Gasly’s chance to prove himself cut short; Albon promoted too soon
Let’s face it, Pierre Gasly had a dismal start to the 2019 Formula 1 season. He failed to claim a podium in a competitive Honda-powered Red Bull that propelled his teammate Max Verstappen to two wins and three other podiums. Verstappen is one of the best in F1 and a tough driver to be compared against, but Gasly’s pace has been more on par with the midfield teams than the other drivers at the top three teams. Despite his struggles, Red Bull had implied that Gasly’s seat was safe till the end of the season. However, the team announced yesterday that he has been demoted to Toro Rosso, with rookie Alexander Albon promoted in his place.
The move is a bit of a surprise. Helmut Marko, head of Red Bull’s driver development program, is known for being cutthroat—in 2016, Daniil Kvyat was sent down to Toro Rosso after just four races, and many other drivers have languished at Red Bull’s junior team before jumping ship to other series. And while Marko’s comments on Gasly had grown increasing harsh as 2019 progressed, even saying that “Gasly is just too weak when fighting and overtaking” after the race in Germany, many still believed that he would finish out the season at Red Bull.
Red Bull’s frustration is understandable. Gasly is just five points ahead of Carlos Sainz Jr., who races for midfield contender McLaren, and has beaten Verstappen in only one race, where Verstappen was punted off track by Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel. He outqualified his teammate just once in 12 races, when Verstappen’s attempt to set a competitive time was cut short after a massive crash from Kevin Magnussen ended the qualifying session early.
However, although Gasly’s results have been disappointing, demoting him halfway through the season feels a bit merciless. After all, 2019 is Gasly’s first season in a top team, which brings increased pressure to produce strong performances. Additionally, being paired with Verstappen, who has three more seasons of experience in F1 and at Red Bull, makes the pressure even greater. Gasly could have been allowed to finish out the season, especially as the nearly one-month summer break will give him time to analyze his year thus far and clear his head. We know Gasly can be a strong driver: he’s found success in the lower series, winning GP2 in 2016 and finishing second in Super Formula in 2017. The summer break would have allowed him a chance to tackle some of these psychological issues that comes with being at a top team.
Nonetheless, with Verstappen ahead of both Ferrari men in the drivers’ standings and Red Bull just 44 points shy of Ferrari in the Constructors’ Championship, their exasperation with Gasly is reasonable, since a better driver might have put them into second ahead of Ferrari.
However, their choice to promote Alexander Albon, as opposed to his Toro Rosso teammate Daniil Kvyat, is surprising. Albon undeniably has talent: he finished third in Formula 2 last year and second in GP3 in 2016. His rookie season in Formula 1 has also been a solid effort: he has scored points in five races and has equaled his more experienced teammate on qualifying performances.
Yet Albon is still a rookie, and most drivers, even highly touted ones like Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, require about a year to acclimate to the high expectations and incredibly rapid and complex cars of F1. Albon has only 12 races under his belt, and promoting him to Red Bull this early into his F1 career could lead to the same fate as Gasly. Albon will be keen to demonstrate that he deserves the spot, and the pressure to outperform Gasly’s first half could see him to fall prey to the same stress that hindered the man he’s replacing. Hopefully Albon’s talent can shine through, but Red Bull is running a risk by promoting him so soon.
Swapping Gasly with Kvyat would have been a far safer, and smarter, option. While Albon has matched Kvyat in qualifying this season, Kvyat has the edge in race performances, beating his rookie teammate seven times out of 12 Grands Prix. Kvyat has scored points in one more race and crucially collected a podium at the chaotic, rain-soaked German GP, the only non-Mercedes, Ferrari, or Red Bull driver to finish in the top three this year. Kvyat also has more F1 experience: he is currently in his sixth season, including 23 races at Red Bull. This would help his transition to Red Bull and make it more likely Red Bull can catch Ferrari in the standings, since he might be better equipped to accumulate those pivotal points.
Time will tell if Red Bull’s verdict was right, but hopefully the swap will give Albon a chance to shine and earn himself a long-term spot at one of the top three teams.