After a heart-in-mouth opening lap last time out in Bahrain, F1 returns to Sakhir this weekend, but the track will look a little different.
Turning left immediately after turn four, the drivers will embark on an oval version that goes round to the end of the lap, with sub-one minute lap times anticipated.
Due to the freshness of the outer layout, there will be an odd and intriguing contrast between a rubbered-in track and a green circuit with very little grip.
However, the outer part is mainly full throttle and requires a lot of power, which is why more Mercedes dominance is expected.
Despite that, a track like this is reminiscent to other short circuits like Austria. Losing even the slightest time can be of extreme detriment, and it will prove incredibly difficult to re-gain that time once it is lost, particularly in qualifying.
But while we were all expecting the new layout to be the main talking point of this weekend, it is the miracle escape for Haas’ Romain Grosjean that will dominate race preparations, following a moment that shocked the sporting world.
Grosjean turned across the track and hit the Alpha Tauri of Daniil Kvyat, before smashing into the barrier and splitting his car in two, as it burst into flames in the process.
Having been in the fire for half a minute, the Frenchman was somehow able to escape from the car and, with the help of the heroic marshals and Dr. Ian Roberts, got away with only minor burns to his hands and ankles.
But the FIA will doubtless be looking closely at how the barrier broke in the way it did, and why there was such an enormous fireball upon impact. However, the halo and the safety mechanisms within the car did their job, and all came together to save Grosjean’s life.
He will be replaced by young Brazilian driver Pietro Fittipaldi while he continues to recover, and going up against Danish driver Kevin Magnussen will be the Test and Reserve’s first test in the F1 scene.
Meanwhile, the aforementioned Mercedes will be striving to further push home their advantage in what is a version of the track that suits them even better than the previous. Lewis Hamilton is aiming for his 96th career win, as he also aims to surpass Sebastian Vettel for wins in Bahrain.
His team mate Valtteri Bottas had yet more horrible misfortune early on in bahrain which cost him a place on the podium, with Red Bull taking full advantage. Max Verstappen took second, while Alex Albon took his second podium of the season and strengthened his chances of retaining his Red Bull seat next year.
The Ferrari-powered teams will likely struggle more this weekend and, having only seen Charles Leclerc’s works Ferrari score a single point last time, this may be another weekend to forget for the Prancing Horses, Alfa Romeo and Haas.
Racing Point fell 17 points behind McLaren after the double non-finish last weekend. Lance Stroll found himself the wrong way up after Kvyat’s spear into turn eight, while a late and gut-wrenching engine failure for Sergio Perez cost him a podium. McLaren, meanwhile, scored points with both Lando Norris and Carlos Sainz. As a result, McLaren will come into this weekend knowing they can put themselves in a very strong position indeed going into the last race in Abu Dhabi as the battle for third intensifies.
It is still Bahrain, but minus a large chunk of the track – and hopefully minus the heavy crashes too.
Benvenuti a Monza! We’re here and we’ve settled in for two weeks of exciting racing in Italy, but should we have come? Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari might like to weigh in on that one.
The Italian Grand Prix was the first weekend where the teams were no longer permitted to use their ‘party-mode’ engine modes, typically used in qualifying by certain teams to boost their chances of a better lap time.
At the start of the race it was a tale of two halves for the two Mercedes drivers, as Hamilton got yet another great start off the line, gliding into first place unchallenged as Bottas got swallowed up by the pack. McLaren had an excellent start with Sainz quickly taking 2nd position, and his team-mate Lando Norris overtaking a struggling Bottas going through the first and second Lesmos, which is testament to McLaren’s progress in recent years.
Bottas was quickly overtaken by Daniel Ricciardo, putting the Renault driver into 5th, and pushing Bottas down to 6th. Bottas was quick to report a possible puncture but chose not to pit. Bottas’ race engineer, Ricciardo Musconi, confirmed there were no issues with his tyres, but Bottas still looked to be struggling as he was overtaken by the Red Bull of Max Verstappen through the Parabolica.
It was a sorry start for the home favourites Ferrari, who qualified in 13th and 17th. Just when they thought it couldn’t get any worse, Sebastian Vettel reported brake failure on lap four, smashing through the foam barriers at the end of the pit straight and limping his way back to the pits, where the car was retired for the second time this season.
