Red Bull’s announcement that Pierre Gasly and Alex Albon are swapping seats may not have completely surprised a Formula 1 paddock well used to sudden movements in the driver market, yet it still had appeared that Gasly was set for at least a stay of execution beyond the summer break.
But events in Hungary two weeks ago, when Red Bull lost a big chance to score a double podium on one of their most competitive weekends of the year as a lapped Gasly trailed in behind both Ferraris and one McLaren, appears to have proved the tipping point.
“Red Bull had to do something and take action if they want to beat Ferrari in the Constructors’ Championship,” says Sky Sports F1’s Martin Brundle.
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Red Bull broke for summer 44 points adrift of Ferrari, who hold second place in the standings behind runaway leaders Mercedes. The team sit third despite the brilliantly in-form Verstappen outscoring both Ferrari drivers over the first phase of the season and winning two races.
Yet Gasly barely registered a third of the Dutchman’s total, finishing in a best place of fourth at Silverstone in a weekend which ultimately offered misleading promise of a 2019 breakthrough.
“As much as I like Gasly and think that his season just hasn’t done justice to his natural talent, this was an inevitable demotion for him after the first 12 races,” believes Karun Chandhok, himself a former Red Bull junior.
“The performance gap between him and Max has been too much for a top team like Red Bull to justify. Red Bull are in a fortunate position where they can chop and change drivers to evaluate options for the future, so why not?”
With nine races left when the season resumes at Spa, that’s exactly what Horner, Helmut Marko and Co. have done.
Is the timing right for Albon?
At 23 years of age, Albon isn’t the youngest driver Red Bull have placed in one of their seats — Sebastian Vettel, Daniil Kvyat, Max Verstappen and Gasly were all younger at the time of their respective promotions from Toro Rosso — but the Anglo-Thai driver is the least experienced one they have hired for 13 years.
Albon arrives at Milton Keynes with a dozen starts behind him, having only driven an F1 car for the first time back at the start of pre-season testing in February. His rookie season performances have caught the eye since, particularly in China and Germany, but has this seat swap still come a little too early in his development curve?
“I’ve been thinking about a then-hypothetical discussion I had with Alex on this very subject when we were out filming a feature in London with him at a Thai restaurant and Buddhist temple in early June,” recalls Ted Kravitz.
“I won’t give away what he said, but I believe the move is too soon.
“Albon has since said publicly that in his first year of Formula 1 he was only just getting around to learning who everyone is, what everyone did at Toro Rosso, and how to get the best out of his situation there.
“He’ll have Spa, Monza, Sochi and Abu Dhabi as four of the remaining nine tracks that he knows and while you could argue he didn’t know China and he still managed to score points there after crashing and not taking part in qualifying, that was in a team where there is less pressure and where he already knew the environment.
“He’s going to be going to some tracks he doesn’t know, with an engineer he doesn’t know, with mechanics he doesn’t know, driving a car he doesn’t know and be expected to do better than Gasly, who knows all those tracks.”
Chandhok adds: “It’s a tall order to jump into a top team like Red Bull and especially alongside a phenomenal talent like Verstappen. I think we’ve all got to give Albon a couple of races to settle in considering he hasn’t even driven the Red Bull car but he’s thus far been a very impressive rookie.
“I thought his ability to recover from a tough situation in practice in China to climb back up the order in the race, as well as his drive in Germany have both been outstanding.”
As Albon himself admitted on social media after news of his “surreal” promotion was confirmed: “It’s a big jump into the deep end, but I’ve got my swimming shorts on!”
Yet ‘swimming’, against an often-uncompromising motorsport tide, became second nature for Albon after he was originally dropped from the ‘sink or swim’ Red Bull junior programme after a single indifferent year of Formula Renault in 2012, aged 16.
He worked his way back through GP3 in 2016 and then F2, where he won four races last season en-route to third in the championship behind long-time friends and generational rivals George Russell and Lando Norris, and has now belied his inexperience at the top level by making an accomplished start to his career in F1.
“They have time to measure Albon for 2020, who has arrived to F1 in style,” says Brundle of the next nine races. “The trouble for Alex is a lot of unknown circuits, a manic race schedule, much higher pressure and spotlight, and Max.”
Why didn’t they re-promote Kvyat?
“Personally, I would have given Kvyat another stab at the big time,” said 1996 world champion Damon Hill. “Drivers rarely let it slip through their fingers a second time. It hurts too much.”
