Red Bull interrupted the start of Formula 1’s summer break with the shock announcement that Pierre Gasly will be replaced by Alex Albon for the rest of the season. Gasly’s struggles to get close to the pace of Max Verstappen have been evident from the moment he crashed in pre-season testing, but Red Bull has staunchly supported its new driver since then. As recently as the Hungarian Grand Prix weekend it insisted Gasly would see out the season, but just over one week later revealed that rookie Toro Rosso driver Albon will replace Gasly alongside Verstappen in the Red Bull line-up from the Belgian Grand Prix.
The arguments for Red Bull invoking this change are fairly simple on paper. Gasly has not merely been overshadowed by Max Verstappen, he has experienced a total eclipse, and Red Bull wants to evaluate Albon for a potential full-time seat at the senior team in 2020. While Verstappen has 181 points and is fighting for second in the championship, Gasly has 63 and is only just ahead of the leading midfield drivers. Verstappen has two wins, five podiums and a pole position from 12 grands prix this year, whereas Gasly has not started or fi nished a race higher than fourth.
“IT’S A BIG JUMP INTO THE DEEP END, BUT I’VE GOT MY SWIMMING SHORTS ON!”
In qualifying terms, Gasly has the worst record of the current grid, averaging a 0.529s deficit to his team-mate at the point of elimination. For rigour, we have excluded the Azerbaijan and Canadian GPs from this comparison because of external factors that impact upon the gaps. The general trend of Verstappen beating Gasly could probably have been expected. But in the context of Red Bull and Honda emerging with a higher quality package than may have been predicted, Gasly needed to produce better results, stronger pace and a bigger points haul than he has done.
Red Bull’s performance and Verstappen’s brilliance have transformed the team’s short-term ambitions and strengthened its medium-term aim of fighting for titles from 2020. That, aligned with Gasly’s struggles, has massively upped the ante. The pre-2019 ideal of a ‘free’ season for Gasly, replacing Daniel Ricciardo and promised a learning year with relatively little at stake, has been eliminated.
It has not escaped Red Bull’s attention that it has the ability to beat Ferrari to second in the constructors’ championship this season. It would already be doing so were Gasly returning around the rate that the second Mercedes/Ferrari drivers are returning – Valtteri Bottas has 75% of Lewis Hamilton’s points and Charles Leclerc has 85% of Sebastian Vettel’s tally. Gasly is on a meagre 35% of Verstappen’s haul.
Furthermore, in Hungary, Gasly’s absence from the lead battle was the first time Red Bull seriously lost out because of its second car’s poor performance. Verstappen and the team were checkmated by Mercedes’ strategy at the front, left vulnerable by the enormous gap behind Hamilton that gifted him a free pitstop. That gap should have been filled by Gasly.
Short-term and medium-term, Gasly is hurting Red Bull’s prospects. The team expects to fight for the title next season, and the version of Gasly seen over the first half of the 2019 campaign is not good enough for those ambitions. He has not been dismissed entirely from the 2020 picture and has the rest of the season back at Toro Rosso to rebuild his confidence.
Meanwhile, Albon has been handed another phenomenal opportunity. He was recalled by Red Bull for 2019 after an impressive Formula 2 season last year, when he fought Mercedes and McLaren proteges George Russell and Lando Norris for the title. The London-born Thai was a Red Bull Junior seven years ago but lost his place on the scheme owing to a disappointing first season in car racing. He re-established his place on Red Bull’s radar with his strong F2 form, having “begged” DAMS for a drive while suffering budget issues.
Albon has scored points at five races this season, and only trails his more experienced team-mate Daniil Kvyat in the championship because of the Russian’s podium in the chaotic rain-hit German Grand Prix. He described his shock call-up as “surreal” on social media, adding he could not “thank [Red Bull] enough for believing in me and making this possible” and Toro Rosso, “especially [team principal] Franz Tost for the massive opportunity in F1 and never-ending support throughout my first year”. Albon added: “It’s a big jump into the deep end, but I’ve got my swimming shorts on!”
Red Bull needs a driver who can get closer to Verstappen