Ferrari’s hopes were then pinned on Leclerc, who didn’t appear to be having the same issue but didn’t really seem to be having a much better race. Hope was quickly abandoned after a a shocking crash going into the Parabolica, where the Ferrari ploughed into the tyre wall, bringing out the safety car for the second time and red flagging the session. Leclerc’s crash athough dramatic, proved exactly how valuable the halo truly was, as he was able to get out of the car and run from the scene unscathed. All this in the same weekend that Netflix were spending time with Ferrari.
Shortly before the crash, Hamilton had made a quick decision to pit after the safety car came out for Kevin Magnussen, who was forced to stop on track just before the pit entrance with a suspected power unit issue.
Mercedes took what they thought was a risk-free pit-stop, with Alfa Romeo’s Giovinazzi following suit shortly after. It wasn’t long until the race was stopped due to Leclerc’s incident, and both Hamilton and Giovinazzi were placed under investigation for entering the pits after it had been closed due to Magnussen’s stoppage.
This visibly rattled Mercedes, who were looking pretty comfortable. Hamilton took it upon himself to grab his scooter and make his way to Race Control during the red flag in an attempt to justify his actions, arguing on the radio that “there was no light” going into the pit lane.
This didn’t save him nor Giovinazzi, who were both given a 10-second stop and go penalty, serving F1 fans with the biggest game-changer in the hybrid era.
Hamilton was noticeably annoyed by this decision and was talking about building up a lead once again before taking his penalty. He was dissuaded from doing this by his race engineers, who had decided to ‘take the hit’ on this occasion.
Mercedes’ loss meant some considerable gains to the likes of Alpha Tauri, Racing Point, Alfa Romeo and McLaren.
The red flag wasn’t in place for too long and on lap 27 we were back on track heading for a dramatic restart.
Gasly was lightning fast on the restart, overtaking Stroll to take what was essentially first place, as Hamilton made his way around and back into the pits to serve his penalty. He re-joined the race 23 seconds behind the rest of the pack, meaning he would have to have had the drive of his life to get back to a podium finish.
Though it looked like a good opportunity for the Racing Point, Stroll seemed to have issues with the brakes, causing him to run off on the Della Roggia chicane and giving away two positions and putting him down into 5th. This was quickly taken from him by Sainz who had his eyes firmly set on the prize.
The same ambition and determination weren’t felt in either of the Red Bull cars, who have struggled more than usual. Albon was the first to have issues, running wide on lap one after being squeezed by Stroll and Gasly down the main straight, and causing damage to the Haas of Romain Grosjean. Albon was given a 5-second penalty for the damage he caused.
As usual, there was greater expectation of success with Verstappen, who was making some respectable overtakes, and scrapping with Bottas for 6th/7th position. Unfortunately, this was short lived as he was forced to retire the car on lap 31 due to a power unit issue.
Come lap 34, Sainz was chasing Gasly for the win after he and Raikkonen gave fans an absolute masterclass in overtaking through Turn 1.
Stroll bounced back from his earlier brake issue and overtook Raikkonen the following lap, moving him into third place.
Sainz continued to chase Gasly right down to the final lap of the race. Gasly just managed to stay ahead and out of DRS range of the determined McLaren driver and took his first ever F1 win, something absolutely none of us expected would happen going into this race weekend.
After being essentially demoted from Red Bull in the middle of 2019, this win is exactly the boost Gasly and the wider Alpha Tauri team needed. You’d have to be a hard individual not to feel some emotion watching him sit on the podium, sipping champagne in sheer disbelief. It’s only a shame the Tifosi weren’t there to make his win even more special.
We cannot end this race review however, without giving a special mention to Williams, who had its final race with their de-facto team principal, Claire Williams. It followed the announcement last Thursday that the family had decided to step away from Formula 1 after 43 years. It’s a real shame for us to see both she and the family say goodbye to the F1 family.
We owe Williams so much after having been an enormous part in F1’s development, bringing iconic moments for us all to appreciate and look back on with fondness. Though they will continue to race under the same name, something tells me it just won’t quite be the same anymore, so thank you Frank, thank you Claire, and thank you Williams for the great memories. We hope to see you back on top soon.
