Ahead of Renault’s new identity as Alpine, and a reshuffle at the team, Cyril Abiteboul is leaving his role as team boss effective immediately.
Abiteboul’s journey as a team boss began in 2013 when he took charge of the doomed Caterham, having acted as Renault’s Deputy Director of Sport until 2012.
In 2015, he returned to this role and, having seen the Renault name return under Frederic Vassuer’s leadership, he took charge of the French outfit at the back end of 2016.
Sandwiched in between these stages of his career has been the controversy with Red Bull. On various occasions between 2015 and 2018, he had several public fall-outs with Red Bull Principal Christian Horner. Red Bull’s struggles with Renault power in the hybrid era led to tensions between the two teams, and Horner’s complaints about the performance and reliability of the Power Unit began to irritate Abiteboul.
This relationship came to a head in 2018, when Red Bull announced they would no longer be using Renault engines for 2019 onwards, and would instead turn to Honda, who had supplied Toro Rosso that season to a degree of success.
Renault endured a tough 2019, finishing fifth compared to fourth in 2018, and a long way behind McLaren.
A similar story rang true in 2020, but they were much closer to McLaren and Racing Point, fighting for third during much of the campaign, but ultimately finishing fifth again.
They also managed three podiums last year; Daniel Ricciardo finished third in Germany and Imola, while Esteban Ocon claimed a spectacular P2 in Sakhir, in what was Sergio Perez’s first win in Formula One. The Mexican has signed for Red Bull this year, replacing Alex Albon.
Abiteboul’s tenure will be remembered with a great deal of respect. He fearlessly led the team through thick and thin, and has laid the groundwork for Alpine to progress and achieve the success Renault once enjoyed. He enticed Ricciardo into his project, and having lured Fernando Alonso back to the team after the Australian’s departure, Abiteboul bows out with the team in a far better state than it was in when he arrived.
On Monday morning, Red Bull announced that it would be swapping Pierre Gasly and Alex Albon for the remaining races of the 2019 season.
The move was met with no small amount of surprise—not least because Christian Horner and Helmut Marko had both stated categorically that Gasly’s seat was safe for the rest of the year—as well as a great amount of debate over whether or not the decision was the right one to take.
For Red Bull themselves, at least, the switch is a definite win-win solution.
After the Hungarian Grand Prix, Horner lay the blame quite squarely on Gasly for Red Bull being 44 points behind Ferrari in the Constructors’ Championship, despite being the only team other than Mercedes to win races this year. It was the first time Horner had publicly criticised Gasly’s performances, saying that the Frenchman “shouldn’t be racing Saubers and McLarens” in a car capable of victories and podiums.
Having seen little improvement from Gasly over the opening 12 races, it was clear that Red Bull needed something to change in order to outscore Ferrari by the end of the year. And with a buffer of 162 points back to fourth-placed McLaren, the team had nothing to lose in switching drivers. At the very worst Albon would be no improvement over Gasly, but Red Bull would still comfortably finish the season in the top three.
Looking beyond 2019, there is another clear benefit to trialling how Albon works within the senior Red Bull team—and in particular, how he works alongside Max Verstappen.
On paper, Albon is the ideal driver for Red Bull’s current situation. For starters, he’s undeniably quick. He ran Charles Leclerc hard for the 2016 GP3 title, was a consistent frontrunner in Formula 2, and last year was offered a seat with Nissan’s works Formula E squad.
But perhaps most importantly, Albon’s reputation is for a calm, mild-mannered team player—a driver unlikely to level public criticism at Honda should performance falter, or threaten Verstappen’s position as Red Bull’s top dog.
And with Verstappen’s contract expiring at the end of next year, creating the right environment with a teammate like Albon might be crucial in convincing the Dutchman to stay at Red Bull long-term.
As for Albon, however, moving to Red Bull now could go either way.
On the one hand, this is a remarkable stroke of good fortune. Just nine months ago Albon’s F1 chances looked to have all dried up and he was preparing for a career shift to Formula E—now, he’s driving a car that has every chance of making him Thailand’s first-ever Grand Prix winner.
