Opinion: The drivers questioning Red Bull orthodoxy

by William Brierty

In July 2014, Red Bull Racing consultant, Dr Helmut Marko, made one of the boldest decisions in Formula 1 history. In signing a 16-year-old Max Verstappen, Marko took an unprecedented risk but ended up securing the services of one of the finest drivers of his generation. It also confirmed the Austrian as the sport’s leading young driver wrangler.

Gutsy, audacious calls have been a feature of Marko’s Red Bull Junior Team. There have been hits: the decision to elevate Daniel Ricciardo from Toro Rosso and the demotion of Daniil Kvyat in Verstappen’s favour. There have been misses: prematurely promoting a 19-year-old Jaime Alguersuari and recalling a Le Mans-winning Kiwi who missed the grade for F1 some nine years previously. Overall, Red Bull will doubtlessly believe the discovery of some of the sport’s finest talents excuses any of Marko’s wackier indiscretions.

Throughout Marko’s years at the head of the Red Bull Junior Team, he has established two unequivocal, indivisible principles. Firstly, potential is not enough. Results are the only meaningful way to measure a driver’s ability. That is a lesson that double Macau-winner Dan Ticktum learned when he was recently dropped from the programme following a disappointing start to his year in Japanese Super Formula. IndyCar convert Patricio O’Ward will soon find himself in the firing line if he can’t get himself quickly up to speed in Japan.

It’s a rule that extends to Red Bull’s F1 drivers too, culminating in the double cull of Toro Rosso drivers Jaime Alguersuari and Sebastien Buemi at the end of the 2011 season – a move met with widespread shock from within the paddock. But it worked. In their stead came the dynamic duo of Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne, with the Aussie going on to win seven races in Red Bull colours. This continual conveyor may not have made for a comfortable experience for many drivers, but unquestionably it succeeded in energising drivers by demonstrating such a clear path to a winning car.

The second of Marko’s golden rules is that Red Bull’s four seats in F1 are exclusive to those with Red Bull schooling. There is undeniable logic here. Rearing a junior driver through the various tiers of single seaters is a considerable investment. Full season campaigns with competitive teams in Formula 3, Formula 2 and the now-defunct Formula Renault 3.5 would regularly put Red Bull in a bidding war against deep-pocketed drivers at vast expense (which is why Red Bull have tended not to place their drivers in GP2/F2). With Sebastian Vettel receiving Red Bull support as a karter as early as 2001, it is entirely likely that his years of Formula BMW, F3 and FR3.5 could have cost the programme as much as $10million.

Credit: GEPA pictures/Red Bull Content Pool

There is no point squandering that investment by signing a driver – at additional expense – from outside the Red Bull pool. The notion that juniors could soon be flying the flag for Red Bull at the front of the grid also focuses the mind on the winning potential of the driver. There has never been room for mediocrity in the Red Bull Junior Team. Any Red Bull junior needs to be ready to make the step or else their development curve simply won’t be steep enough for Marko’s liking.

As a formula for driver management, Helmut Marko’s twin pillars are very persuasive; especially considering the success he has enjoyed with his approach. And yet, as much as the programme has been elevated by the success of Vettel, Ricciardo and Verstappen, in recent years Marko’s doctrine has enjoyed rather less success.

As I wrote last year, the programme has increasingly become pincered between Marko’s refusal to field non-Red Bull drivers and a rather dry pool of junior protagonists. Quite inevitably, rival teams looked at the stunning arrival of Max Verstappen and finally cottoned on to the value of junior series scouting. In recent years, Charles Leclerc, Lando Norris, Esteban Ocon and George Russell have been just some of the superstars to slip through the fingers of Marko’s previously imperious junior scheme.

Without a steady conveyor of plug ‘n’ play youngsters, Marko was forced to get radical when Carlos Sainz Jr absconded to Renault in 2017. In recalling Brendon Hartley, it became rather too obvious that the system was no longer working as intended. The double Le Mans-winning Kiwi failed to make the case for an F1 seat as a Red Bull test driver in 2009-11, and duly failed to make much of a splash in 2018. Pascal Wehrlein, Oliver Rowland and Sergey Sirotkin were just some of the free agents available outside the Red Bull pool.

A year later, Marko’s doctrine looked to be stretched beyond breaking point. With Daniel Ricciardo’s bombshell forcing Pierre Gasly’s promotion to the top squad, and with Hartley not meriting a second season, Red Bull had two Toro Rosso seats but no drivers to fill them. The decision to offer a third chance to sacked Daniil Kvyat was indicative of how logic and performance was playing second fiddle to Marko’s indivisible maxims.

Credit: Getty Images/Red Bull Content Pool

With a fine array of alternatives on offer, it was quite astounding to see just how far Marko was willing to go to satisfy his exclusive criteria. However, with a further seat to fill and no Red Bull juniors eligible for a superlicense, it really did look as if Marko would have to look further afield. There was even talk that Red Bull might call on test driver Sebastien Buemi – some seven years after he was fired from Toro Rosso.

