The logic behind Red Bull’s Albon/Gasly driver swap

Although the decision to replace Pierre Gasly with Alex Albon seems harsh from the outside, it is supported by one simple fact: Red Bull is 44 points behind Ferrari in the constructors’ championship this year and Gasly’s lacklustre performances have cost the team more than that over the first 12 races. But there are other considerations that would have influenced Red Bull’s decision that extend beyond the 2019 season.

The minimum expectation when a driver joins one of the top three teams in Formula One — be it Red Bull, Ferrari or Mercedes — is that they finish grands prix in the top six more often than not. Gasly’s teammate Max Verstappen has achieved that measure of success at every round this year, Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel have achieved it at 11 of the 12 rounds and Charles Leclerc and Valtteri Bottas have achieved it at 10 of the 12 rounds. In stark contrast, Gasly secured just five top six finishes from the first 12 races of 2019.

As a result, he has only scored a third of the points of Verstappen in 2019 and just 25 percent of Red Bull’s overall points tally. Although those points are only numbers on a table at the moment, if Red Bull doesn’t start realising the potential of its second car at the remaining nine races, it will ultimately impact its bottom line next year. The difference between second and third place in the constructors’ championship is worth roughly $10 million in prize money and, regardless of how many billions of cans of Red Bull you sell worldwide, that is a significant amount.

Of course, Albon’s arrival does not guarantee second place — far from it — but after analysing the first half of the season, Red Bull clearly felt there were more benefits to switching the drivers than maintaining the status quo.

An eye on 2020

To look at the decision from another point of view, no matter how long it takes Albon to get up to speed this year, Red Bull will not lose third place finish in the constructors’ championship. McLaren is Red Bull’s next closest rival, 162 points behind on 82 points overall, meaning it would have to double its points tally from the first half of the year and hope that Red Bull fails to score in the remaining nine races to stand a chance of securing third.

Because of the gap to McLaren in fourth, Red Bull can offer Albon a no-pressure environment to find his feet. Struggle to feature regularly in the top six and it can be put down to inexperience and the difficulties of adapting to a new team — backed up by the argument that Gasly also struggled in the first half of the year. But succeed where Gasly failed and Albon can be the hero who helped Red Bull secure second place in the constructors’ championship.

Meanwhile, a less tangible advantage can be built up throughout the remaining nine races.

Although young at 23 and still in his rookie year, Albon’s development has been steep at Toro Rosso this season and he has learned quickly from his mistakes. A similarly steep learning curve awaits him at Red Bull, but if he can ride it to a couple of podium finishes then the team’s 2020 driver line-up picks itself.

It seems Red Bull had already decided Gasly would not be racing for the team in 2020 and keeping him on board until the end of this season would have achieved very little. Since the start of the year, Red Bull has marked the 2019 season as a development year as it builds its relationship with new engine supplier Honda and prepares for a genuine title challenge in 2020. A mid-season driver change fits that development-year ethos, and while Albon might not have had the necessary preparation time to make the step up to Red Bull after just 12 races, viewed in the right perspective, the next nine races could provide him with the best possible preparation for a full season with the team in 2020.

Assessing the risk of destroying two careers

Of course, there is a danger that the experiment backfires and Albon struggles as much — or more — than Gasly. It’s worth remembering that Gasly was never meant to drive for Red Bull this year and was only drafted in when Daniel Ricciardo decided to leave the team for Renault at the end of 2018. Nearly 12 months on from that announcement, it is clear that the acceleration of Gasly’s career has worked against him and now Red Bull is asking even more of Albon.

But different drivers react to challenges in different ways. Verstappen, for example, thrived when he made the step up to Red Bull in early 2016, winning his first race at the Spanish Grand Prix and going on to become its undisputed team leader two and half years later.

The Red Bull driver programme has always been a sink-or-swim environment with the sole aim of discovering future world champions. If Albon really struggles to deal with the challenge, then arguably he would not have had what it takes to fight the likes of Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton for world championships in any case. Ask any driver on the grid right now if they would like to drive a race-winning car and they would all bite your hand off. Any other attitude would be seen as a weakness — certainly at Red Bull.

And arguably there is no better time for Albon to make the move than now. As an F2 driver 11 months ago it seemed like his F1 dream was over when he signed a contract to race in Formula E with Nissan. Then, a couple of months later, Toro Rosso came looking for a replacement for the Red Bull-bound Gasly and Albon seized the opportunity knowing it could be his last chance to reach the top level of the sport. He is currently riding a wave from that Toro Rosso call-up and his confidence will continue to spiral upwards after the summer break if he lives up to his potential. Considering where he was 12 months ago, he really has nothing to lose and that attitude could be exactly what he needs to make a success of this opportunity.

Why Albon makes sense over Kvyat

Meanwhile, Red Bull still has Daniil Kvyat as a back-up plan. He has outscored Albon at Toro Rosso so far this year, but the two drivers have been more closely matched than the drivers’ standings suggest. Seven points of Kvyat’s 11-point advantage came as a result of his podium at last month’s wet German Grand Prix — a race in which Albon had been the more competitive Toro Rosso driver until Kvyat’s late gamble on slick tyres propelled him up the order. Over a single lap in qualifying, the pair have been evenly matched and are tied 6-6 in their head-to-head comparison, underlining that there is little to choose between the two apart from Kvyat’s extra experience.

But Kvyat’s extra experience, which includes a stint at Red Bull from the start of 2015 to May 2016, means he is more of a known quantity and would therefore tell Red Bull less about its 2020 options than Albon. Assuming Red Bull knows roughly what it would get from Kvyat alongside Verstappen, it makes more sense to back the lesser-known driver who looks equally competitive in the same car.

What’s more, Kvyat will be a better barometer to measure just how far Gasly has fallen since last year and to ensure Toro Rosso’s current fifth place in the constructors’ championship doesn’t melt away in the second half of the year. Then, if Albon fails to perform and Kvyat outshines Gasly, the Russian could still become the lead contender for the Red Bull seat next year.

Ultimately, Red Bull is in the unique position of having four race drivers under contract across two teams. Given the money it invests in F1 to hold that advantage, it is understandable that it makes use of it every now and then to fully explore its options. Like Gasly, Albon may turn out to be the wrong choice, but it’s better to learn that this year than in 2020 when the team is targeting its first genuine title challenge since 2013. And if Albon lives up to his potential and shines as Verstappen’s understudy, this time next year the decision will look inspired.

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