So can Kvyat count himself unlucky not to have received a recall to Milton Keynes, three years on from his own swift mid-season demotion? After all, he scored more points and qualified ahead more often than Albon in their dozen races together at Toro Rosso this season.
“Yes, he grabbed the headlines in Germany with that podium but it was a fortuitous strategic call that got him there whereas Albon looked like being the one to get the better result until that point,” argues Chandhok.
“Plus, Red Bull know what Kvyat can do but Albon is still in his early development stage and will just get better with time.”
Asked by Sky F1 in Hungary whether there was a way back to the senior team for Kvyat, Helmut Marko replied “let’s do it step by step”. But he did say the 25-year-old now represented “a complete package”, marrying maturity with speed.
With that in mind, what may have ultimately counted against Kvyat as Red Bull weighed up alternatives to Gasly?
“On paper, Kvyat is the better option, is more experienced, knows the Red Bull team already and, in his favour, is a completely different driver than he was when they got rid of him from the programme in 2017,” suggests Kravitz. “That’s what should have counted for him.
“I can only think the reasons that might have counted again him were that they thought they had already tried it once and it didn’t work, or they asked him and he said no. So, either he said no or they said no — I would like know which one of those it was!”
Brundle adds: “Kvyat is a known quantity and can continue to lead the charge for Toro Rosso, which is also important to Red Bull, especially if they can get up the constructors’ table too.”
What now for Gasly?
Irrespective of how long before Monday announcement he learned of his Red Bull fate, Gasly’s summer break has taken on a completely different complexion.
In one sense, receiving such disappointing news at the start of a rare holiday from F1 could have not come at a worse time. Yet, conversely, the break at least allows Gasly a chance to come to terms with what has happened and reset for Spa without having to immediately re-enter the spotlight of an F1 paddock — and field all the inevitable media questions that will ensue.
Hill tweeted: “I know there will be fans of @PierreGASLY who will be angry about this. But he lives to fight again another day.”
It’s fair to say that Gasly’s short Red Bull Racing career never really gained any sort of positive momentum, right from pre-season testing when he crashed during both weeks of running.
“I do feel sorry for Gasly, but I think he knew what would happen if his performances didn’t improve sufficiently,” says Kravitz. “But there are two things that we should say which haven’t helped him, which were not of his making and beyond his control.
“First of all, this is probably the trickiest Red Bull to drive in some years. It had a little aerodynamic problem which meant the chassis wasn’t right until around France time when Adrian Newey and his team sorted it out.
“He’s also had a brand-new engineer. Since Simon Rennie left that role, they have been bedding in a new engineer and that hasn’t helped either.”
Gasly now finds himself alongside the man he originally replaced at Toro Rosso, Kvyat, back in late 2017 and the Russian could tell him plenty about the harsh realities of a career regression — and perhaps how best to bounce back.
“It’s ironic that the best young driver staircase since Elf and Marlboro has faltered, despite all the opportunity and budget,” says Brundle.
“They have discarded some great drivers who would have paid dividends with some second chances like the current crop has. Gasly is probably good enough to emerge once more.”
What does this all mean for 2020?
“It keeps Red Bull flexible for the 2020/21 markets,” believes Brundle, with the latter season especially likely to be an F1 grid gamechanger when all the sport’s big names are out of contract.
With any threat of losing Verstappen before then seemingly having subsided, Red Bull have said they will ‘use the next nine races to evaluate Alex’s performance in order to make an informed decision as to who will drive alongside Max in 2020’.
Albon, Kvyat and Gasly will all inevitably be in the running but what about that pre-summer paddock speculation linking Red Bull’s most successful-ever junior graduate with a return, despite his own Ferrari contract running to the end of 2020?
As Chandhok says: “The ‘Vettel to return’ rumours just don’t seem to go away. I think it would be box office gold if we had Vettel and Max at Red Bull, Alonso and Leclerc at Ferrari and Lewis and Ocon at Mercedes!”
And Kravitz ponders: “Does Albon’s trial there make it more likely that Vettel is the man for them alongside Verstappen next year? I think it does make it more likely.”
But that’s all for fascinating future debate.
What’s clear for that short term is that Albon is the man in possession of that second Red Bull seat and with at least nine races ahead of him to prove that he deserves a permanent place at F1’s top table. For a driver for whom any F1 seat didn’t look likely this time last year, that’s quite some accomplishment.
This article originally appeared on Sky Sports and has been republished with consent.