But there’s absolutely no guarantee that Albon will succeed where Gasly hasn’t. Of Red Bull’s last three promotions from Toro Rosso, only Verstappen has so far managed to hang on to his seat. That will only increase the pressure on Albon to prove he can buck the trend, with only nine races in which to do so.
And if Albon fares no better than Gasly and Red Bull decide to drop him at the end of the year as well, then his meteoric F1 career could be over before it’s even truly begun.
On that note, it’s hard to find any benefit to this decision for Gasly himself. Although Red Bull will no doubt argue they want to give him the opportunity to recover his form away from the limelight at Toro Rosso, that will seem like a hollow sentiment given they said the same thing about Daniil Kvyat in 2016.
But even if Gasly does regroup and flourish away from the glare at the senior team, it will take something special to shake off the black mark of being dumped by a top team midway through a season.
Given Gasly’s racing record to date—GP2 and Formula Renault 2.0 champion, Super Formula title contender and near podium-finisher on his debut Formula E weekend—it would be a true shame if this instead becomes the defining moment in the 23-year-old’s career.
The iconic Monaco Grand Prix marked the sixthrace of the 2019 F1 season, and while the focus this week has been on the loss of F1 legend and Mercedes mentor Niki Lauda, the race around the streets of Monte Carlo finally brought a long-awaited challenge to reigning champion Lewis Hamilton, in the form of Max Verstappen and Red Bull.
Red Bull’s decision to kiss goodbye to their partnership with Renault in 2018 was hardly a surprise to the world of F1, after a number of seasons falling short of their dominant years with Sebastian Vettel. It was also hardly a surprise to find that fans were dubious about their subsequent contract with Honda, who famously struggled in their partnership with McLaren.
With Max Verstappen hungry to win his first championship, the move to a power unit that had been even less reliable than Renault seemed like very risky business, but is the risk beginning to pay off?
Rob Marshall, Red Bull’s chief engineering officer, certainly seems to think so, even if they are under no illusion they still have a way to go.
“We can see areas around the power-unit packaging-wise,” he said. “It’s just making different bits and moving a few things around. [Honda] are very open to our suggestions.”
The Red Bull and Toro Rosso drivers both felt the benefit of an upgrade brought to Baku, which was reflected in Verstappen’s solid performance. The same could not be said for his team mate Pierre Gasly, however, who was forced to retire on lap 40 out of 51 due to a loss of power.
In the run up to the Monaco Grand Prix, Red Bull team principal Christian Horner, who has been highly critical of the suppliers in the past, expressed the teams delight in working with Honda this season.
“We are very happy with the progress that’s being made […] to have closed that gap [to the top 2 teams] and put that performance on the car is really encouraging,” he said.
Horner was under no illusion about still having work to do with the car generally but, aside from Gasly’s retirement in Baku, reliability hasn’t been as much of an issue for the team.
“Reliability compared to previous years has been fantastic, and performance is strong […] Now we have to try and focus on diminishing the gap further to Mercedes”.
Verstappen found enough pace to challenge Hamilton’s Mercedes, running in second position in Monaco from lap 11 after exiting the pit lane ahead of Bottas following an unsafe release. Though Verstappen finished in fourth place as a result of his five-second penalty, he is still positive about his race overall.
“Of course I would have liked to have been on the podium but if we look at the pace and performance, we were strong,” he said.
Pierre Gasly also had a respectable performance around the streets of Monaco, finishing fifth and also taking an extra point for fastest lap for the second time this season.
In terms of points and podiums, then, Red Bull is building a steady lead ahead of the other teams. After Monaco, Red Bull are on 110 points and are beginning to close the gap between themselves and Ferrari, who currently have 139 points. In the drivers’ championship, Verstappen is in fourth position with 78 points, behind Vettel with 82 points.
Pierre Gasly is in sixth position with 32 points behind Leclerc who has 57 points. Verstappen has also finished third twice so far this season – Monaco would have been another podium had it not been for the unfortunate penalty.
