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“F1: Thoughts on Gasly, Albon, Red Bull and Maturity”

August 14, 2019

Alexander Albon. © Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

Monday’s announcement that Alexander Albon was to replace Pierre Gasly at Red Bull Racing may not have been the biggest shock in the world, but its timing most certainly was.

With Monday morning came another change in Red Bull’s Formula One roster, as Alex Albon and Pierre Gasly swapped seats at Red Bull and Toro Rosso.

It marked an early shift in the Formula One driver market. A move, of some sort, had been expected, but not until the end of the season; however, British Grand Prix aside, Gasly’s continuing poor performance – particularly when compared to his race winning teammate Max Verstappen – proved impossible for the Red Bull top brass to ignore.

On the other side of the paddock, the likeable Albon has proved something of a revelation at Toro Rosso. While not soundly beating his experienced teammate Danni Kvyat, Albon has shown enough speed, nuance and intelligence to prove that he is a race driver of high calibre – something that wasn’t always obvious as he rose up the junior ranks.

Through these years, Albon did a reasonable job, but rarely showed himself to be an out-and-out star. From his sole year in Formula 3, he took five podiums with the returning Signature team and showed himself to be quick. It was form that followed through his time in GP3 and Formula 2 as well – numerous race wins and podiums, but there was little to say he was heading for a top seat in Formula One.

And yet, with Toro Rosso, Albon has for the most part looked at home. The definition of his inner speed is improving and his understanding of the task at hand must not be understated.

But… it still feels very soon. Let’s not forget Albon’s Formula One career is after all only twelve races old. The Anglo-Thai racer is still a young man and is still developing and maturing.
In partnering Verstappen, Albon needs to be careful that the swimming pool he has just dipped his toe into is not filled with piranhas and sharks looking for blood. His performances will be closely scrutinised, but if he can keep to a reasonable measure of performance against Verstappen, then he may be in a position to carve a career at Red Bull.

“The Prince of Motorsport: B Bira”

However, factors outside of his control will also be playing their part. There is little doubt that the Albon/Gasly swap plays against Sebastian Vettel’s rumoured return to the Red Bull team, following a stint at Ferrari that has left him damaged.
Should Albon not perform to the required level, will he be moved aside and if so, what to do with Gasly should he still be seen as destabilised material with Toro Rosso? And were Vettel to return, would that further demotivate and disenfranchise both Toro Rosso and the junior programme as a whole?

Beyond their Formula One quartet (Verstappen and Kvyat included), the Milton Keynes based squad and their little sister team from Faenza, near Bologna, are running short on spare drivers that can promptly move to Formula One should the need arise.

For now, there are a total of nine drivers in the Red Bull young driver programme, but only three – Jüri Vips, Liam Lawson and Yuki Tsunoda – have the possibility of entering Formula One in 2020 on the basis of accumulated Super Licence points {note 1}.
Having dropped Dan Ticktum following a disappointing start to the Super Formula season (and an undistinguished part-season run in Asian Formula 3), Red Bull imported Patricio O’Ward from IndyCar to take his place; however, the Mexican O’Ward has no Super Licence points to his name {note 2}. Even then, there is a big question as to whether they would be remotely ready for such a leap – my belief is “no”.

Such is the focus on Super Licence points, the value of maturity has been all but forgotten. Drivers need to grow, to develop and mature – not just as racing drivers, but as people – so that they can acknowledge, process and properly deal with events that happen in and around them at such an extraordinary pace.

Back in 2014, Carlos Sainz’ situation was a rare one indeed, as he was allowed the space to evolve as a person and that evolution and gradual maturing did as much to save his young career as did his Formula Renault 3.5 title. That helped hugely when it came to dealing with the consequences of Verstappen’s promotion ahead of him to Toro Rosso.

Meanwhile for Gasly, this marks not just a very public demotion, but deeply difficult time. Whereas the Frenchman showed well at Toro Rosso last year, it is difficult to gauge just how to good that performance was, given then teammate Brendon Hartley’s difficulties with the 2018-generation Formula One car.
For now, how he deals with this demotion is just as important as the results he can obtain on the track. Should he re-align his head, he could get his career back on track; however, if he struggles to accept his new place in the order and his performance continues to suffer as a result, then his career could be finished very quickly.

Like Albon, there is little doubt that Gasly is a very quick driver; however, his stints in GP2 and Super Formula in 2016 and 2017 respectively took some time to come alive.

Yet underlying all of these movement is the concept of development and maturity and the manner in which it is lacking from the Red Bull’s driver development programme and many of its competitors therein. Not everyone absorbs the world by the age of 18.

{note 1}
Jüri Vips has accumulated Super Licence 22 points over the course of the past two years and he would require a 3rd place finish in the FIA Formula 3 Championship standings to qualify – he currently sits 2nd in points.
Of the three that could go to Formula One, he has the most relevant experience. Liam Lawson and Yuki Tsunoda could also qualify for a Super Licence, but both are desperately far from ready to make the move.

{note 2}
Although O’Ward won last season’s Indy Lights series, there were not enough full-time competitors in the category for Super Licence points to be applied. He will also not qualify for any Super Licence points from 2019, as he is required to complete 80% of a qualifying championship’s season in order to earn them.

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