Why Red Bull’s misuse of Super Formula needs to end

A typhoon warning may have left the Suzuka circuit barren, but if thoughts were the metric to go by the minds of Pierre Gasly and Helmut Marko’s were anything but. They were only half-a-point away from the ultimate prize, after all.

Pierre had his own considerations, certainly about how he was staring down a double-barrel gun of success (were he to prevail, he’d be the first overseas champion since Andre Lotterer in 2011, first rookie since Ralf Schumacher in 1996 and first overall for both since the renaming from Formula Nippon in 2013), but Marko’s were likely about just what a blinder they’d played with their decision.

Opting not to fast-track Gasly into a Toro Rosso F1 seat after his 2016 GP2 title win, the time spent putting noses out of joint in Japan’s elite open-wheel series looked every inch a masterstroke. Red Bull and Honda’s relationship began to blossom and their next hopeful’s confidence was sky-high. It offered another nugget to chew on, too: did they need to bother with the de-facto ladder to F1 at all?

Two years on, it’s almost time for the Suzuka finale once again. There’s not been a Red Bull-backed entry in the renamed F2 full-time since Gasly, and yet three of their academy hopefuls have featured in Super Formula just this season. None of them have replicated anything like the silky form of their French predecessor, nor have they been given the chance.

The #15 Team Mugen car, one of two Red Bull-backed seats in the series, began the season in the hands of the controversial Dan Ticktum. Dan had only just graduated from European F3 the season before, and toiled in the Asian Series not long after, yet Red Bull saw the risk of placing their baby cub into the lion pit of sage ex-F1, DTM and WEC drivers as a worthwhile one.

Dutch Photo Agency/Red Bull Content Pool

Three races, three struggling endeavours and a solitary point later, allegations of Ticktum’s attitude hitting rock bottom and even acts of assault on a Mugen team member had the Brit packing his bags for the first flight out of both Japan and the Red Bull Junior Programme. It spelled disaster for a man the casino chips were placed on, but as luck would have it the energy drink colossus had snagged a promising IndyCar driver struggling for funds in Patricio O’Ward.

The new poster child of the Junior Programme, the dust was brushed off the seat of the #15 car and Pato was placed firmly inside, in an attempt to acclimatise the 20 year old Mexican into more traditional open-wheel racing alongside a crack of the F2 whip in Austria as a one-off. 

Three races, three growingly impressive efforts and three points later, Pato has now disembarked from the Red Bull train after just four months and four events raced under the Junior Programme’s tutelage. Bereft of expected Super Licence points, the jig was up. The #15 Team Mugen welcomes it’s third Red-Bull backed starlet in Estonian F3 graduate Juri Vips while Pato looks set to make up for lost time back in IndyCar for 2020.

Three. Drivers. Let’s evaluate the season: an F3 graduate, short (admittedly of his own fault) on confidence and recent career racing, was deemed a worthy competitor for Super Formula’s high calibre. Once his old habits and inexperience set ablaze his title chances, Red Bull replaced him with a similarly inexperienced prospect mid-season. Pato’s North American schooling was given all of three events to be repurposed before a short-term fast-tracking broke down, and now another F3 graduate is taking the mantle for the finale.

Aside from Red Bull’s other championship effort, Lucas Auer – an ex-DTM driver deemed unlikely to ever be in their future F1 plans – who sits third in the table, the Junior Programme’s 2019 trip east has been an unmitigated disaster. One driver was thrown into the deep end too soon, and the other was submerged in the waves even sooner, and was deemed little more than a vanity project the moment the plan A for him became an impossibility.

Dutch Photo Agency/Red Bull Content Pool

Gasly, like other F1-attached junior drives such as Stoffel Vandoorne, were able to not only survive but succeed in Super Formula because they were at the tail-end of their growth. Two GP2 champions, brimmed with open-wheel experience and virtually ready for the big time, they had the necessary time to grow stronger and wiser before they were unleashed on a series filled with stalwarts in the primes of their careers. F3 and inexperienced Indy graduates aren’t at such a level and either need to be given the time to acclimatise, or not be placed there at all.

Red Bull’s usage of Super Formula as an alternative to F2 has been one marred with underestimation of what it takes to succeed in the series, and drastically short-term ambitions for the drivers they deem fit to place in it. Ticktum’s warning signs were well apparent even before he made the leap, and yet Red Bull didn’t recognise the error they were making. Pato was beginning to adjust to a jarring challenge with aplomb, yet Red Bull have no desire to see his development through, and now Vips stands to be deemed fit for a 2020 Team Mugen seat despite his own premature stage of development.