As Formula One heads to the temple of speed at the 5.7 kilometre Monza circuit, the question on everyone’s lips is not really whether Mercedes will be the dominant force over the course of the weekend.
Instead, we are left wondering just how massive the advantage will be for the Silver Arrows as they seek to continue their astonishingly impressive start to the 2020 season.
Despite the extended 2020 lay-off due to the Coronavirus pandemic, Mercedes have very much picked up where they left off at the end of 2019, winning six of the first seven races. And the power-dominated track – the quickest in the calendar – will very much play into the hands of Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas.
Unlike last weekend at Spa, there does not appear to be any threat of rain. However, despite the forecast, hopes of a damp race in Belgium were dampened by a lack of dampness, as Mercedes took a one two for the first time in six races in Belgium, extending their lead at the top of the tree.
A potential surprise in Italy though would very much include Renault. Their top speed at Belgium aided Daniel Ricciardo and Esteban Ocon to a fourth and fifth placed finish respectively, giving them an assured feeling going into this weekend at Monza, where a podium could beckon. It would be the Frenchman’s first ever podium in Formula One, while Daniel Ricciardo would be looking for his first podium since the Monaco Grand Prix in 2018, where he won.
Conspicuous in their absence thus far in this preview have been Ferrari. Spa was nothing short of a disaster for the Scuderia. The powerful nature of the track in Francorchamps was always going to affect the struggling Ferrari power unit adversely, but no one really expected them to be so far from the points pace-wise. Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc were both knocked out in Q2 last Saturday, and Vettel beat his team mate to a lowly thirteenth position in the race. If the affect of the straight line speed in the Ardennes Forest worked against them, Monza will be a travesty. Haas and Alfa Romeo – both Ferrari powered teams – competed with the works team, and Kimi Raikkonen’s pass on former team mate Vettel was the epitome of just how far Ferrari have fallen. It is easy to forget that Charles Leclerc won this race last season.
Racing Point, meanwhile, seemed to struggle more than expected at Spa, meaning it will be intriguing to see how their car performs at a track that, in theory, should really suit their car and the Mercedes engine that goes with it. Pierre Gasly’s pass in the Alpha Tauri on Racing Point’s Sergio Perez through Eau Rouge was the pick of the bunch last time out. Another strong performance from the Frenchman at his team’s home race could push him further into contention to take the Red Bull seat back away from the struggling Alex Albon.
It looks as though Mercedes will be raiding the home of Ferrari once more, as the temple of speed welcomes F1 for round eight of the 2020 season.
Taking over from Stewart Grand Prix in 2005, Red Bull Racing have been one of F1’s front running teams for over a decade. However, despite having a winning car since 2009, their last constructors’ (and drivers’) title was in 2013 – seven years ago.
In part, that is due to the Turbo Hybrid Era and the rise of Mercedes’ subsequent rise. The change of engine regulations after 2013 saw Mercedes dominate the sport, with Red Bull’s Renault engine unable to consistently match the German outfit. Yet, in recent years, separate issues have arisen within Red Bull Racing that makes them look less and less likely to win another constructors’ championship.
As soon as Max Verstappen joined F1 in 2015, it was clear that he was Red Bull’s golden boy and, in the eyes of many, he had the talent to deserve it. It wasn’t long before he was promoted to the team in place of Daniil Kvyat, partnering Daniel Ricciardo. With Verstappen and Ricciardo at the wheel, they appeared to have one of the strongest line-ups on the grid and if they could just have a competitive engine, they’d be able to grab the title.
But their relationship with Renault was quickly diminishing and it was announced they would run the Honda engine from 2019 onwards. Paired with Red Bull’s increasing focus on Verstappen, Honda’s unsuccessful recent record in F1 did little to persuade Ricciardo to stay. He left for Renault. Red Bull were now in a predicament, who should they sign as a replacement? The promising, but inexperienced Frenchman, Pierre Gasly, was who they went with.