It almost goes without saying that Mercedes are the ones to beat, however with Red Bull’s newfound pace, it’s certainly an encouraging start for a team that were once the ones to beat.
[Featured image – Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool]
Red Bull team principal Christian Horner has praised Max Verstappen’s approach to the Austrian Grand Prix, in light of the Dutchman’s win this afternoon.
It was Verstappen’s first victory of 2018 after a series of incidents in the early stages of the year, and is Red Bull’s first win at their home race since it returned to the F1 calendar, re-branded in their image, in 2014.
“To win in a Red Bull Car at the Red Bull Ring is something I never imagined would happen this morning,” said Horner. “All credit to Max today, he drove a very, very mature race, managing a very tricky situation with the tyres and he completed a very controlled drive to win our first Austrian Grand Prix.”
Verstappen started the race in P4 and gained a position on the opening lap when Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen overcooked an attempt to overtake Lewis Hamilton.
When Valtteri Bottas retired on lap fourteen and brought out the Virtual Safety Car, Verstappen emerged from the round of pit-stops in P2, now on the soft tyres and thirteen seconds behind the other Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton, who had stayed out.
He then inherited the lead of the race when Hamilton finally did pit, and calmly waved off his team’s concerns about his tyres blistering, an issue that befell a number of other drivers on the grid. Kimi Raikkonen may have been closing in the final stages of the race, but Verstappen had built up enough of an advantage to hold on to victory.
His team-mate Daniel Ricciardo – whose 29th birthday it was today – retired from the race on lap fifty four. “It was a great shame not to have Daniel up on the podium as well,” Christian Horner said, “after running for so many laps in P2, but then his rear tyre started to overheat which caused a second pit stop. Shortly after that we began to see an exhaust crack that was causing gearbox damage, forcing his retirement.
“A special word to our pit-crew, again executing a faultless stacked pit stop on our route to victory, as they had done previously this year in China. I have to also applaud out entire staff back at the factory and their commitment to produce a competitive race car. The day belongs to them, to Max, to the team, to Red Bull and particularly to Mr Mateschitz who has given so much to modern Formula One. We are all delighted for him.”
Renault has warned Red Bull that it will be forced to withdraw its offer of a 2019 supply if the latter cannot reach an engine decision before the Austrian Grand Prix.
Red Bull initially said it would use the Canadian Grand Prix, in which both Renault and Honda introduced their first major upgrades of the season, to judge which of the two engine manufacturers to ally with in 2019.
But after the race Christian Horner said the team would use the next round in France to gather more data before announcing their final decision at their home race in Austria.
However, Renault’s managing director Cyril Abiteboul has warned Red Bull that if they insist on waiting until Austria to decide, they will only have Honda to choose from.
Speaking to Motorsport.com, Abiteboul said: “They have all the information they need now. I don’t see why they are going to further delay the decision.
“As per the regulations, [the deadline] was May 15, and then we accepted to extend that a little bit on the back of twelve years of good collaboration. But past a certain point, the offer we made…will not stand.”
Abiteboul added that Renault was “already behind” with sourcing components for its 2019 plans, and would have to prioritise that over waiting for Red Bull:
“They wanted an offer, we’ve made an offer, that offer has to be accepted in the next few days.
“We are not talking about Austria. Austria, we won’t be here, and [Red Bull] will be talking directly to Honda.”
Red Bull Racing could be looking at the final years of its Formula One tenure, following reports that Renault has signalled its intent to cease its supply of engines to the Austrian team after the 2018 season.
Renault’s relationship with the Red Bull company has been fraught for some time now. The two parties came close to ending their association in 2015, before an absence of alternative suppliers forced Red Bull to recommit to its Renault contract for the time being.
And although an engine rebadging by TAG-Heuer seemed to improve relations last year, this season has seen a return of Red Bull’s public criticism of Renault, as a combined lack of horsepower and reliability has seen the former champions slump to a distant third-fastest team.