In a way, it’s a sign of just how far Red Bull’s Junior Programme has fallen; what was once an environment in which talent aplenty flowed through the mains, and World Championships were wringed out of the system, is now a barren wasteland frequently topped up with drivers they’d deemed inadequate years ago or bundled into F1 without prior funding. Current Red Bull Racing duo, Max Verstappen and Alex Albon, are signs of this.

Max never suffered rejection from the programme, but neither can it lay claim to truly nurturing him pre-F1 – he spent all of one week in it before being announced as a 2015 Toro Rosso race driver, and was already a made man by the time they inquired for his services – while Alex spent a solitary season with them in 2012 before being released. 

Toro Rosso now sees two drivers who were both ruled as unneeded at the A-team and sent to bide their time back in Faenza, with Daniil in particular even being dropped from the Red Bull lifeline for over a year in 2017 before, once again, the talent tank ran dry and an ex-employee’s services were required. Recent Toro Rosso driver Brendon Hartley is another example of such a scenario.

The Super Formula experiment is backfiring for Red Bull, and it’s of their own doing. Shunning a ready-made proving ground in F2 and treating the proud, developed Super Formula as a junior series without consideration for the culture shock it provides to drivers not yet properly developed has and will continue to be a disaster, and for every victim it creates there aren’t enough phone numbers in the exes list to realistically ring as last resorts. It had Pierre teetering on the edge of glory two years ago; it has the Junior Team on the brink of implosion now.

 

[Featured image – Sho Tamura / Red Bull Content Pool]

Red Bull in talks with Honda

Red Bull to Honda, a gamble worth taking?

Formal talks between Red Bull and Honda started earlier this week for the possibility of the Japanese giants to supply the team for the 2019 season onwards. Informal talks where held prior to the hectic Azerbaijan Grand Prix between Red Bull’s Helmut Marko and Honda’s Masahi Yamamoto.

With Red Bull currently using Renault, and their junior team Toro Rosso using Honda they have the unique capability to review both power units. Red Bull have partnered Renault since the 2007 season. Success peaked with the Red Bull team winning four Driver and Constructors Championships in a row.  Since the 2014 season though when the complicated hybrids were introduced, the relationship has become very fractious publicly and it makes those years seem much longer ago than they were. Renault have had enough and multiple sources late last year said that they want to stop supplying the team.

Cyril Abiteboul from Renault Sport have made it clear to Red Bull they need to know the situation prior to the 15th May. This is the date when they have to provide information to the FIA for next season in regards to which teams they will supply engines too. They need to start organising the amount of parts they need, so Red Bull – Honda will have to conclude discussions pretty quickly. If nothing is completed by that set date Renault are forced to continue to supply Red Bull.

Fernando Alonso with the 2017 Mclaren Honda. Image courtesy of Mclaren

Red Bull’s interest has grown due to Honda coming on leaps and bounds since last season. Throughout pre-season testing they performed with far greater reliability and speed than previous seasons.. It seems from the performance of Toro Rosso thus far, McLaren may have made another mistake to add to their collection in recent years. All the power units are getting closer, its just that Mercedes have that so called party mode to exploit in qualifying. The unreliability of the Honda engine the in the McLaren of previous years wasn’t solely down to Honda, which McLaren, have confirmed since.

So far in 2018 season it seemed all the reliability Honda had in pre-season was lost when Gasly had to retire his car due to a MGU-H problem at the Australian GP. They have had no major problems noted since then. 

Renault are not without their own faults this season. Two most major ones happened at Bahrain. Verstappen suffered from an unexpected power surge causing him to lose the rear end of the car. This made him a passenger as his car collided into the wall ending his qualifying. On the Sunday an energy store problem halted Ricciardo’s drive from a strong position. This ironically gave Gasly a boost up the order, to which he finished an outstanding 4th, after an amazing qualifying on Saturday. This was the best ever result for Honda powered car since their return to the sport.

The talks are ongoing. F1 has recently announced new aero rules have been  for 2019, so albeit 4 races into the season, preparations for the next season will start earlier than usual. The Spanish Grand Prix is when major upgrades are shown and we start to see what the 2018 prototype cars are really capable of. With the forthcoming 15th of May engine deadline falling a few days after the Spanish GP, we are likely to see announcement very soon, if not before the GP.

If Red Bull as expected do move to Honda power, only time will tell if this was the right choice. But do they have any other choice as they have burnt many bridges already in F1?

Featured image courtesy of Redbull content pool