However, this was where those big issues started to rise to the surface. With only one “star driver” in the team, Red Bull decided to mould the team around Verstappen. They designed the car to suit him, told his teammate to use his setups, and allegedly gave him the new upgrades first. If Fernando Alonso taught us anything, it’s that this model is rarely successful, and somewhat unsurprisingly, Gasly wasn’t on the pace. He was dropped after just 12 races in 2019.
Alex Albon, Gasly’s replacement, started off his Red Bull career closer to Verstappen, but since the start of the 2020 season he has also been too far away from his teammate. He was even allegedly used as a test dummy for the Hard tyres in the recent Spanish Grand Prix. Gasly was GP2 (now F2) Champion in 2016, and Albon finished third in F2 in 2018, just marginally behind the highly rated Lando Norris and George Russell, so how can it be that these two drivers seemingly forgot how to drive overnight? Answer: They didn’t.
With Red Bull giving sole focus on superstar Verstappen, they will struggle to find someone who can be quick enough to support him. In order to be competitive, drivers need attention from their team. and currently Red Bull are stuck in a cycle whereby: the more they focus on Verstappen, the worse their other driver does, thus the more they focus on Verstappen etc. One of the biggest factors of Red Bull’s failure to win the constructors title is the toxic nature of how they treat their drivers. Max Verstappen is undoubtedly exceptional, but the team focusing just on him is costing them a chance at fighting for the championship. Unless they can find a driver who happens to suit a car that is built around Verstappen, Red Bull will not win the team’s title for the foreseeable future.
At the moment, Mercedes have a dominant car, and in order to win, Red Bull need to improve theirs, but it is next to impossible to succeed as a team with just one car. They are the only team looking anywhere near likely to challenge Mercedes, but whilst they only pay attention to Verstappen, I fear Mercedes’ dominance will continue for some time.
Feature Image Courtesy of Peter Fox/ Getty Images/ Red Bull Content Pool
There’s no denying Alex Albon’s first full season at Red Bull is so far falling short of expectations. Just sixth in the drivers’ championship and with two consecutive Q2 exits in the previous races, it’s also unsurprising that talk of him facing a midseason drop like Pierre Gasly’s last year has already begun.
On the face of it, the concern over Albon’s position at Red Bull does appear to be more than just speculation for speculation’s sake.
Much like Gasly last year, Albon has struggled to get to grips with his car over the opening races of the season, and more importantly doesn’t seem able to extract the most from it in the same way teammate Max Verstappen has. As a result, Albon has been behind Verstappen in every race they’ve both finished and only has half the points of his teammate.
Albon’s results have also been following a downward trend so far. After finishing fourth in the Styrian Grand Prix, Albon was fifth at the Hungaroring and then eighth at Silverstone last weekend. It’s easy to conclude from that record that Albon’s entering into a downward spiral, or a slump at the very least. That Gasly found himself in such a spiral last year was one of the key reasons Red Bull gave for moving him back to Toro Rosso, in the hopes of forcing a reset for the Frenchman.
But although Gasly’s results were obviously a key factor in his demotion, more important were the reasons behind those results. In particular, Red Bull team principal Christian Horner cited Gasly’s hesitance in on-track battles, which often left him stuck behind midfield cars despite his own RB15’s pace advantage.
Albon, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to have this problem. The British Grand Prix might have been his lowest result of the season so far, but his drive to eighth was a recovery negating an extra pit stop and a time penalty. Likewise, in Hungary he made up eight places to finish fifth after an early qualifying exit.
Admittedly, Albon’s racecraft does still need honing. The collision with Kevin Magnussen that earned him that penalty at Silverstone is the most recent example, not to mention his two race-ruining incidents with Lewis Hamilton in Brazil last year and Austria this year.
But despite this, Albon’s willingness to go for a move and not be daunted by it—particularly if that move is against a six-times world champion like Hamilton—is clearly something Red Bull values.
It’s also worth noting that the context of of Albon’s year is very different to Gasly’s. Last year Red Bull had a car that could legitimately contest Mercedes for podiums, poles and wins, and the feeling was that they were losing out on big results because Gasly’s absence from the front of the field meant they were unable to fight the Silver Arrows strategically.
