Opinion: Why Red Bull’s driver doctrine is in meltdown

by William Brierty
Daniil Kvyat - Red Bull - Toro Rosso

Daniil Kvyat was shaping up to be a very fine young driver indeed. However, the lethal combination of a premature promotion and an incoming Dutch prodigy cast the Russian’s career into an intractable downward spiral. As a believer in Daniil’s speed and ability, Red Bull’s longtime driver tsar Helmut Marko had an uncharacteristic splurge of generosity; allowing Kvyat to convalesce at Toro Rosso after his demotion and allowed him a further stay of execution for the start of 2017 despite Pierre Gasly’s successes in GP2.

However, a disastrous season saw Kvyat score more penalty points than world championship points in 2017, and Marko’s patience would finally expire as Daniil ended the Singapore Grand Prix in the barriers. The fact that a clean slate in 2017 was not enough to banish the ghosts of his 2016 demotion called into question the Russian’s mental resilience going forward. He was a driver exiting the sport with so much unfulfilled potential, but there was no denying the opportunities he had received.

This backdrop makes the decision to award Kvyat his third chance in 2019 all the more vexing. A season spent in the virtual invisibility of a Ferrari development role does not even give Toro Rosso any particular reason to expect a faster, more confident Kvyat in 2019. For a driver programme was an infamous reputation for expelling fine drivers – not least Jean-Eric Vergne who more often than not eclipsed team-mate Daniel Ricciardo on race pace – the leniency and unwavering belief that Marko has shown Kvyat is a stunning departure from the Austrian’s characteristically brusk approach to management. However, Kvyat is not the only driver to have benefited from Marko’s apparent thaw.

Brendon Hartley’s bolt-from-the-blue F1 career has thus far done little to dispel doubts that surrounded the Kiwi during his stint as an F1 tester some nine years ago. An unspectacular single-seater career may have paved way to success with the Porsche LMP1 team, but having scored just two points from twenty races, Hartley’s call-up remains resoundingly mystifying. It would be even more bewildering if the Kiwi was kept on at Toro Rosso for 2019; alongside another driver who has struggled to justify Marko’s faith.

Brendon Hartley - Red Bull Toro Rosso Honda

Credit: Peter Fox/Getty Images

Given the array of credible free agents on offer – such as Stoffel Vandoorne (a driver arguably more deserving of the clemency Kvyat has enjoyed), Pascal Wehrlein and Oliver Rowland – to persevere with drivers who have largely squandered the opportunities afforded to them appears totally counter-intuitive. And yet, the fact that such an uninspiring line-up is even under consideration highlights a broader crisis with Red Bull Racing’s entire driver doctrine.

Toro Rosso currently finds itself in a vacuum; pincered between Helmut Marko’s adamance that the team remains exclusive to drivers with Red Bull schooling and the Austrian’s failure to commandeer key young drivers from the junior series in recent years. In always keeping a firm eye on all branches of the junior series, Marko has managed to maintain a steady trickle of stellar driving talent flowing into each of Red Bull’s four cars. Helmut would even discover a pair of generational talents in Sebastian Vettel and Max Verstappen.

Naturally, this was a methodology and that was bound to attract the attention of rival teams; in the years since Verstappen’s remarkable rookie season the heightened focus on junior series scouting has been clear to see. Soon after the penny dropped that by the time a young driver appeared on the F1 support bill they would most likely already have junior programme backing. Esteban Ocon, Charles Leclerc, Lando Norris and George Russell are a quartet of drivers destined to play headline roles in the next decade of F1; each nabbed by Mercedes, Ferrari and McLaren from the clutches of Marko’s previously supreme driver scheme.

Currently, the most senior driver in the Red Bull Junior Team is Formula 3 title challenger Dan Ticktum; a driver who is not only ineligible for a 2019 super-license but was barred from a test outing due to his inexperience (the result of a yearlong racing ban following an incident in British MSA Formula). For all that Red Bull initially indicated that they would like to see Ticktum promoted into one of the Toro Rosso seats, the insurmountable obstacle of the super-license has seen that prospect evaporate.

Daniel Ticktum (seen here at Spa), set the pace in free practice at Silverstone

Credit: Davide Pastanella / Red Bull Content Pool

Elsewhere in Red Bull’s junior ranks Formula 2 racer Nirei Fukuzumi – a Honda junior inducted into the junior team as part of Red Bull’s entente with the Japanese marque – has only scored a handful of points thus far in 2019. For added Austrian vexation, two of this year’s F2 front runners – Alexander Albon and Sergio Sette Camara – are two former members of the Red Bull Junior Team. Albon especially has performed in a manner that questions Marko’s judgement and would have been a fine choice for a Toro Rosso seat had he not been poached by Nissan’s Formula E programme. With none of Red Bull’s current roster of junior drivers eligible for a super-license, there appears only one choice: to partner Kvyat with a driver from outside the Red Bull fold.

Whilst it would be an unprecedented step for the Faenza-based team to field a driver without prior Red Bull affiliation, a Kvyat-Hartley line-up would almost inevitably leave Toro Rosso virulently ill-equipped to compete in the frenetic midfield melee. However, outwardly Marko has made it plain that he is not willing to compromise the team’s prevailing driver policy and has made every effort to ensure that Toro Rosso remains exclusive to Red Bull Junior Team graduates; even if it infringes upon the team’s competitiveness.

Why else draft Hartley if not to satisfy Marko’s doctrinal particulars? Why else reinstate a driver who previously been demoted twice? The frantic scramble to track down drivers with even the most tenuous link to the Red Bull Junior Team has seen all manner of names emerge from the woodwork, from Sebastien Buemi to FE champion Jean-Eric Vergne. Increasingly Marko’s illustrious driver doctrine is less resemblant of any kind of strategic policy rather than unapologetic stubbornness.

In fairness, it could be argued that Kvyat and Hartley could serve as an effective pair of placeholders to keep the seats warm for upcoming hotshots. However, with the exception of Ticktum, there doesn’t appear to be an imminent armada of F1-worthy Red Bull juniors in the pipeline. With the likes Vandoorne and Wehrlein on the F1 scrap heap, it is a shame that Red Bull doesn’t appear inclined to use its seats to salvage the careers of drivers who could easily ascend to race-winning potential.

Pascal Wehrlein will share reserve driver duties at Mercedes with George Russell

Credit: Octane Photographic Ltd

However, Pascal Wehrlein appears to be the litmus test. Given that Toro Rosso team principal Franz Tost is thought to have approached Wehrlein regarding potentially replacing Hartley ahead of the Austrian Grand Prix, the gratuitous news that Pascal has severed ties with Mercedes has put the German firmly in the picture for a Toro Rosso seat. Unsurprisingly Helmut Marko is believed to be against the idea. However, Wehrlein not only represents a young driver with obvious potential but a means of benchmarking Kvyat’s alleged revival. Overall, Pascal would be a fine candidate to finally shatter Toro Rosso’s exclusive entry requirements. This is one debate that Helmut Marko needs to lose.

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