Red Bull Juniors: Risk Versus Reward

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Formula One is incredibly tough to get into. You need to have the right balance of backing as well as outright talent. Without either of those, your chances of getting into Formula One are already finished. Max Verstappen, son of Jos Verstappen, was announced today as a part of the Red Bull Juniors, a program that essentially tries to find the next Sebastian Vettel. It is a harsh and gruelling test, which has seen a lot of talented drivers fall out of favour of getting a Formula One seat simply due to a bad patch in form.

Verstappen (16) will be joining Carlos Sainz Jr (19), Pierre Gasly (18) and Alex Lynn (20) at the young team. Sainz and Gasly are battling it out in the highly rated Formula Renault 3.5 series, though Gasly is still in his rookie year. Lynn is set to win the GP3 series title, which Daniil Kvyat won last year, and Verstappen is currently fighting Esteban Ocon in the European Formula 3 series, despite racing karts last year. He had a slow start but won a remarkable six races on the bounce in the middle of the season, and he was poached by Red Bull following that.

I will run down a select few of the drivers who were part of the Red Bull Junior program but didn’t make it to the main Formula One team: Mikhail Aleshin, Jaime Alguersuari, Michael Ammermuller, Sebastien Buemi, Karun Chandhok, Tom Dillmann, Antonio Felix da Costa, Brendon Hartley, Scott Speed, Beitske Visser and Robert Wickens. All of those are excellent racing drivers in their own right yet were shunned by Red Bull after a poor run. They all race in different categories now, but they arguably did not get the chance that they deserve by Red Bull and by Helmut Marko.

Perhaps the most well documented of these was both Sebastien Buemi and Jaime Alguersuari being axed by Scuderia Toro Rosso, Red Bull’s second team at the same time. 2011 saw Buemi and Alguersuari both have pretty solid seasons, achieving their best results of eighth and seventh respectively throughout the season. Despite this, both were axed and have since not raced in Formula One, with Alguersuari being out of racing altogether until 2014. Buemi was ‘promoted’ to the main Red Bull team test and reserve driver and also drives in the World Endurance Championship for Toyota, but many felt at the time that they were both dropped somewhat harshly. When Alguersuari was axed, he was just 21, which is the sort of time that a driver should be making a step up to Formula One, not being thrown out altogether.

What was also very well documented was Antonio Felix da Costa not making the jump to F1. Da Costa is a winner at Macau and was fourth in the 2012 Formula Renault 3.5 series despite missing three out of the nine rounds. Many tipped him to win the 2013 season but he was beaten by McLaren’s young drivers – Kevin Magnussen (now in Formula One with McLaren) and Stoffel Vandoorne who has cemented himself as a GP2 frontrunner. Despite not winning the series, many tipped him to take Daniel Ricciardo’s seat at Toro Rosso. It seemed the logical option, he was the oldest and most experienced of all of the junior drivers, yet he missed out to Kvyat. Since then he has been axed from the junior program and has been shoved into DTM with fellow F1 rejects Timo Glock, Paul di Resta and Vitaly Petrov.

Red Bull currently has four highly capable drivers in Formula One, split between their two teams; Sebastian Vettel (27) will be in Formula One for at least ten more years we hope. Team mate Daniel Ricciardo (25) also has a lengthy career ahead of him it seems. Daniil Kvyat (20) has already impressed many in his short Formula One career and looks to remain in Formula One for quite a while. The one on the bubble is Jean-Eric Vergne (24). At the age of 24, Vergne is nowhere near the peak of his career yet, and still has many years left in him, so like Buemi and Alguersuari, it would be incredibly harsh to dump him despite being ahead of his team mate on points. Should Vergne be dropped at the end of the year, for whichever of the four drivers in the junior team, there will be a monumental amount of pressure on them to deliver. The biggest issue is, the three drivers that don’t make it are likely to sit there and gather dust essentially or be thrown into a lesser series by Red Bull, which would be a massive shame given their talents. Where do the others go? Now given the age of the majority of these drivers, to be picked up by one of the big teams and placed into the driver academy would do wonders for confidence surely. However, on the other side of the scale, to be dumped like how Red Bull have done, and quite publicly, could well damage the confidence of a driver for a very, very long time.

It’s times like this where I wished Red Bull would invest in other top-end series too, such as the World Endurance Championship or IndyCar, to put their excellent world class young drivers at the very sharp end of motorsport, rather than just let them sit there doing essentially nothing for a long time, as some of them have done. For Max Verstappen, he is either destined for great things, or could well end up disappearing off the radar due to an off-par dozen races or so.

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