Saturday morning’s surprise move by Red Bull to announce Sebastian Vettel’s departure, as well as the promotion of Daniil Kvyat to the “first team” may have closed doors for one famous Spaniard.
But Vettel’s defection to Ferrari – all but shutting out Fernando Alonso – may also have saved the Formula One career of another Spaniard, who is tantalisingly close to tasting his own success in Formula Renault 3.5 Series.
At the Hungaroring a few weeks ago, Carlos Sainz Jr was far from happy. Despite attempts to disguise feelings, there was no doubt the 20-year-old was an extremely disappointed young man, having only weeks beforehand being overlooked by Red Bull for the Toro Rosso seat in favour of Formula 3 wunderkind Max Verstappen.
While he held no malice toward Verstappen, Sainz Jr gave the impression of a young man driving hard, only to be faced down by a hefty brick wall in the middle of a fast straight. That the Hungarian round ended up becoming one of the most disappointing of the season, temporarily allowing Roberto Merhi back into the FR3.5 title hunt merely added to the weight on Sainz Jr’s shoulders.
Often when speaking, his eyes were fixed downward, with deep, heavy breathes shuffling between gaps, serving merely to break sentences.
With Merhi leaning, there was only conceivable answer and two victories at the next round at Paul Ricard brightened his resolve and improved Sainz Jr’s position considerably. Yet with a 44-point lead over Merhi and only 50 on the table, Sainz Jr’s dream remained a long distance away, unless a seat at Caterham emerged.
But when Vettel informed the Red Bull team on Friday that he was moving to Ferrari, one of Sainz Jr’s major roadblocks disappeared. With Toro Rosso member Jean-Éric Vergne denied a promotion once, it was always highly unlikely that he would be receive another opportunity to join the Red Bull top team.
So it transpired that young Russian – and Sainz Jr’s former GP3 Series teammate – Daniil Kvyat has been promoted to Red Bull in place of Vettel, opening up a position for Sainz Jr at Toro Rosso.
Kvyat’s move is a highly logical from Red Bull’s point of view; however circumstances have meant the team’s hand has been played earlier than they would have originally wished.
Had Vettel hung around until the end of 2015 before moving to Ferrari – a timeframe widely accepted as the most likely – it would have at least given Kvyat an additional year’s experience, before the move up; however Vettel’s impending has inadvertently accelerated Red Bull’s entire programme.
Should he now get the call to Toro Rosso for 2015, Sainz Jr will slot in alongside Verstappen. There are other candidates in the Red Bull programme of course, but while Pierre Gasly has been impressive in his first season of FR3.5, the French teenager has not yet won a single race, despite claiming eight podiums. There is no doubt that while eight podiums is a fantastic achievement, questions relating to Gasly’s inability to turn any of those eight into a win will linger in the Red Bull offices.
Alex Lynn meanwhile is confidently leading the GP3 Series this year with Carlin, but there are no signs at this point that he will be promoted any further than FR3.5 or GP2 level.
Bringing former Red Bull junior and current BMW Team MTEK DTM racer António Félix da Costa back into the fold would be a shot from leftfield – probably too far leftfield for Red Bull to consider and when one considers da Costa has already been overlooked in favour of Kvyat, why would they look to the Portuguese driver again?
Realistically once a driver is dispatched from the junior team, Red Bull rarely look back and for a good reason. Some call that cold; for Red Bull, they are in the business of winning.
At the beginning of this year, Red Bull reduced the size of their junior driver programme, with the aim of managing a smaller team, in order to focus their efforts in a far more efficient way.
Criticism had been laid at the door of the programme, with many in the motorsport industry claiming that it was throwing away talent too readily. Admittedly from the outside, it gave the impression of a programme that was becoming unwieldy and difficult to manage, with some junior programme contracts lasting only as long as eight months to one year before being dropped altogether.
In addition, Sainz Jr confirmed to me earlier this year that his biggest relief was not just that he had joined with the successful DAMS team, but rather he had just FR3.5 to concentrate on, as opposed to competing in two series’ simultaneously as he had in previous years. For once, his own focus was completely undisturbed – until Verstappen was awarded the 2015 Toro Rosso seat just prior to the Belgian Grand Prix.
But now, that door may have creaked open once again. Nothing else has changed – Red Bull still demand success and having already broken the record for most race wins in a single FR3.5 season, at Jerez in two weeks time Sainz Jr will be just one 6th place finish away from becoming the first Red Bull junior to win the World Series by Renault.
In the eyes of this writer, Red Bull would be mad not to promote Sainz Jr to the Toro Rosso seat for the 2015 Formula One season.