is Mercedes and Max Verstappen. It is prevalent to see a podium composed of Hamilton, Bottas, and Verstappen these days while the second Red Bull is nowhere to be seen. It is a problem since Daniel Ricciardo left the team that Red Bull doesn't have a driver in a similar level of performance and ability to maximize the car like Verstappen is doing. This matter raised a big question in my head. Is it the drivers who can't perform, or is it the car?
It all started with Gasly.
When Daniel Ricciardo decided to left Red Bull after the 2018 season ends, Helmut Marko decided to choose Pierre Gasly as the replacement. The young Frenchman was putting incredible performances that season. Notably, when he finished P4 in Bahrain in Torro Rosso's second race using the unproven Honda power unit. He outperformed his teammate, Brandon Hartley, comfortably during the season.
He started his journey with Red Bull already in rough shape at the beginning of the season. He crashed heavily in pre-season testing and failed to grab a point in the first race of the season in Melbourne. He struggled along the way and putting a regular dismal performance compared to Max Verstappen. Then, he was embarrassingly lapped by his teammate, who chased for the win in Austria. Although he put a decent performance in Silverstone, he then crashed in Hockenheim because of a silly unforced error near the end of the race.
Finally, he got dropped by the team at the summer break after competing with just 12 races. In Netflix's Drive To Survive, Christian Horner said that Gasly's promotion was premature. Pierre seems doesn't have confidence in himself during those races. Horner said Pierre cares too much about data and comparison with Max, which gradually lowered his confidence.
Early optimism with Albon
Following Pierre Gasly's exit, Dr. Marko chooses Alexander Albon as the replacement instead of the more experienced Daniil Kvyat. At that time, I was confused about the decision. Because if Pierre Gasly, who is someone with 26 races under his belt, considered too early to earn a promotion, then what about Alex Albon's promotion with only 12 races experience in Formula 1.
Nevertheless, he put a couple of good performances after the switch. His debut was an excellent recovery drive from starting last because of grid penalties to finish in P5 and made some daring overtaking moves along the way. He then put decent performances until the end of the season, which one of them was when he infamously denied from what could be his first podium by Lewis Hamilton in Brazil. Although he is definitely still not on the same level as Max Verstappen, he showed braveness and aggressiveness behind the wheel, which Marko and Horner love.
Albon didn't really improve
Everyone expects Alex Albon to keep improving and getting closer to Max's pace at the beginning of the 2020 season. On the first race in Austria, he was again denied from his first podium after a collision with Lewis Hamilton. From then on, he seems struggling a lot. He missed out on Q3 on several occasions this year. In terms of pace, he was still behind Max for about 0,5 up to 1,5 seconds per lap. It looked like he was a part of the midfield right now and left by Max who regularly challenged the Mercedes
After the Hungarian GP, Red Bull decided to replace Alex's then engineer, Mike Lugg, with a more experienced one in Simon Rennie who was Daniel Ricciardo's and Kimi Raikkonen's race engineer. This effort was made so better performances can be extracted from Alex.
Alex just finished third at Mugello and finally grabbed his first podium. But, I think that's the only race he performed well this season. Hopefully, he gets the momentum he needs and overcomes his recent struggles quickly.
Gasly is rejuvenated
After being demoted to Toro Rosso, Pierre gradually found his rhythm back. He found his confidence back both in himself and with the car. It seems that Toro Rosso's car suited him much better than Red Bull's. A shocking podium in Interlagos also helped him get through that mental breakdown.
His performances in this season are outstanding. In an Alpha Tauri, he regularly outperformed his teammate, Daniil Kvyat. This year's midfield is very tight. Racing Point, McLaren, and Renault are getting their elbows out in this fight, yet Pierre still scored points almost regularly and only missed out in 3 races out of 9.
He looked so consistent and entertaining on track. His incredible recovery drive in Spa and his unbelievable win in Monza earned him a driver of the day for each race. He is not afraid to make some overtaking moves, and that is undoubtedly an improvement from last year.
Gasly back to Red Bull?
This is tough. I don't think Albon is improving enough even with the fact that Helmut Marko said otherwise. Max Verstappen needs a teammate who can match his performance to be able to put pressure for both Mercedes. I think swapping Gasly and Albon for the second time wouldn't make any difference because from my perspective it's not all about the driver.
Pierre Gasly had an excellent season in 2018 and history-wise he was always considered as a young talented driver. Yet, he couldn't extract his best and struggled with confidence when he moved up to Red Bull.
Albon had a much better start of his campaign with Red Bull compared to what Gasly did. But, after the first race of 2020 in Austria, he seems to lose his confidence week by week. Hopefully, his podium at Mugello could lift the confidence he badly needed all season long.
Is it the car that caused all sort of problem?
I think it is. Both Pierre Gasly and Alex Albon are undoubtedly talented drivers. I know that there might be something wrong whether it's the car or the whole team when both Pierre and Alex struggled so much compared to Max.
There's a lot of fan opinions that suggest both RB15 and RB16 is made to suit Verstappen's very aggressive driving style which doesn't fit both Pierre and Alex very well. But, I don't think that is the case. My assumption is that the cars are indeed unstable. The fact that Max was able to extract the maximum performances out of those cars is because Max has a lot more experience in F1 than Pierre and Alex. So he could adapt much quickly with the car.
Christian Horner said that Albon has the same handling problem Gasly had last season. "The car can be a little bit sensitive at the rear, under braking," Horner explained. "And I think that can make life difficult for Alex as it did Pierre last year. So that's something that we've been very focussed on trying to address."
What's next for Red Bull?
I think it would be better for them to stick with Alex as he gradually improves, although slower than we hoped for, to match his pace with Max. His podium in Mugello should be a big lift for his confidence into the next eight races before the end of 2020.
If he fails, then a demotion to Alpha Tauri would be a possible choice for Alex. Pierre is rejuvenated at Faenza based team, and I don't see any reason for Alex to do so if needed.
Then, I think there should be no more Pierre Gasly in Red Bull at least until the end of 2021. The car won't suit him well and staying at Alpha Tauri would be a much better option performance-wise and for his career.