It was delight for Red Bull at last Sunday’s Austrian Grand Prix. It celebrated its first victory with new engine partner Honda just nine races into the partnership – at the team’s home race – with Max Verstappen. It was the first Honda win since 2006, and the first non-Mercedes/Ferrari/Renault engine to win since 2008.
That was a call for celebration, on at least one half of the Red Bull garage. On the other, it was yet another severely underwhelming performance by Pierre Gasly – who is in his first year with the team. He qualified ninth and finished seventh, while Verstappen qualified on the front row and, despite an incredibly sluggish start, charged his way to victory. What was worse, was that Verstappen lapped Gasly, despite battling with him on the opening lap.
The grim statistics
The statistics nine races into the season show that Gasly is the driver who is being outdriven by his team-mate the most and by quite some margin. The numbers are grim. 8-1 in qualifying, with Gasly’s one score coming when Verstappen was hampered by strategy and timing of a red flag. The pair also has the highest average qualifying gap. 8-0 in races finished ahead. The Azerbaijan non-finish for Gasly, while not his fault, also came when he was running behind Verstappen.
On the subject of running behind his team-mate, Gasly has led Verstappen for just 12 laps this season of the 543 in which both cars were circulating – all of which either came during pitstop phases or from Verstappen starting behind in Canada. This makes the team-mate battle the most one-sided by some considerable margin. As for points – for every point Gasly has scored, Verstappen has scored almost three. The gaps between the dominant Mercedes drivers and the occasionally squabbling Ferrari drivers combined still falls short of the gap between Red Bull’s pair.
The brutal analysis
He is letting heaps of points slip away – for himself, Verstappen and the team. At the absolute worst, Gasly should be finishing worst of ‘Class A’ – so sixth, plus the bonus point for fastest lap. That’s nine points a race, and 81 in total. Ignore Baku, because Gasly had a car problem, but add two to the amount Gasly should have from Charles Leclerc’s retirement in Monaco. That makes 74. Gasly has just 43 – barely half of that.
Red Bull team boss Christian Horner admitted that Gasly was promoted to the main team from Toro Rosso (after just a season and a bit) earlier than he would have liked. This came about because Daniel Ricciardo decided that Renault was a better place for him to go, sending Red Bull’s already-unstable driver ladder into total meltdown.
The team was not ready to lose one of its star drivers and it lacked realistic options to promote from within – the team’s philosophy exclusively since 2009. Carlos Sainz Jr, then on loan at Renault, had a difficult history with star driver Verstappen. Brendon Hartley, who slowly got to grips with Formula 1, was not performing well enough at the time for the team to choose him. That left Gasly, who up until that point had been both hot and cold during his brief grand prix career. Highlights included a stunning fourth in Bahrain, while lows included punting his team-mate off in China.
Gasly has not looked even close to stringing a solid weekend together yet. Of the highlights there have been – they are restricted solely to having solid opening stints in a grand prix and occasional glimpses early in qualifying. Qualifying overall has been abysmal – regularly resulting in Gasly having to start on unfancied tyres because the speed is so weak. In battle, he has been indecisive. Race pace on harder tyres has been consistently woeful. It is the worst campaign by a driver in a top team arguably since Kimi Raikkonen’s return to Ferrari in 2014.
Was Gasly ever likely to start showing Verstappen up? It was always incredibly unlikely, but at the very worst Gasly could be a solid ‘number two’. He’s not even close to that standard right now – he’s just consistently blowing cold. Horner has also said that he requires a ‘mental reset’, such as the thumping has taken its toll in his head. Gasly has struggled immensely this season in a car that clearly does not suit his style. Verstappen and Red Bull sits third in the championships right now, but perhaps it could be a different story if they had a driver capable of performing close to Verstappen’s – but is such a driver available right now?
The favourite – the ultimate redemption story
Life at Red Bull is totally brutal if things don’t go right, as Daniil Kvyat can certainly verify. The two-time podium finisher has gone from Toro Rosso to Red Bull to Toro Rosso to benched to Toro Rosso to dropped to Toro Rosso all in the space of five years. A more mature, more mentally prepared, stronger, more complete Kvyat has performed superbly at times in 2019 and would certainly perform better than he did when he moved for 2015 after just one season. He would, however, be tasked with facing the driver who replaced him in 2016!
The seriously impressive rookie
Another redemption story at Toro Rosso is that of Alexander Albon’s. Before pre-season testing, he had never even driven an F1 car. He is revered by his peers – including Verstappen, Leclerc, George Russell and Lando Norris. He also has performed superbly in his rookie campaign. But, like with Gasly, it would almost certainly too much, too soon.
Don’t forget the reserve…
An outside but-perhaps-safe bet could be Sebastien Buemi. The twice World Endurance champion and one-time Formula E champion has not raced in F1 since 2011 but remains the team’s test driver. As Robert Kubica has shown, returning to F1 after a long time away can be very difficult, but at least Buemi is race-sharp and has immense experience in motorsport he could translate to an F1 car. His schedule – testing aside – is also empty between now and September.
The junior team
No driver is ready to jump straight up to Toro Rosso from the Red Bull junior programme right now, let alone straight into the main team. No young driver qualifies for a superlicence, and the name now top of the pile – Mexican Patricio O’Ward – showed in his maiden Formula 2 appearance that he needs a lot of time to understand the nuances of the Pirelli tyres. Let’s also remember that the whole idea of Red Bull’s junior programme is to find the next world champions, not to find ‘capable number two’ drivers.
Looking further afield
Red Bull might need to look outside of its talent pool for a replacement. Nico Hulkenberg, whose Renault future is insecure, has been rumoured with a mid-season swap. Those were quashed fairly swiftly. Esteban Ocon is a perfectly good driver just sat on the side at the moment. But would Red Bull take a Mercedes junior? Would Verstappen like to be paired up with his Formula 3 rival of the past? It seems unlikely. What of Fernando Alonso – who has a completely free schedule now? Would Honda allow such a move? That’s before mentioning that Horner has called Alonso out for his ability to leave teams in worse states than he finds them. So that seems unlikely.
Should Gasly be dropped – if so, for whom?
The Raikkonen comparison is one Gasly may be able to take some solace from. Raikkonen was completely obliterated by Fernando Alonso in 2014 in their one year as team-mates, but the car was absolutely not to the 2007 champion’s liking. The longer he stayed with the team, the better he seemed to compare with Sebastian Vettel. He even notched up a win last year in the United States, but only after being given his marching orders. But it shows that if Gasly is given equipment he can respond well to; he may start delivering much stronger results.
There was this feeling that Gasly was almost destined for a Kvyat-like difficult time at Red Bull given the circumstances. By benching him or dropping altogether, it may do more harm than good for the driver. It is down to the team and management to get the best out of the driver, and none of the potential that was shown last year or at times in his junior career is on show right now. But it also needs the points and another Bull in the ring in what is regular battles against the Prancing Horses. There is a fair argument that no driver – except the current world champion – is at Verstappen’s level right now. Simply put, no one would be able to take it to Verstappen in Verstappen’s team at this moment in time. Gasly needs to accept this, and just build himself up.
For Red Bull, it is such an awkward situation that it painted itself to be in by letting a driver of Ricciardo’s calibre go and not having the junior programme in shape to be able to successfully promote from within. By potentially compromising a driver who has shown excellent potential when he is on it, rather than doing whatever possible to extract the best from him, it may end up putting itself in a tougher position than it is already in.