Be it Sebastian Vettel, Daniel Ricciardo, Max Verstappen or Carlos Sainz, Red Bull and Helmut Marko have long reaped the rewards of investing in young talent. Instead of paying out for established stars, Red Bull’s philosophy of supporting and nurturing promising junior drivers has consistently given them topline talent without the burden of star driver salaries, and with Ricciardo and Verstappen they arguably have the best driver line-up on the grid.
But just as this Toro Rosso-assisted conveyor-belt methodology enables a step-by-step appraisal of a young driver’s abilities, it is a structure inevitably prone to logjams and split-second promotions/demotions. During the years the Faenza-based squad was home to drivers in the vane of Liuzzi or Buemi using Toro Rosso as a driver stockroom made sense: the junior team had a supply of eager, hand-picked hopefuls, but similarly there was always room should a brighter prospect materialise.
But ever since Toro Rosso started to become home to a less herbivorous breed of driver, the equation started to look more complex. All of a sudden Red Bull found themselves having to promote their Russian rookie in place of their exiting champion, only to come to regret that once the generational talent of Verstappen emerged. All of a sudden the steady stream of Marko’s handpicked protégés were either replacing commendable incumbents, like Jean-Eric Vergne or failing to be promoted at all, like Pierre Gasly. All of a sudden Toro Rosso has transitioned from being a useful stepping-stone to a hostage situation, preventing a top line driver from achieving higher things.
Clearly Sainz’s frustrations have reached a head in Austria: speaking at the Thursday press conference Carlos said it would be “unlikely” that he would stay for a fourth season at Toro Rosso, only to be emphatically rebuffed by Christian Horner, telling Sky Sports F1 “he’s under contract. We’ve exercised his option.” Horner would go on to emphasise the investment Red Bull has put into the Spaniard’s career to date.
This is a pertinent point from Horner: the fact that Red Bull was willing to give Carlos an enviable platform for his talent with a pricey seat in Formula Renault 3.5 with the stalwart DAMS squad, despite having been profoundly beaten by Kvyat in GP3 the previous year is the only reason Carlos is in F1 at all. Similarly, Red Bull have invested heavily in the Toro Rosso team, and are obliged to respect that investment by supplying the team with the best two drivers available.
But the true motivation of Horner’s comments is clear to see: Red Bull’s top team need a backup driver of Sainz’s quality should the champion squad be cast into uncertainty by its outwardly restless young prodigy. Equally, Ferrari will doubtless be of the opinion that Ricciardo’s experience and congeniality would make him a fitting replacement for Raikkonen. More generally, retaining the services of two widely acclaimed drivers amid increasingly pessimistic paddock murmurs on Red Bull’s ability to challenge this side of a power unit overhaul may prove impossible for Horner.
However, holding a demoralised Sainz captive in the midfield for perpetuity in the case of losing one of the top-drawer drivers is not a valid solution. Certainly, it’s not a solution when Pierre Gasly is ready and waiting to ably take up Carlos’ baton, and would relish and appreciate a chance with Toro Rosso. Interestingly, rumours that linked Gasly with Palmer’s Renault seat last year arguably suggested that the Frenchman could have been on the grid this year but for another virulent bout of Red Bull monopolism.
Like Gasly, to keep Sainz from pursuing the natural progression of his career with fresh challenges at a factory Renault squad, or even at Ferrari, would undermine the Red Bull Young Driver Programme’s record as a proven avenue to the very pinnacle of the sport; a record already threatened by the failure to attract milestone talents in Leclerc and Norris.
Red Bull certainly have a nice problem to have with more topline drivers than front-running cars, but this saturation point is a problem nonetheless. Taken together with Gasly’s arguably unnecessary Japanese exile, to put a driver of Sainz’s quality in a perpetual holding pattern speaks ill of Red Bull’s ability to manage its drivers. Following the bombshell exit of Sebastian Vettel in 2014, Christian Horner’s attitude was one of c’ est la vie, expressing the abiding mantra of not being able to coerce a driver who would rather be elsewhere. It is a shame that Red Bull hasn’t been able to reproduce that philosophy in Sainz’s case.
Similarly, just as Verstappen did not express much in the way of career patience ahead of his ultimately short final season with Toro Rosso, why should the man who compared so well to the accepted superstar be denied the front-running car that he too has earned? Carlos would not be mistaken in thinking he is in an increasingly exploitative relationship with Red Bull, and aggrieved racing drivers seldom perform at their best. An injection of open-mindedness from Red Bull is the only solution.
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