Red Bull Formula 1 young driver programme supremo Dr Helmut Marko has been ‘giving wings’ to a large number of drivers over the last 15 years as part of the pioneering programme.
Each and every driver has been earned investment and guidance at each level of their career in the hope that they will provide Marko’s F1 team with race wins and world championships.
While the list of failures is numerous, the list of true success stories is small in volume but the magnitude of their successes are unquestioned. Only three drivers have managed to win a race in F1 from the junior programme and only four have even stood on the podium.
These results highlight the brash ‘go big or go home’ decision-making that often occurs in the programme. Therefore, the number of drivers with race-winning potential are slender and so the management of these drivers is key.
Drivers are often unceremoniously dumped for the next big thing or forgotten if they have a slight dip in form or fail to match the ambitiously high targets the Red Bull bosses set for their drivers.
The main and most prominent example of this is Daniil Kvyat. Fast-tracked into the senior team after a string of impressive results and despite beating and often out-racing highly-rated team-mate Daniel Ricciardo, Kvyat was demoted back to Toro Rosso after less than 18 months at Red Bull, in order to make room at the top table for Max Verstappen.
Jean-Eric Vergne is another example of a talented driver who through unfortunate timing found himself outcast from the programme. Vergne may have been beaten by Ricciardo during their two seasons as team-mate’s, but the Frenchman comfortably outclassed the rookie Kvyat in the year that Red Bull chose the Russian to replace Sebastian Vettel.
Vergne’s time in F1 came to an abrupt end. He has since outlined his credentials as an exceptionally talented single-seater racer, winning the season four Formula E championship with customer team Techeetah.
The next driver that appears to be in danger of being overlooked by Red Bull is Carlos Sainz Jr. Despite the fact that the team’s recent history of exclusively employing drivers who are part of the programme makes Sainz an obvious candidate as he’s the only one to possess more than a year’s worth of experience in F1, Frenchman Pierre Gasly is the apparent favourite for the role as the most impressive driver at the sister team, Toro Rosso.
Sainz has enjoyed three strong seasons in F1, most notably scoring all but four of Toro Rosso’s points last season despite the fact they had four drivers over the course of the year, as Sainz was loaned to Renault for the final four races.
He also received praise for pushing Verstappen hard while they were team-mates and has driven some great races – his sixth on home soil in 2016 and his fourth at Singapore in 2017 being particular highlights of his career so far.
Yet despite all of this, there are still some concerns amongst the Red Bull hierarchy. The major concern is that Sainz’s relationship with Verstappen was less than perfect while they were team-mates at Toro Rosso and so that may translate into a destructive inter-team dynamic if Sainz was given the senior drive.
Also, his performances in 2018 have come into doubt as he seems to have been dominated by team-mate Nico Hulkenberg if you look at the drivers’ standings. However, Sainz has had a year riddled with bad luck, most notably a late-race power unit issue that cost him a sixth-place finish at Paul Ricard.
Sainz is, however, a safer option compared to Gasly given his experience and consistency. While Gasly has shown an ability to capitalise on a strong car and an opportunity at points whenever placed in front of him, he is still in the business of making mistakes, something that could be criticised much like Verstappen has faced since his promotion.
By promoting Sainz, Red Bull would be prolonging the careers of both their young prospects but by promoting Gasly, they could be ruining them both if Gasly fails to perform. Red Bull has yet another tough decision to make.