KNUTSON: Red Bull’s Revolving Door

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Knutson
Dan Knutson

BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — Red Bull is ruthless when it comes to its young driver program and with the drivers who graduate to Formula One.

Just ask Scott Speed, the last U.S. driver to compete full time in F-1. Driving for Red Bull’s junior team Scuderia Toro Rosso, he took part in 28 F-1 races from 2006 into ’07 before being released from his contract midway through his second season. He is one of many to not be retained by Red Bull.

Red Bull’s backing can help a driver win many races and F-1 world championships, plus millions of dollars. Just ask Sebastian Vettel, who replaced Speed at Toro Rosso and won four world titles with the senior Red Bull team.

Red Bull sometimes gives drivers second or even third chances. Daniil Kvyat, who drove for Toro Rosso in 2014, was moved up to Red Bull in 2015 and stayed with the team for the first four races of 2016 before being sent back to Toro Rosso for the rest of the season. It was none other than Max Verstappen who replaced Kvyat at Red Bull and promptly won his first race, in Spain, with the team.

Kvyat stayed at Toro Rosso for most of 2017 but was dropped with four races to go and replaced by Pierre Gasly. After he spent 2018 working as a Ferrari simulator driver, Kvyat was hired again by Toro Rosso for the 2019 season.

Gasly is the latest driver to not meet Red Bull’s expectations. After 12 races this season, Red Bull officials decided Gasly was not performing well enough at the senior team and demoted him back to Toro Rosso. Alexander Albon, a rookie with just 12 starts, was promoted from Toro Rosso to Red Bull.

It’s significant that Red Bull chose Albon over the more experienced Kvyat, but that does not mean the latter might not get yet another chance.

“Red Bull is in the unique position of having four talented F-1 drivers under contract who can be rotated between the (main) team and Toro Rosso,” the team said in a statement. “The team 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.”

If Albon struggles, Kvyat could replace him. Albon has shown a lot of potential this year, but it is going to be a huge challenge for him to go up against the talented and very fast Verstappen as a teammate.

“Good luck to Alex; he’s arrived in F-1 in great style but will need every tool and trick in the F-1 drivers’ repertoire to survive in Max’s lair with the star maker/grim reaper forensically observing his data,” former F-1 driver turned TV commentator Martin Brundle said. “Commiserations to Pierre, but he rides again and is still in the game.”

Verstappen won two of the first 12 races this season. He had two thirds, a second, five fourth places and 181 points. Gasly’s best finish was fourth and he had just 63 points. That certainly is not up to Red Bull standards, but can Albon do anything better having been thrown in to the deep end?

For Red Bull’s racing programs, it is a case of many are called, some get to stay and even fewer get to win.

The star, of course, is Vettel who won those four titles before moving to Ferrari in 2015. The other race winners are Mark Webber, Daniel Ricciardo and Verstappen.

Red Bull was all set to have the latter two proven race winners on the team for the 2019 and ’20 seasons. But Ricciardo made the surprise decision in August of last year to switch to Renault. That left Red Bull in its current scramble to find a replacement for Ricciardo.

As for the rejects, Red Bull’s racing adviser Dr. Helmut Marko estimates about 90 percent of them end up with other rides in everything from F-1 to IndyCar, sports car racing, Germany’s DTM, Formula E and other series.

So being dropped from Red Bull’s F-1 program is certainly not the end of the racing road. After Speed left Toro Rosso in 2007, he moved on to NASCAR, driving for Team Red Bull, Whitney Motorsports and Leavine Family Racing. Then, competing in Global Rallycross with Andretti Autosport where he won titles in 2015, ’16 and ’17.