KNUTSON: The Red Bull Driver Pool

Dan Knutson

BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — The big Red Bull machine has run out of Formula One drivers.

For years, Red Bull’s junior team program has funded young drivers on the path to Formula One. But while many were called, few were chosen for the ultimate prize. Two of the most famous, most successful and recent ones were Daniel Ricciardo and Sebastian Vettel. The last is Pierre Gasly, who has promoted to drive for the Toro Rosso F1 team during the final few races of the year.

Toro Rosso’s Carlos Sainz was already on his way to Renault next year, but Renault decided to get him in the groove early and he joined the team beginning with the United States Grand Prix. He replaced Jolyon Palmer, who had 35 starts over the past two years. Palmer earned just one point and had a lot of bad luck. His F-1 career is surely over. He says otherwise. Instead of announcing he was fired, Renault allowed Palmer to make a statement saying he had decided to leave. Part of the deal is that he gets a $4 million refund from the $13 million he paid the team for the drive for 2017.

Sainz’s early departure to Renault was good news for Daniil Kvyat, who had to step aside for Gasly. Toro Rosso officials said Kvyat would be back in the car for the U.S. race but did not initially confirm him for any of the rest of the events this year.

In a case of the right hand not knowing what the left was doing (or wanted), various factions at Toro Rosso and Honda wanted Gasly to compete in the season finale of Japan’s Super Formula series (Gasly, a Honda driver, was in contention for the title against Toyota driver Hiroaki Ishiura) while others wanted him to race for Toro Rosso in the USGP on the same weekend. It was eventually decided he would race in Japan and Brendon Hartley was nominated to stand in for Gasly in Austin.
Ironically, Hartley was dropped from the Red Bull program in 2010. He went on to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the World Endurance Championship with Porsche.

Looking further ahead, what will Toro Rosso do next year? It’s now up to both Gasly and Kvyat to prove they are worthy of being brought back in 2018. Kvyat, who was demoted from Red Bull in May 2016 to make way for Max Ver­stap­pen and then pushed out of Toro Rosso for the Malaysia and Japan races this year, is on shakier ground than Gasly, who is Red Bull’s new rising star.

Gasly is also the only up-and-comer. We’ve heard that Toro Rosso didn’t want Kvyat back in the car this year and planned to keep Gasly in the seat alongside Sainz. But Sainz’ early departure changed all that.

“We have a Red Bull junior team where behind Gasly nothing really outstanding is happening,” Red Bull’s racing guru Helmut Marko noted.

Does Marko see any talented up-and-coming drivers?

“No,” he replied. “If you look through the categories, besides Charles Leclerc, I can’t see anybody in Formula 3. Lando Norris is quite good but making mistakes. We should have fewer junior formulas and better fields with 30 cars so the competition level is higher. That way you can see who is good and who is not so good.”

So right now, the only F-1 ready drivers Red Bull has already are already racing in F-1: Ricciardo, Verstap­pen, Gasly and Kvyat. It will have to go outside its box if it wants to replace Kvyat next year. Leclerc is a junior Ferrari driver and therefore not available.

Talks between representatives from Toro Rosso and Robert Kubica, who has not raced in Formula One since 2010 as he had the nasty rallying accident in 2011, started in September. Williams was also interested in Kubica, who has already tested for the team. Paul di Resta also tested for Williams. The list of potential Williams drivers expanded rather than contracted. If Kubica did not land the Williams drive, there was a good chance he would end up at Toro Rosso or Sauber.

Ricciardo’s Red Bull contract expires at the end of 2018 and Verstappen’s at the end of 2019, and there’s the possibility one or both will move to another team.

Sainz is only on loan to Renault for a year, so he will be available as a return replacement. But after having a plethora of up-and-coming drivers, Red Bull has run out of Formula One ready drivers.

n While many of the drivers and other members of the Formula One fraternity will miss the Malaysian Grand Prix, the local fans won’t — attendance has been dropping for the F-1 race, while MotoGP’s annual visit to Sepang continues to be a sellout. This year was the 19th and final edition of the Malaysian GP. The organizers could not sell enough tickets to pay the fees to host the race.

“Even if we got the greatest of deals, do it for free for example, what’s the product?” Sepang Circuit Chief Executive Razlan Razali told Reuters. “I myself am not able to sit in front of the television and watch from lap one until whatever lap (for) two hours. It’s hard to sell this kind of event and to get people in the seats…and it’s not worth the investment at the moment.”