Red Bull's driver problem...

By on Monday, December 5, 2011

© Red Bull GEPA

By James Donald

With only one top ten seat unconfirmed for the 2012 season - the #10 Lotus -  the remaining ‘silly season’ points of interest revolve around the midfield and backmarker teams. One team yet to confirm its 2012 drivers is Red Bull’s ‘junior’ team, Toro Rosso, who has four Red Bull backed drivers competing for two seats. As Jaime Alguersuari, Sébastien Buemi, Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Éric Vergne vie for these seats, what we see is an inevitable problem of Red Bull’s young driver programme; a backlog of talent.

When Red Bull first acquired Minardi and renamed it Toro Rosso prior to the 2006 season, it was for the purpose of nurturing the skills of drivers who were a part of Red Bull’s young driver programme before they graduated to the ‘senior’ team. Yet only one driver has done so, Sebastian Vettel. Having won two world championships and still only 24 he is not looking like leaving Red Bull anytime soon.

Red Bull has backed so many young drivers in the past decade that despite having owned two Formula 1 teams for the past six years, it does not have space to bring all of its drivers into Formula 1, even if they look good enough to be there. In 2005 we saw Tonio Liuzzi and Christian Klien sharing the second seat at Red Bull Racing and in 2011 Ricciardo was parachuted in at HRT mid-season after Alguersuari started producing stronger drives that meant he could not be dropped from Toro Rosso.

Despite having backed many drivers, only one has won a Grand Prix; no prizes for guessing who. A rather cynical view is that Red Bull backs so many drivers so that other teams cannot sign them instead. I do not subscribe to this, but see their backing of so many drivers as rather like buying 100 lottery tickets in the hope that one of them is a winning one. So far they’ve only hit the jackpot with Vettel. But, if Vettel is the multi-million pound jackpot, Alguersuari and Buemi aren’t worth nothing. It would be hard to dispose of them.

Helmut Marko and Christian Horner

The list of drivers previously backed by Red Bull is sizeable. One thing is clear: Red Bull and Helmut Marko are not afraid to withdraw their backing if they do not believe a driver is good enough. Scott Speed, Christian Klien and Tonio Liuzzi did not last long in Red Bull F1 teams. But they are the few who made it to F1, a quick glance at the list of formerly Red Bull backed drivers and you see the many who didn’t make it. Some names remain fresh in the mind such as Brendon Hartley or Virgin reserve driver Robert Wickens. But there are others you have to strain your memory to remember; Adrian Zaugg anybody?

At a time when financial backing is as important as ever to move up the motorsport ladder Red Bull’s backing can be seen as a blessing. But it also has its problems for those drivers involved and could easily lead to them becoming disappointed or frustrated.

Alguersuari and Buemi both made their debuts in 2009 and despite solid 2011 seasons their positions are under threat. Their performances in 2011 do not warrant their axing, but Helmut Marko was damning with his faint praise of the duo recently stating Red Bull are ‘not looking for a good F1 driver, we are looking for a top F1 driver.’ Herein lies the problem, Red Bull have too many drivers worthy (if not ‘top’) of an F1 seat and not enough seats to fit them all in. Prior to the Canadian and European Grand Prixs, it looked like it would be easy for Red Bull to give Alguersuari the chop but he has since upped his game. Rather than justifying giving a driver a Toro Rosso drive, it seems harder to justify one of the four not having a drive.

Things move quickly. Alguesuari is 21, Buemi 23, yet there’s still the possibility neither will be on the grid next year having competed in F1 for three seasons. The worst case scenario for them is they may not start a Grand Prix again. It’s hard to see where they would go outside of the Red Bull stable without the drinks manufacturer’s backing.

Ricciardo raced for HRT as there was no space at STR. Photo credit: HRT

When Ricciardo was confirmed at HRT before the British Grand Prix, it looked like he was the one next in line for a Toro Rosso drive. Yet already he could be out of favour with Vergne taking a seat instead. Some rumours suggest the Australian will be off to Caterham. With four drivers worthy of an F1 seat we could see a Red Bull driver at Caterham and HRT next year. One rumour suggests a particularly harsh outcome for Alguersuari, a seat alongside de la Rosa at the ‘Spanish national team’ HRT.

Marko’s ambition is to have another driver who has come through the Red Bull young driver programme partner Vettel at Red Bull Racing. Yet two men mean this scenario, for 2012 and perhaps beyond, will not happen; Christian Horner and Mark Webber. This week Marko has said one of the four drivers competing for the Toro Rosso seats will eventually replace Webber at the senior team. You’d think Buemi or Alguersuari would be favourites given their extra experience, yet Horner has shown no interest in signing either of these two. Ricciardo and Vergne seem to be the better long term prospects, but whether they race for Red Bull Racing depends on Horner and Webber. As much as it might frustrate Marko, he is not the man making decisions at Red Bull Racing. Horner is. Webber will be 36 at the end of the 2012 season, who’s to say he won’t continue on for one, two or maybe more seasons after 2012? Rubens Barrichello is 39 and refusing to announce his retirement, Pedro de la Rosa has signed for HRT at the age of 40, David Coulthard didn’t retire (ending his career at Red Bull) until he was 38 and Michael Schumacher will be racing at 43 next year. With Red Bull Racing having won both championships two years running, Horner has no reason to change his line-up. Webber is a driver capable of winning Grand Prix and has helped Red Bull to two constructors’ championships. As long as that is the case why should Horner drop him? He has a winning formula at the moment.

We do not know how much longer Webber will continue, but it’s possible that Alguersuari’s, Buemi’s, Ricciardo’s or Vergne’s careers could stall as they’re stuck in a mid-field team waiting for Webber retire. Even when he does, there’s no guarantee that Horner will choose a replacement from the Red Bull driver scheme. We heard the Hamilton to Red Bull rumours back in the summer, what if Red Bull were to dominate again in 2012 and Hamilton lost patience with McLaren for again not giving him a car to win the championship with? If the 2008 World Champion came knocking would Horner really turn him away in favour of Alguersuari, Buemi or any other Red Bull young driver? Marko hasn’t always got his own way on drivers in the past. Back in 2001, when Red Bull sponsored Sauber, Marko wanted the team to sign Red Bull backed driver Enrique Bernoldi. Peter Sauber saw Kimi Raikkonen as the better prospect and ignored Red Bull’s and Marko’s wishes. The rest, as they say, is history…

The fates of Alguersuari, Buemi, Ricciardo and Vergne for 2012 are unknown. Perhaps we’ll see all of them on the grid, perhaps only some. Either way, at least two of them are going to be left disappointed with the outcome. Whatever opportunities they do get though they better make the most of them before the next lot of Red Bull young drivers are snapping at their heels…

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