Why Red Bull keeps burning F1 drivers who aren’t Verstappen

Max Verstappen is a massive indication of the aggressive Rebel approach to Formula One that has also come at a cost. Neatly summed up by a recent Lewis Hamilton dig: If F1 drivers aren’t good enough, they’re gone from the grid. That’s how it works, right? Well, as Hamilton suggested recently, I’d say that’s how Red Bull works. That came after Nyck de Vries lost his drive just 10 races into his rookie campaign, the latest example of a ruthless Rebel approach to F1. So, Hamilton’s right, but Red Bull is too. Its tactics have come at a cost, but they also won Red Bull Verstappen, which has paid off big time.

Red Bull’s Swift Driver Decisions: A Double-Edged Sword

Let’s put what Hamilton said into perspective. When de Vries was dropped two races before the summer break, Hamilton said he was surprised by Red Bull’s decision against the driver. Hamilton and Mercedes know well because de Vries was part of their team previously. Hamilton said it wasn’t enough to give de Vries 10 races, but that’s how Red Bull does it. When it was suggested that some would say that’s how F1 works, Hamilton replied, “I would say that’s how Red Bull works.” Now, we all know there’s no love lost between Hamilton and Red Bull, but tribalism aside, there was a sincere point being made here.r1 racing

Loyalty in Formula One: Hamilton’s Perspective

The seven-time world champion is a beneficiary of fierce loyalty from his initial backers, McLaren and Mercedes. Hamilton spent six seasons and won a world title with McLaren after making his debut with the team. While the move to Mercedes has been rewarded with massive success and meant that manufacturer has been a constant fixture from the start of Hamilton’s career through to today. Nobody’s pretending de Vries would have had the same success had Rebels shown a bit more loyalty, but Rebels’ hire and fire approach is clearly not in keeping with how Hamilton believes drivers should be treated. He has a point, and Red Bull’s conduct is self-defeating sometimes too, as it has caused itself all kinds of problems with its driver approach in recent years, even now. But we’ll get into that in more detail later in this video. Let’s focus on Rebels’ tactics for a little longer.

The Impact of Max Verstappen on Red Bull’s Driver Program

Hamilton said he was surprised Red Bull didn’t give de Vries more time, but he shouldn’t have been. Verstappen’s team has a unique attitude to drivers and has been particularly aggressive since putting him in an F1 car at just 16 years old. Back during the stop and stunning first year of car racing in 2014, straight into European F3, he had offers on the table from both Rebel and Mercedes. Anyone familiar with Verstappen’s fierce Hamilton rivalry in recent years and how the Red Bull-Mercedes dynamic has evolved will appreciate the surreal notion of an alternate reality in which Verstappen’s and Mercedes’ protege as talks with both parties progressed. Rebel played its trump card.

The Quest for Talent: Challenges in Red Bull’s Junior Team Program

Mercedes’ offer was to back Verstappen in the next phase of his junior career, while Rebel would call him up to the majors instantly, offering him a Toro Rosso race seat for 2015. That made Verstappen’s mind up. He was in an F1 car by Friday practice at the Japanese Grand Prix, aged just 16, and would contest the full 2015 season at just 17 years of age. It was the most extreme manifestation you can imagine of Rebel’s commitment to backing and finding the best talent and demanding they sink or swim.

Ongoing Challenges and the Verstappen Legacy

And we can take Verstappen’s arrival on the scene as the moment Rebel’s reputation as a generous backer with extremely high standards started to become something else. There is still a lot more to say about how that worked out with Verstappen specifically, and we will say it. But the impact on the rest of Rebel’s young driver program has been immense. In fact, there’s an argument that Verstappen fundamentally influenced every major driver choice Rebel has made since and every failure that followed.

We’ll start with the obvious one: Daniel Kvyat. He was dropped from Rebel Racing after four races in 2016 to make room for Verstappen, who’d been extremely impressive as a rookie at Toro Rosso but had also been involved in significant tension with teammate Carlos Sainz. Or perhaps, to be more accurate, tensions between their respective entourages. By this point, it was clear that Red Bull held Verstappen in the highest possible estimation, with an emphasis on keeping him happy and backing his obvious talent. His rapid promotion to the top table was guaranteed. We all know that Verstappen famously won on his Rebel Racing debut and went from strength to strength. But Kvyat never recovered from that initial demotion. He was demolished by Sainz at Toro Rosso, dropped before the 2017 season ended, re-signed for 2019 when Rebel had no actual junior drivers it wanted to promote, then dropped again at the end of 2020.

Directly or indirectly, Verstappen destroyed Kvyat’s career, and he massively impacted plenty more. A lack of total faith in Pierre Gasly, who Rebel had always had doubts over and definitely didn’t view as Verstappen’s talent, delayed his debut. Gasly did eventually get onto the grid with Toro Rosso when Kvyat was dumped, and Sainz pushed to leave to join Renault, which Sainz did primarily because of Verstappen’s rise. He knew he had no future at Rebel himself. That led to a strange Gasly-Brendon Hartley pairing at the end of 2017 and for 2018. And Hartley was an unusual choice. Nobody was quite ready in the junior team, although Rebel was keen on the mercurial Dan Ticktum, but he didn’t qualify for a super license. Bafflingly, instead of picking up an independent young driver from the F2 ranks, like say Oliver Rowland, Red Bull opted for Hartley, a driver it had dropped from its junior program years before and who’d spent the past few seasons enjoying success in sports car racing. It wasn’t exactly a logical fit for a junior team, and he certainly wasn’t a future Rebel Racing contender. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t work. Hartley was binned after one season, and the Red Bull conveyor belt, poised for Verstappen, had shuddered to a halt.

Then things were further complicated by a gap surprisingly arising alongside Verstappen at Red Bull. Verstappen had become increasingly prominent and successful alongside Ricciardo at Rebel Racing, and Ricciardo decided it was better to cash in and bet on a new project at Renault, where he could be the leader, then stick around to find out if Verstappen really would get preferential treatment. He left Rebel with a space alongside Verstappen for 2019, which was rightly filled by Gasly, given his status as the highest-ranked junior.

While not one but two ex-Rebel youngsters were recalled to take the vacant Toro Rosso seats: Kvyat and Alex Albon. Gasly’s Rebel Racing career was effectively over before it started. Crashing twice in pre-season was a bad omen, but he was smashed by Verstappen so badly on track and was a character Rebel had such reservations over off-track that he only lasted half a season. Gasly was dropped in the summer break, and Albon, halfway through his rookie campaign and having never driven an F1 car before pre-season testing, was suddenly Verstappen’s teammate. In other words, one driver was put back on the bench at Toro Rosso, and the other was set up for an inevitable failure against Verstappen. Shockingly, Albon struggled. Shockingly, Albon struggled, and Rebel found itself in another driver quandary barely a year later. Albon’s struggles intensified in 2020 after a solid start, and Rebel wanted to drop him but had no faith in re-promoting Gasly. While Kvyat was out, Honda protege Yuki Tsunoda, at least, gave it an alternative to Kvyat for Toro Rosso, now called AlphaTauri. But there was nobody to put alongside Verstappen for 2021. So, Rebel went outside its own driver pool for the first time in almost a decade to sign Sergio Perez.

Conclusion

That’s something Rebel needs to do, but the Verstappen success is perhaps papered over how urgently needed that action is. And success is the ultimate currency in F1. So if overhauling its junior program and harshly dropping the occasional underachiever in the interim is the price for what it’s achieved with Verstappen, then Rebel would pay it every time.

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