This year, despite Verstappen’s podiums the RB16 is not as close to Mercedes as its predecessor, and so Albon’s struggles aren’t costing Red Bull as much as Gasly’s. What’s more, with Ferrari so far off the pace compared to 2019, Red Bull is also not at risk of losing second place in the Constructors’ Championship.
On top of that, Red Bull had the perfect opportunity to perform a driver swap last year. The three week summer break not only provided Albon with a chance to get his head around the pressure associated with driving for the top team, but also gave Gasly enough time to accept the decision before facing the media at the next race weekend.
With no such break this year, Red Bull don’t have that convenient chance to swap drivers without the risk of it backfiring for the rest of the season. Hopefully, they’ll have learnt this from what happened to Daniil Kvyat after his sudden drop in 2016.
There’s no hiding the fact that Albon’s start to the 2020 season has so far fallen short of his and Red Bull’s expectations, and he needs an upturn in form over the coming races to get things back on track. But as for talk of him being demoted back to Toro Rosso, Albon’s performances on track and relationship with the team show a much different picture to Gasly’s time at Red Bull. For 2020 at least, Albon’s seat should be secure.
Another week, another visit to Austria’s Red Bull Ring—this time for the Formula 1 Styrian Grand Prix.
Last week’s Austrian Grand Prix was a terrific opening round to the 2020 season. Valtteri Bottas landed an early blow in the title fight with Lewis Hamilton, Lando Norris earned his maiden podium with a last-gasp effort, and there was plenty of close-quarters racing throughout.
Last week’s result was also largely unexpected, thanks to incidents and reliability issues almost halving the field by the chequered flag. That means we could get a very different result again this weekend, if the teams and drivers don’t have half as much trouble keeping their cars on track.
One of the teams that’s sure to factor more in the Styrian Grand Prix is Red Bull. It was clear last time out in Austria that they were Mercedes’ closest challengers, but technical problems for both Max Verstappen and Alex Albon led to a double DNF instead. Both drivers will be going into this weekend pushing hard to make up for that, with Albon especially motivated after coming so close to his first F1 podium.
Racing Point will also be hoping for a much better result this time out. The RP20 showed more evidence of its considerable pace in practice and qualifying, but a technical DNF for Lance Stroll and a penalty dropping Sergio Perez behind both McLarens in P6 left a lot still on the table for the team. Provided everything goes to plan for them this weekend, Racing Point should be able to finish ahead of their midfield rivals and take away a decent haul of points.
However, there will be several teams hoping for a repeat of last Sunday’s attrition. Alpha Tauri and Alfa Romeo both managed to score points last time out, with Pierre Gasly in P7 and Antonio Giovinazzi in P9, but on pace alone neither team looked that close to the top ten throughout the weekend.
And then there’s Ferrari. Although Charles Leclerc finished second in the opening race, that was very much a great result salvaged from a terrible outing. The SF1000 looked sluggish all weekend, never troubling Mercedes or Red Bull and qualifying behind McLaren and Racing Point. Add to that Sebastian Vettel’s spin after colliding with Carlos Sainz, and the result was a very sobering start to the season.
One glimmer of hope for the Scuderia was that the car looked much more responsive later in the race on the harder tyres, and the team will have hopefully learned something from last weekend’s pain that can be used to improve this weekend. If not, Leclerc and Vettel will likely find themselves scrapping away with the upper midfield rather than challenging for the podium.
The 2020 Styrian Grand Prix gets underway with free practice this Friday, with full coverage on our Twitter feed.
Know what? I’m not even going to start this piece with a touching build-up. P2. A Toro Rosso, gleaming with blue, red and glorious silver in the Sao Paulo sunlight, crossed that Interlagos finish line in second place. The man himself leapt out of his machinery, lungs burst, cameras attentive, to let the world know they just witnessed reality, no mirage – his two fingers were raised to make it abundantly clear. Pierre Gasly has his name in lights again.
Anyone who knows me, is even so much as the slightest attentive to what I stand for, knows this isn’t so much an objective piece detailing a reputation rebuild for the ages as an unashamed love letter. It’s one born of anguish for a man who can cure me of my own at the drop of a blue Toro Rosso cap, joy for a fresh talent batting the jokes and speculation for six and above all else, well, it being my time to be this emotional.
