There’s a pecking order when it comes to cars in Formula 1. Mercedes is way out in front, and it doesn’t look like anybody is likely to catch them in the near future. The traditional way of thinking about the rest of the field is that Red Bull is in second place, with Ferrari in third. This season, Ferrari’s miserable performances have dropped them down the field and seen Racing Point leap up to third with McLaren and Renault not far behind them. Most people accept this as the lay of the land in Formula 1, but recently we find ourselves questioning it.
A team’s reputation depends on the performances of its cars and its drivers. Based on results alone, Red Bull appears to be deserving of that second billing. Max Verstappen finishes on the podium more often than he doesn’t, and on those rare occasions where Lewis Hamilton doesn’t win a race, most people expect Verstappen to beat him as opposed to Valtteri Bottas, Hamilton’s Finnish teammate. Of the ‘new breed’ of young drivers in the sport, Verstappen is seen as head and shoulders above the competition. Some people would go as far as saying he’s the best driver in the sport of any age, and the fact that he routinely finishes behind Lewis Hamilton has more to do with the British World Champion’s car than it does his driving ability. Verstappen is obviously a supremely talented driver – but might his talent be the only thing propping Red Bull up?
The reason that we ask this question is a simple one. When a car is good, and the driver inside it is competent, the car should finish on or close to the podium every race weekend. Nobody would argue that Bottas is a better driver than Hamilton, but Mercedes finish first and second more often than they don’t. Occasionally, Verstappen will beat Bottas and end up second on the podium. If Bottas or Hamilton doesn’t finish in the top three, something’s usually gone wrong. It might be a mechanical problem, a grid penalty, or a time penalty, but the absence of one of the Mercedes drivers on the podium rarely has anything to do with racing speed.
The same can’t be said about Red Bull. Last weekend in Russia, Verstappen finished second. His teammate Alex Albon finished a lowly tenth. He started in fifteenth due to a grid penalty for changing his gearbox, but a good driver in a good car should be able to recover from that. Hamilton slipped way down the field after serving a ten-second penalty for a practice start offense before the race, but he recovered well enough to take third. Albon was never in contention for serious points thanks to the fact that even before his gearbox issue, he’d qualified down in tenth place. In fact, when he finished third at the Tuscan Grand Prix a few weeks ago, it was the first and only time he’s ever finished on the podium since joining Red Bull from AlphaTauri halfway through the 2019 season. After the race, he thanked Christian Horner and the rest of the Red Bull team for sticking with him during what were perceived to be poor performances before that point.
This isn’t a new problem for Red Bull. Albon was only promoted to the second seat after Pierre Gasly, Verstappen’s former teammate, was dropped back to AlphaTauri for failing to meet the team’s expectations of him. Gasly was unable to secure a podium for Red Bull in the half-season he spent with the team. Gasly isn’t the first driver to receive the rough end of the stick from the team, either. Daniil Kvyat was dropped back to AlphaTauri in 2016 despite beating then-teammate Daniel Ricciardo that year. Ricciardo himself quit in 2018 after feeling that the team had begun to favor Verstappen, and he’d achieved as much as he could with the car. Aside from Verstappen, no driver appears to be able to achieve what Red Bull believe they should be achieving from the car.
There comes a point where chopping and changing can no longer be viewed as a viable long term strategy. It might work for a while on the ’24 Hours Grand Prix’ online slots game, where you can spin the reels again for a second chance if you don’t like what you see the first time around. So long as you have the bankroll to cover your bets, you can carry on playing online slots like Fishin Frenzy slot for as long as you wish. Hopefully, everything will eventually line up for you, and you’ll win something. ‘Spinning the reels’ in Formula 1 is a lot more expensive than it is in any online slots game, and eventually, you’ll run out of money and drivers. Christian Horner has been through four drivers other than Verstappen in the past five years. At what point does he begin to suspect that it’s the car, not the driver, that’s the problem?
This is going to sound like a strange statement to make, but Verstappen’s presence at Red Bull might be more of a curse than a blessing for the team. So long as he’s there, picking up occasional wins and achieving respectable finishes, the team can continue to believe that their car is of the standard required to win World Championships and contend for the Constructor’s Championship. Verstappen’s points haul covers a litany of shortcomings, and those shortcomings can be seen with every other driver who competes for the team. Gasly’s results since he’s returned to AlphaTauri have proven that he’s an excellent driver. There’s already talk that he and Albon might be switched around again if Albon’s troubles continue. History suggests that another switch won’t change anything. Gasly is better off where he is, and Albon isn’t guilty of anything other than failing int he same way every other Red Bull driver save for Verstappen has failed in recent memory.
Red Bull has a history of winning World Championships and picking up big wins, but they achieved those things with either Sebastian Vettel or Max Verstappen in the number one driver’s seat. Vettel was still in his prime when he was with Red Bull. Verstappen is in his prime right now. One day – perhaps when Lewis Hamilton retires – Verstappen is likely to get offered a seat at Mercedes. If he takes it and leaves Red Bull without a world-class, once-in-a-lifetime driver, we might finally see the proof that Red Bull’s car was never as great as the team thought it was.