2019 was a year of learning for Aston Martin Red Bull Racing after they made the gamble to switch from Renault to Honda power, but the gamble appeared to pay off as Max Verstappen claimed three victories on his way to third place in the Drivers’ Championship.
Initially, Verstappen was teamed up with Frenchman Pierre Gasly following Daniel Ricciardo’s surprise switch to the Renault F1 Team, but midway through the season, following a difficult first half of the year, Gasly was dropped in favour of Thai driver Alexander Albon, although he too could not find his way onto the podium.
Gasly appeared to find the pressure of being thrust into the limelight of a front-running team too much for someone so early into his career, and he was revitalised by moving back to Scuderia Toro Rosso from the Belgian Grand Prix onwards, with a podium of his own coming in the mixed-up Brazilian Grand Prix.
Albon impressed during his time there, despite having raced only twelve times in Formula 1 before his promotion, with a podium of his own in Brazil disappearing on the penultimate lap after being spun around by World Champion Lewis Hamilton. Never-the-less, the Thai driver did enough in his time there to earn himself a full-time seat for 2020.
However, Red Bull’s season can be called a success by the performances and results of Verstappen, who continues to develop into the superstar driver his Dutch followers want, and his three wins, six further podiums, two pole positions and three fastest laps proved that moving to Honda power was no bad thing. It also bodes well for the team for the future.
High Point – Verstappen Takes Honda’s First Win since 2006
Jenson Button was the last driver to win a race with Honda power, his victory coming in the 2006 Hungarian Grand Prix, and when Verstappen had a nightmare getaway from the front row of the grid at the Red Bull Ring, a victory in Austria did not appear likely.
Falling as low as eighth on the opening lap, Verstappen looked out of contention for the win as Charles Leclerc led, but there was fight in the Dutchman on that June day, with early passes on Kimi Räikkönen and Lando Norris, and after making his pit stop, he found himself running fourth behind Leclerc, Valtteri Bottas and Sebastian Vettel.
On lap fifty, he made his way passed Vettel into third place into turn two, before doing the same to Bottas six laps later. Verstappen then closed down the gap to long-time race leader Leclerc but was forced to wait until three laps from the end to make the decisive pass, although the move included contact between the two long-time rivals that caught the eye of the stewards.
However, the stewards deemed the move legal and Verstappen was able to take his first win of 2019 and end the domination of the Mercedes AMG Motorsport team, who had taken the previous eight races of the season.
Low Point – Gasly Returns to Toro Rosso after Difficult Start
Red Bull advisor Helmut Marko has long been a supporter of Gasly, following him through the junior categories and into Formula 1, and when Ricciardo made the switch to Renault for 2019, the Frenchman was the natural successor to the Australian, or so it seemed.
However, it was not to be for Gasly, who struggled early on to get anywhere near the kind of pace Verstappen was achieving in the sister car, while errors also plagued his early races. He achieved a couple of fastest laps but whereas Verstappen was winning in Austria, Gasly finished more than a lap down in the same car, despite having been ahead of the Dutchman in the early laps.
His best result with Red Bull came in the British Grand Prix when he claimed fourth, although this was thanks to a collision between Verstappen and Scuderia Ferrari’s Vettel that delayed both drivers as they recovered from the incident.
The writing appeared to be on the wall when during the wet-dry German Grand Prix weekend, he crashed during free practice and then collided with Albon’s Toro Rosso whilst on course for a good result. He would only get one more chance with Red Bull in Hungary before finding himself relegated back to Toro Rosso for the Belgian Grand Prix, with Albon moving the other way to complete the season.
The Qualifying battle at Red Bull was dominated by Verstappen, with the Dutchman taking two pole positions (it should have been three but for a grid penalty in Mexico for ignoring yellow flags), whilst only once each were Gasly and Albon able to start ahead of him, which came in Canada and Italy respectively (the latter due to an engine change and grid penalty).
During his twelve races with the team, Gasly achieved a best qualifying performance of fourth for the German Grand Prix but was never really able to match the kind of pace of Verstappen, whilst Albon achieved fifth place starts on four occasions but again wasn’t able to match his team-mate. The average gap Verstappen had over his team-mates across the season was an impressive 0.739 seconds.
During the season, Verstappen was the fifth best driver in Qualifying behind the two Mercedes and two Ferrari drivers and he was the only driver outside of those two teams to take a pole position. His maiden career pole position came in Hungary, although he was unable to convert that into victory, but he was able to do this for the first time in Brazil.
Just as dominant as he was in Qualifying, Verstappen also had the edge on race day, with the Dutchman taking three wins to the zero that Gasly and Albon managed. Neither of his team-mates also stood on the podium, with Gasly only once beating Verstappen to the chequered flag, which was only down to the collision between him and Vettel at Silverstone.
When Albon joined the team, the Thai driver was twice able to beat Verstappen to the chequered flag, finishing sixth to Verstappen’s eighth in Italy and fifth to the Dutchman’s sixth in Mexico. He was also able to bring the car home in every race he raced with Red Bull, while Verstappen retired twice. He crashed out on the opening lap in Belgium before retiring with damage after contact with Leclerc in Japan.
Verstappen’s performances during the season saw him lead one hundred and fifty-six laps, although one stat he will want to improve on next season is his starts, with an average of 1.21 places being lost on the opening lap, with only Romain Grosjean having worse statistics across the season.
What to Look Out for in 2020
Whereas 2019 was a year of learning for Red Bull and Honda, 2020 should see them build on their partnership and be genuine contenders for wins in every race, and perhaps even the championship. No team other than Mercedes has won the title since the turbo hybrid era began, but perhaps 2020 will be the year that changes…
Verstappen’s three wins and third place in the championship in 2019 will have raised some eyebrows, but it was the pace that Honda showed, particularly towards the end of the campaign with both Red Bull and Toro Rosso that will worry their rivals. With a winter of further development, it can only be positive that Red Bull and Honda will be a contender next year.
Whereas Verstappen’s future at the team is assured, should he want to remain there, the other seat is less than certain, and it will be up to Albon to raise his game next season and at least back-up what his team-mate is doing, although he may need to do even better if he is to retain his seat.
However, there were good signs throughout his time with Red Bull in the final rounds of the season, with some strong performances, brave overtakes and positive results helping him secure his seat, although the mistakes he made, primarily during practice, will need to disappear if the confidence is going to come for him to become a podium finisher and potentially a race winner.