The solution came in the form of Alexander Albon. The Anglo-Thai driver had a varied track record, but compared well to the likes of Leclerc, Russell and Norris throughout his years of F3, GP3 and F2. A single season of Formula Renault under the Red Bull umbrella, after which he was dropped for failing to live up to his superb karting pedigree, at least tenuously complied with Marko’s schooling criteria.

Albon was quite a remarkable choice given Marko’s historically dismissive view of the former karting superstar. In fairness, the lukewarm Red Bull career of uber karter Vitantonio Liuzzi must have been a persuasive cautionary tale. As speculation began to link him with the seat, Albon freely admitted, “Dr Marko isn’t my biggest fan and I need to impress him more to have a chance.” The final decision was even more remarkable considering the fact that Red Bull actually had to buy him out of a contract with the Nissan eDAMS Formula E team. Such was Marko’s procrastination over the decision, Albon felt obliged to consider other options. How absurd.

And yet, even despite technically fulfilling Marko’s uncompromising brief, Toro Rosso went into 2019 with two drivers who had been previously dismissed from the Red Bull driver pool on performance grounds. Marko’s adamance over the team’s entry requirements had left Toro Rosso with a driver who suffered an infamously intractable downward spiral and a rookie with a somewhat chequered junior record. Going by the Austrian’s own results-based mantra, Faenza’s line-up for 2019 was uninspiring.

And yet, by the midpoint of the season both these erstwhile ambivalent choices are having a quietly excellent season. Kvyat is driving with more relish, confidence and flair than at any point since his 2014-15 heyday. A trio of points-scoring finishes in Barcelona, Monaco and Montreal are among the most solid performances of the Russian’s choppy career. Going into the season the team’s talk of a Kvyat revival seemed to be based on more hope than expectation, however, Daniil has since gone a long way towards silencing the paddock scepticism.

Credit: Octane Photographic Ltd

Similarly, and despite a spin on his very first lap in testing, Albon has proven a surprise hit with the team right from the outset. His calmness both in and out of the car has apparently translated into a seamless transition into F1 machinery. Having scored points in his second race in Bahrain, Albon went on to recover from a heavy crash in practice in China to nab a point despite starting from the pitlane. Ten races into his F1 career, Albon has already outqualified Kvyat – an accepted one lap specialist – on four occasions. Overall, Albon has certainly taken his fair share of the paddock plaudits heaped on the trio of F2 graduates.

And yet despite Marko’s past opinions, there was always reason to believe that both Toro Rosso drivers would impress in 2019. As a Formula Renault 2.0 Alps champion and a GP3 Series champion in consecutive years, Kvyat went onto produce a widely acclaimed rookie season in 2014. Although his tenure with Red Bull would eventually spiral into disaster, he did technically outscore Daniel Ricciardo in 2015 (reliability asterisks aside). And whilst the early years of Albon’s car racing career produced little to write home about, he began to show genuine F1 potential in 2016, becoming Leclerc’s closest challenger in GP3.

Therein lies the fundamental problem with Marko’s binary approach to Red Bull juniors. Driver performance and driver development are messy things to measure, and results don’t always tell the full story. Whilst it is fair to expect drivers to seize opportunities when they come along, not every driver can be expected to have Max Verstappen’s vertical development curve.

Drivers develop at different speeds and reach different heights. Even Max himself suffered a bit of a blip at the start of 2018. Albon would be racing in FE had more conventional Red Bull juniors been available. And yet despite not being an ideal candidate for the drive, there is no doubting his capabilities as an F1 driver.

This narrow-minded approach to driver performance has doubtless resulted in the dismissal of a number of F1-worthy drivers. Double Macau winner turned BMW factory ace Antonio Felix da Costa would probably agree, as his previously inevitable F1 promotion fell through following a turbulent season of Formula Renault 3.5 in 2013. Similarly, Red Bull has probably overlooked drivers with immense potential simply by focusing on results. George Russell would be a prime candidate, whose middling results in European F3 were probably not enough to attract Marko’s attention, but subsequently went on to take both GP3 and F2 titles under Mercedes’ wing.

Credit: Octane Photographic Ltd

The induction of highly-rated F3 racer Juri Vips has been one of the few recent victories for a programme that is clearly no longer working as intended. A disappointing start to the season for Pierre Gasly and the rumoured consideration of Nico Hulkenberg appears to put Red Bull on the cusp of wholesale changes in driver policy.

However, persuading the deep-rooted Red Bull Motorsport stalwart Helmut Marko that his guiding principles are flawed is not an enviable task. Especially when the Austrian can always boast as the man who ‘discovered’ Max Verstappen. However, when both Toro Rosso drivers themselves are evidence that all drivers cannot be measured against the same yardstick, it is clear that Red Bull needs to find a new approach to evaluating driver performance. Indy Lights champion Patricio O’Ward will just be hoping that he receives a stay of execution long enough to adapt to the parallel universe of racing in Japan.

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