The sport’s fans and journalists have apparently been given a taste of the same mix of confusion and shock as the countless drivers the Aussie has divebombed under braking. Several days after Daniel Ricciardo’s shock move was announced the Formula 1 community is no closer to making any sense of it.
Also, unusually for a Red Bull team with a punchy history of driver announcements, there has been no word on Ricciardo’s replacement. In 2014 the Milton Keynes-based team proceeded to announce Daniil Kvyat’s ill-fated promotion just hours after announcing Sebastian Vettel‘s exit; having made no effort to synchronize the announcement with the German’s new team. In 2016, having been on the podium just two races prior, a disastrous home race in Sochi was considered a fitting pretext to shoehorn Kvyat out of the Red Bull and install Max Verstappen.
With Helmut Marko exacting a brutal and unforgiving dominion over the team’s driver conveyer belt, Red Bull has seldom been inclined to procrastinate over driver decisions. And there is no real reason to procrastinate over selecting Ricciardo’s replacement, because of the two realistic candidates – Carlos Sainz Jr. and Pierre Gasly – the young Spaniard represents a markedly more capable and proven performer.
Carlos certainly won’t have won any favours with Red Bull by so emphatically ruling out a fourth season with Toro Rosso, resulting in the Spaniard’s elasticated deal with Renault. However said elasticity was always predicated on the fact that Sainz was next in line for a seat at Red Bull, and that Milton Keynes would reward his admittedly elapsed patience should Ricciardo leave. It is clear that a purely performance-minded decision would see Red Bull reward Sainz for his unusually long wait for a top drive.
Unfortunately, Sainz’s form in 2018 hasn’t helped his case. Despite the promise of a competitive shootout between two highly-rated drivers, Sainz has come in for a bruising at the hands of Renault team-mate Nico Hulkenberg this year – managing just 30 points to Nico’s 52. However, it was the more experienced German who made the fatal error on the slippery streets of Baku, and strong performances on home-turf in Spain and in France have clawed back some momentum for the Spaniard.
Also, as Ricciardo may discover in 2019, Hulkenberg is one of the grid’s most formidable competitors. It is a testament to the German’s quality that he has managed to keep such a firm lid on Sainz; a driver who in turn blew the doors off a demoted Kvyat scoring 48 points to the Russian’s measly four. Indeed, despite coming up against more concerted opposition in 2018, Sainz has spent recent seasons consistently marking himself out as one the sport’s finest young drivers.
Ever since Verstappen was parachuted into Red Bull in 2016, Sainz has been adamantly producing giant-killing performances in an effort to remain parallel with the widely-lauded Dutchman. Carlos has shown himself as especially adept in wet-dry conditions: boldly fitting a pair of slicks in the drizzle of Shanghai last year before using another bold tyre choice to tip-toe a pair of intermediates through the puddles in Singapore to claim a career best fourth-place.
It also should not be forgotten that Sainz outqualified Verstappen over the course of the season when the pair lined-up at Toro Rosso in 2015, with the Spaniard also bearing the brunt of the team’s rampant unreliability. Indeed, considering that Verstappen would go on to severely blunt Ricciardo’s once infamous single-lap repute, Sainz’s qualifying performances alongside the Dutchman are a testament to the speed he could bring to the top team.
There have been errors too: torpedoing Lance Stroll in Bahrain last year and causing first-lap chaos in Canada were low points for the Spaniard. However, just as Verstappen has spliced the inexorable trajectory his of career with several spills, none of these incidents in any way derailed the clear momentum Sainz has been building in recent seasons.
It’s a string that’s been long in the making, tracing back to an emphatic run to the Formula Renault 3.5 title in 2014. By contrast, Gasly does not come with quite the same pedigree. In producing a truly stellar drive to fourth in Bahrain before capping that off with equally impressive outings in Monaco and Hungary, the Frenchman has become a surprise addition to F1’s burgeoning cast of young hotshots.
Surprising because Gasly has always suffered something of an ambivalent reputation. Despite always being a contender in qualifying trim throughout his junior career, Gasly was to suffer a win drought of more than 1000 days during the crucial formative years of his Red Bull apprenticeship. So whilst, like Stoffel Vandoorne, Gasly wrapped-up the GP2 title in his sophomore campaign, unlike the Belgian, Pierre would have to wait thirty races before claiming his first victory.
Marko’s decision not to change out a browbeaten Kvyat with the newly crowned GP2 champion at the end of 2016 is emblematic of Gasly’s hazy notoriety. Yes, a further nosedive from Kvyat would land the Frenchman the seat regardless, and Gasly certainly has done a fine job of improving his paddock repute since entering F1. However, just as a handful of strong performances during Kvyat’s rookie season in 2014 wrongly led the team to believe he was ready for the top squad, Red Bull are again in danger of promoting a driver on the back of a very small cluster of strong showings.
If Red Bull wants to maintain the fantastically competitive inter-team dynamic they have enjoyed with Verstappen and Ricciardo, if they want a driver who can take the fight to their incumbent prodigy, then several seasons of consistently impressive performances clearly suggest that Sainz is the man for the job. Unfortunately, that suggestion in itself poses more normative questions surrounding Red Bull’s plans for Verstappen’s future standing in the team. If indeed team principal Christian Horner has invited the 20-year-old to “build the team around him” (a rather gratuitous remark Horner made on the eve of the announcement of Verstappen’s new contract – something that may have played on Ricciardo’s mind), then Sainz’s chances of a promotion appear slim.
Despite Marko’s referring to reports of Verstappen vetoing Sainz as “bullshit”, it has become a well-established story in the paddock that the pair endured a fractious relationship when they lined-up at Toro Rosso. These tensions also reportedly extended to the drivers respected entourages, and as a result, Marko is rumoured to be against reuniting the pair for fear of destabilising his wunderkind.
However, it would be demeaning for a top team like Red Bull to allow such pettiness to stop it from signing a driver who would almost certainly be more competitive than Gasly; a driver who could better replicate Ricciardo’s instrumental role in Verstappen’s continued development. And it is not as if any briefing room tension held back Toro Rosso in 2015, with a pair of ambitious, hungry young drivers pushing each over to new heights.
Unfortunately, this unwieldy political folly looks destined to tip the balance in Gasly’s favour. However Red Bull should draft the Frenchman knowing that it will be finally cutting its ties with a very fine driver indeed, having invested so much in Sainz’s career only to deny him his final destination. It should also cut ties with the Spaniard in the knowledge that he will be joining the increasingly long line of candidates for a McLaren seat, putting Sainz at risk of falling off the grid entirely.
Another Kvyat-style knee jerk would not only put political niceties ahead of raw performance, it would chastise the career prospects of a driver who has shown every sign of race-winning potential. Sainz’s only crime appears to be ambitious impatience: the exact same misgiving that so utterly derailed Verstappen early this season. Clearly, these are two peas that need to be reunited in the same pod.