Listen to the team radio, the full one. I implore you, if you already haven’t. It’s loud, it’s booming and it’s the two most poignant minutes of just what that result means to Pierre. It’s the safeguard from a trophy-less career but also so much more. It’s when the boxer has to summon up the strength among the lights of a stadium, and the imploring from a soliciting crowd to get back up. It’s the hit that brings them back into it.
For a few out there, this was probably a textbook if moment, a case of what could be possible if the right chips fell down. To me it was the inevitable, it was only a matter of when. If we’re taking this boxer analogy and running with it, Pierre’s one of the most punch-drunk sportsmen around and is still standing. He’s a warrior.
From the moment he first came to my attention on that debut GP2 weekend in Monza, 2014, it’s been a non-stop barrage of challenges, all of which he’s risen to with aplomb. A 2015 season in the series, his first full shot, concluded with level-pegging with his DAMS teammate Alex Lynn, taking none of the team’s two wins. 2016 was a perfect retort – now at PREMA, Pierre took five poles and three out of three at the season’s end, four wins and most importantly the last GP2 championship title in history.
Then, Super Formula. Tasked with proving his mettle against sage, experienced competitors well-versed in the art of Eastern racing, Pierre was a Suzuka-bound typhoon away from potentially winning the series, only losing out by one point to then-one time champion Hiroaki Ishiura. Does ‘losing’ feel like the right word? It feels like a victory to me, given the circumstances.
And we know the story of Pierre’s first stint at Toro Rosso. That sterling drive in Bahrain, one that saw him finish fourth with an almost Prost-esque controlling drive among the midfield in only his seventh Grand Prix, kick-started a season which bestowed other stand-out results; seventh in Monaco, sixth in Hungary, more points in Belgium and Mexico all with a Toro Rosso package spearheaded by a Honda engine going through severe development gains and the spate of penalties that come with.
That was the smooth among the rough, woven together like different colours of yarn in a sewing machine. But this year is one I’ll hold above the rest as his most heart-warming, inspirational seasons – for those twelve races with Red Bull, the sewing machine was sparking, threatening to blow while the needles couldn’t be found anywhere. And once the thing finally powered down, he set about fixing it again… and he’s succeeded.
32 points in 8 races. Average finish of 8th. Points in 75% of Grand Prix, Q3 appearances in 50%. Amongst it all, Pierre has had emotional hardships to deal with that no-one should ever face – the loss of a close friend the racing community will always sorely miss in Anthoine Hubert, a man whose colours adorned Pierre’s helmet in Monza, whose memory was right up there on that Interlagos podium and whose legacy will always shine bright in his heart.
A demotion to Toro Rosso which meant Pierre had to adapt mid-season to different circumstances and changed expectations, with a mission already thought complete by 2018’s end back on the to-do list, along with such personal circumstances, has been handled with the utmost capability and dignity. Pierre’s been fighting back against the tide for months now, and that glorious Sunday in Sao Paulo was above all else the validation of his hard work.
And that result was everything I dreamt it would be and more. Hearing the sheer unbridled euphoria of a man who’d had to stomach so much pain over the course of 2019, seeing the special bond he and his Faenza squad be beamed out on show to the world and knowing that as tough as times may get, he’ll always have that one special moment holds stratospheric meaning to me. As I stated before, this is my personal love letter and not a showing of balance – this was the time I finally got to hear the man I’ve poured my heart into for over five years utter the words ‘this is the best day of my life’.
And I felt it, because in that whirlwind of post-race emotion it honestly felt like the only words present in my brain were emanating from Pierre’s mouth. It felt like mine too. It felt like vindication, for the both of us. It felt like I’d have the most wonderful reference point to look to and remember every time I hit the hard times in life. It felt, for the want of a flashier term, so damn freakin’ good. The pain of 2019 is fading away, the belief is stronger than ever, and there’s a boatload of joy ready to be enjoyed in 2020. HMS Gasly is sailing again.
Red Bull’s Alex Albon set the fastest lap in FP1, before bringing out the red flag to end the session after crashing out on slicks in drying conditions.
