Daniel Ricciardo. Max Verstappen. Carlos Sainz Jr. Daniil Kvyat. Pierre Gasly.
The number of names on Red Bull’s books is extensive. The Red Bull Junior Team they were all a part of, or are currently part of, has been phenomenally successful, more so than the development program of any other team; particularly in terms of the talent graduating to Formula 1. Its history stretches back longer than the lifespan of Red Bull Racing itself, with the latter entering Formula 1 in 2005 and the junior program being created four years prior. And while many teams would love to have so many promising drivers under their wing, it is proving to be more of a problem for Red Bull than they might originally have hoped.
The obvious problem is that the Red Bull program can only offer their drivers four seats in Formula 1, which admittedly, is two more than most teams can. But only two of these are in a top team, and a competitive race seat is always the ultimate goal of any driver wishing to make it in F1. And here, Red Bull is the one who loses out. They are left with too many drivers and too few seats, with no hope of holding on to all of their prospects.
As it currently stands Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen look absolutely set in their Red Bull seats, with the Australian’s contract lasting until the end of 2018, and Verstappen rumoured to have signed a long-term deal when he switched to the Austrian team last year. That means that—for next season, at very least—the two of them will stay right where they are.
What 2018 has in store for Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat, Carlos Sainz Jr and Red Bull’s third driver Pierre Gasly is a little more uncertain. Toro Rosso have not declared who will be driving for them next year, and have indicated that they do not plan to do so until after the summer break. While in an ideal world they would probably like to keep Sainz and Kvyat, as both drivers are more than capable of bringing home the results that the team needs and wants, the situation is unfortunately not as simple for the Italian team as renewing their contracts.
After three years at the junior team, it is unlikely that Sainz will be happy staying there for a fourth. A driver who could match Verstappen while the two were teammates, he has both the speed and talent necessary to challenge for race wins at the least and world championships at the most, were he in a top team. Many in the Formula 1 paddock are of the opinion he is wasted at a midfield team like Toro Rosso. The Spaniard has proved to Red Bull again and again that he is ready to move up to the senior team, and whilst they would take him in a heartbeat if there was a free seat, that is precisely the issue.
Ricciardo and Verstappen are two drivers no team would want to get rid of, no matter how promising the replacement might seem. As much as Red Bull might want to keep him in their stable most would agree that it is too much to ask him to stay at Toro Rosso for a fourth year. The question of where Sainz could move to is very much up in the air. Renault, Ferrari and even Mercedes are all names that have been thrown around, but as of now, it is anyone’s guess which car Carlos Sainz Jr will be driving next year.
The career of Daniil Kvyat is another matter entirely. After being demoted from his seat at Red Bull in 2016, many were not expecting to see him on the grid at all this season. There were some very strong rumours that if Pierre Gasly did manage to win the 2016 GP2 title (which, incidentally, he did) then Kvyat’s seat would be his. But against all odds the Russian managed to regain some form in the second half of the season, and retained his seat at Toro Rosso. It is hard to imagine that Kvyat would want to stay there long term, especially after having a taste of a season and a half in a top team, even if he was thrown in the deep end after Vettel’s departure. And given the year he had being shuffled from team to team, no one would blame him for wanting to start afresh somewhere else.
A driver leaving the Red Bull system for another Formula 1 team is not a simple case of running down their contract and packing their bags. The contracts that drivers sign, often even before reaching adulthood, are notoriously difficult to get out of. Unless drivers have the funds or leverage to negotiate their way out of their contract (à la Sebastian Vettel), they are very much at the mercy of Red Bull, who can let them go if they wish.
This is part of the problem that faces young Frenchman Pierre Gasly. The 21-year-old, who is currently racing in Super Formula for Team Mugen, at one point looked certain to replace Kvyat for the 2017 at Toro Rosso. But even after battling his way to a closely fought GP2 title in 2016, Gasly found himself without a way into Formula 1, and was sent off to race in Japan, in a situation similar to that of current McLaren driver Stoffel Vandoorne in 2016. Firmly tied into the Red Bull structure, his only real option is Toro Rosso, but only on the proviso that either Sainz or Kvyat leaves. With a strong junior record and a lot of support given to him by Red Bull, Gasly is surely next in line. But playing the waiting game is never easy. By the end of the season it may be that Gasly goes in search of a drive in another category of the top flight of motorsport.
The most likely outcome for 2018 is that Sainz is given the go ahead to move on from Toro Rosso and Gasly takes his place there. But do not discount either Ricciardo or Verstappen leaving to find their first championship title, and Sainz moving up to that top team seat he has been gunning for. Whatever fate has in store for Red Bull and their current crop of drivers, few would bet that they will manage to retain all of them by the end of the year.
Georgia Beith, F2 Correspondent