The most surprising thing about Sergio Perez’s contract extension at Red Bull was its timing.
“I think it will be decided in September, and we will announce it then,” the Austrian said. Yet within an hour, Perez’s future was confirmed by the team.
The extension, though, directly affects two other drivers. The first is AlphaTauri’s de facto number one Pierre Gasly, who harboured hopes of return after sterling performances for AlphaTauri (previously Toro Rosso) following his relegation from the ‘senior’ to ‘junior’ team.
The other is Alexander Albon, Gasly’s successor at Red Bull, who also hoped to return after being benched when the team signed Perez at the end of last year.
Their situations illustrate precisely how uncertain life can be for drivers across Red Bull’s two teams. Underperforming drivers are chopped and changed, but in most instances they find themselves given chances for redemption.
Brendon Hartley, dropped as reserve driver for both teams in 2010, found himself recalled in late 2017 after sparkling WEC successes, and raced through 2018. Daniil Kvyat was promoted, relegated, dropped, recalled and dropped again.
Albon was a Red Bull Junior Team member until 2012, then dropped. He returned with Toro Rosso in 2018, promoted to Red Bull in place of Gasly in 2018 and dropped again after last year. However he remains on Red Bull’s books as reserve driver and DTM racer under the brand’s colours. He could be recalled at any stage and be plugged in should one or other driver be out of action – or underperforms.
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Red Bull clearly believes the best motivation for drivers is having others breathing down their metaphorical necks. Those who consistently perform have no need for nervousness, and thus Albon needs to up his game while Gasly can breathe slightly more easily. Winners such as quadruple champion (with Red Bull) Sebastian Vettel and current star Max Verstappen are never under threat.
The team’s F1 bosses Helmut Marko – a 1970s F1 driver and Le Mans winner turned consultant to the drinks company’s owner Dietrich Mateschitz – and ex-F3 and F3000 racer Christian Horner have the luxury of choice and can thus mix and match in their quests to deliver the best possible results for both teams. In short: they do it because they can – if need be.
While Red Bull’s approach is sometimes described as cutthroat, it tends to be overlooked the team creates careers for drivers who would otherwise not have had a chance of breaking into professional ranks, and even if they do not enjoy sustained F1 careers they are assured of solid careers elsewhere. Sebastian Buemi bears testimony to this, having won the Formula E championship, World Endurance Championship (thrice) and Le Mans 24 Hours (also thrice) since leaving Toro Rosso. So does Jean-Eric Vergne, now a two-times Formula E champion.
Which brings us to AlphaTauri rookie Yuki Tsunoda, who came to Red Bull’s attention via engine partner Honda. The 21-year-old gained support from Honda in 2016 through its Formula Dream young driver programme, then claimed the national 2018 F4 title – which resulted in Red Bull support. Having placed third in the 2020 F2 series, where he was also top rookie, he was promoted to AlphaTauri this year.
Solid races and crashes in roughly equal measure this year have raised questions about his future in what is an unforgiving environment. Yet Tost is being patient about his young charge’s performances.
“You must not forget, Yuki is a rookie and at all the race tracks, he is the first time out in a Formula 1 car and especially in the second part of the season, there are many race tracks which he even doesn’t know,” he said.
As he listed the ‘new’ tracks the 21-year-old faces in the second half of the season – including USA, Mexico, Brazil – he called upon his critics to be realistic. “So far, Yuki is doing a good job. He crashed a couple of times, but – as I always say – a young driver earlier or later will have his crash period. I hope it’s finished now…
“He now knows the car much better; he will provide us with good results I’m convinced about this.”
Those who suggest Tsunoda was brought in to keep Red Bull’s engine supplier sweet and that he will be dropped given Honda exits after this season overlook that the engine relationship will continue under a different guise: Honda agreed to transfer its F1 engine intellectual property to Red Bull – a powertrain division is being established in Milton Keynes – and will supply engines from Japan until the operation is up and running. Honda and Red Bull also enjoy close ties in other categories.
Thus, although Perez’s extension and Tost’s praise of Tsunoda – plus his commercial support – suggests Albon is denied an immediate crack at the F1 whip, all may not be lost for him yet. If he performs in the DTM or wherever else his employers place him, he is likely to return to the sharp end of motorsport; if not he can reflect on a career he would otherwise not have enjoyed.
Moreover, note that Perez has been signed for a year only, and Tsunoda could readily be deployed elsewhere if his consistency does not improve markedly.
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