Now, if the current reports are true, it appears that the Red Bull-Renault alliance has at last reached its conclusive breaking point.
That the news comes at the same time as Renault has finally confirmed its new supply agreement with McLaren is no surprise—with Red Bull believed to be using Toro Rosso’s Honda deal to evaluate a future switch to Japanese power, it seems Renault is electing to jump before it is pushed. Having both a factory team on the rise and a grateful customer in McLaren, there is no longer any incentive for Renault to extend its fractious Red Bull relationship beyond its final term next year.
Such a break-up would leave Red Bull with little choice but to become Honda’s de facto works team in 2019. And with the way the next few seasons of F1 are already shaping up, that deal could well prove the first step in Red Bull Racing’s exit from the sport.
For starters, a premature Honda alliance would go down like a lead balloon in Red Bull’s driver stable.
Daniel Ricciardo has already stated that Red Bull will need to be capable of a genuine title challenge within the next few years if they are to convince him into extending his stay at the team beyond 2018. But unless Honda can make a phenomenal leap forward over the next twelve months, it’s almost certain that Ricciardo will take his hunt for a maiden title to either Mercedes or Ferrari.
Nor can Max Verstappen be expected to hold faith in the Japanese marque, even if he has to wait a year longer than Ricciardo before leaving. And then there’s Carlos Sainz—set to be loaned out to the factory Renault team next year, he will surely do all he can to avoid being called back to Red Bull-Honda for 2019.
It’s entirely possible, then, that by 2020, Red Bull’s senior lineup could comprise Pierre Gasly and the returning Daniil Kvyat, whilst Toro Rosso’s seats are filled by Honda juniors like Nobuharu Matsushita and Nirei Fukuzumi—a far cry from the current pedigree enjoyed by the Red Bull fold.
The other danger, of course, is that it’s not just Red Bull’s drivers who choose to jump ship. Adrian Newey is perhaps the team’s biggest asset outside of the cockpit, but for a man used to designing race- and championship-winning cars, there will be little for him to relish in overcompensating Honda’s horsepower deficit, especially as he has already expressed a desire to step back from leading Red Bull’s technical team in the near future.
It’s also well worth questioning just how willing Christian Horner will be to guide Red Bull through yet another uncompetitive era, or how enthusiastic Helmut Marko would be about managing a driver lineup that lacks the kind of flair and potential seen in recent years.
But as painful as any of those losses would be, the most damning exit would easily come from the man at the very head of Red Bull’s operations—Dietrich Mateschitz.
Although Mateschitz’ many quit threats have been decidedly impotent in the past, it will be much harder to dismiss them should he make similar statements in the next three years. Red Bull’s commitment to F1 is up for renegotiation in 2020—coinciding with both the reported duration of Toro Rosso’s new Honda deal, and the end of F1’s current engine formula—which will give Mateschitz plenty of time to fully evaluate Red Bull’s prospects from 2021 onwards, and whether they merit the sums required to run two F1 teams.
Quite what would happen to the spoils of Mateschitz’ racing empire is hard to predict this far ahead of time. If Honda remains committed to F1 into the proposed new twin-turbo era, it may assume the Milton Keynes outfit into a full factory team, as it did with BAR in 2006. There have also been numerous suggestions that Porsche is in the frame for a 2021 buyout, or that Red Bull might remain as a title sponsor for a works Aston Martin-Cosworth alliance.
As for Toro Rosso, the Italian-based team and its chief designer James Key would surely make an alluring target for Ferrari’s Sergio Marchionne, assuming he can’t convince Sauber to become an Alfa Romeo-badged junior team.
But even if none of these exit strategies come to fruition by 2020, there is still nothing stopping Mateschitz—valued to be worth an estimated $15.4 billion—from simply closing the doors on Red Bull’s two teams and selling off the assets elsewhere.
And whilst before that may have sounded like an insincere threat from the Austrian, a painful enforced alliance with Honda and the end of the current Concorde Agreement will be more than enough to turn Red Bull’s exit into a serious consideration.