He topped the session with a 1:16.142, set shortly before he hit the wall at Juncao, with Valtteri Bottas second with a 1:16.693 and Sebastian Vettel in third with a 1:17.041. However, the morning’s session looked unlikely to be representative as the session started off wet and dried out slowly, with slick tyres not being seen until the final five minutes of the session.
The adverse conditions led to limited running, with four drivers – including Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen – not setting timed laps. Nicholas Latifi took the place of Robert Kubica, the driver he is expected to replace at Williams in 2020, in his sixth FP1 session of the season.
The session got off to a slow and soggy start, with Carlos Sainz the only driver to set a lap time in the early stages, with Lewis Hamilton and then Charles Leclerc the first drivers to emerge on intermediates just over the half-way point in the session.
With five minutes remaining, a flurry of cars came out on slick tyres, with both Red Bulls suffering problems in the damp conditions, but several drivers found the conditions challenging. Verstappen and Daniil Kvyat both suffered spin, and the session was brought to an end when Alex Albon hit the barriers.
FP2 – Ferrari on Top
By the time FP2 came around, conditions had improved, and despite reports of raindrops mid-session, the rain stayed away enough to avoid a switch to intermediates.
The two Ferraris topped the timesheets, with Sebastian Vettel in first with a 1:09.217. Leclerc, who has a ten place grid penalty owing to an ICE change this weekend, set a 1:09.238 in second. Verstappen was third, and the Mercedes cars of Bottas and Hamilton were fourth and fifth respectively.
The midfield battle looked as close as ever, with a little over four tenths of a second separating the Haas of Kevin Magnussen in sixth and the Racing Point of Lance Stroll in 17th.
The session was red flagged early on as Robert Kubica’s Williams hit the wall before he was even able to set a lap time, scattering debris all around and likely creating some headaches for Williams, who have been beset by a shortage of parts this season.
Verstappen set the early pace before being usurped by the Ferraris at the top of the table, while Valtteri Bottas created some hairy moments for both teammate Lewis Hamilton and the Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel, failing to move out of the way as they came past on flying laps. Bottas and Leclerc also had a close shave in the pit lane, but the stewards deemed an investigation unnecessary.
Pierre Gasly parked up with 20 minutes to go with a probable engine issue, his car exuding plumes of smoke. The other Toro Rosso of Daniil Kvyat brought out the red flag to end the session, with Kvyat coming to a stop in the same place as Albon in FP1. However, Kvyat’s incident was likely to be mechanical as his dash appeared to cut off, sending him off the track.
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.
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.
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.
Red Bull’s new signing Alex Albon says he will be ‘keeping [his] feet on the ground’ ahead of his first race for the team at this weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix.
Albon has just twelve Grand Prix under his belt and while he is excited about the prospect of racing for one of the most competitive teams in F1, he is nonetheless aware that he has a lot still to learn.
“Not many drivers get the chance to drive a car capable of winning a race so early in their F1 career, so it’s a great opportunity to be driving for Red Bull,” Albon said. “It’s a big step, a big difference, and the factory’s a lot closer to my house which is handy!
“We know what the car is capable of and we’ve seen what Max has been able to do this year. I want to see what it’s like compared to what I’m used to, but at the same time, I know this weekend is my first time in the car, I’m still learning and improving as a driver and there’s definitely more to come.
“I know one of the main differences will be the noise and attention that comes with the move but I’m keeping my feet on the ground. I’m just focused on the job I have to do for Spa, I’ll be doing a lot of listening and observing.”
The news of Albon’s promotion came after Pierre Gasly, who himself had moved from Toro Rosso to Red Bull at the beginning of 2019, struggled to match the performance of Max Verstappen. Despite assurances from both Christian Horner and Helmut Marko that his seat was safe for the time being, Gasly nonetheless finds himself back at the junior team for the second half of the season.
Albon made his first official trip to the Red Bull factory as one of their drivers on 26th August, two weeks after the announcement was made, for a seat and suit fitting.
“We’ve got as much simulator prep done as we can,” Albon said, “so now it’s about going through procedural things with the team and getting to know everyone. It should be good!
“This is a big step, but I feel I’ve been through these big jumps before and taken the opportunities – I’m not worried about that. I’m focused and ready to be as strong as possible for the second half of the year.”
[Featured image – Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool]