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]

Meet the 2019 Red Bull Junior Team

While Pierre Gasly and Alex Albon have grabbed the headlines this summer, there’s more to the Red Bull driver programme than just their Formula 1 stable. We take a look at each of their upcoming young talents, from karting all the way to the F1 feeder series’.

Juri Vips

Juri Vips celebrating victory at the Red Bull Ring (Dutch Photo Agency / Red Bull Content Pool)

Juri Vips is perhaps the closest Red Bull junior to Formula One right now. The 19-year-old Estonian joined the programme ahead of last year’s Macau Grand Prix, after becoming an F4 champion in 2017 and finishing fourth in the 2018 European F3 series. He is currently driving for Hitech in FIA F3, and is running second with two victories to his name.

Patricio O’Ward

Patricio OWard racing Super Formula at Motegi (Dutch Photo Agency / Red Bull Content Pool)

Red Bull’s newest signing is Patricio O’Ward, winner of the 2017 WeatherTech Sportscar and 2018 Indy Lights championships. O’Ward has had a mixed 2019 so far, racing a part-time IndyCar entry with Carlin after losing his initial Harding Steinbrenner Racing drive due to sponsorship issues. With Red Bull backing he has since made appearances in F2 for MP Motorsport and Super Formula with Team Mugen.

Yuki Tsunoda

Yuki Tsunoda driving for Jenzer at the Hungaroring (Dutch Photo Agency / Red Bull Content Pool)

2018 Japanese F4 champion Yuki Tsunoda joined the Red Bull programme through his links with the Honda Formula Dream Project. Red Bull currently has the 19-year-old racing on the F1 support bill in FIA F3 with Jenzer Motorsport. Tsunoda is also driving for Team Motopark in the Euroformula Open series, where he is running fourth in the standings with one win.

Lucas Auer

Lucas Auer on his way to third at SUGO (Dutch Photo Agency / Red Bull Content Pool)

24-year-old Austrian Lucas Auer is another one of Red Bull’s new 2019 signings. Auer has flirted with the pinnacle of motorsport already, having challenged for titles in Formula 3 and DTM and tested Force India’s F1 car in 2017. He has joined O’Ward in Super Formula for this year, and took his first podium of the series at Sportsland SUGO.

Liam Lawson

Liam Lawson in the FIA F3 paddock (Dutch Photo Agency / Red Bull Content Pool)

New Zealander Liam Lawson joined Red Bull this year just a few days after his 17th birthday—and after securing the Toyota Racing Series title over Ferrari junior Marcus Armstrong. Lawson has continued to race Armstrong in FIA F3 this year, driving for MP Motorsport. He is also placed third in Euroformula Open with two victories to his name.

Jack Doohan

Jack Doohan at the Red Bull Ring (Dutch Photo Agency / Red Bull Content Pool)

Son of MotoGP legend Mick Doohan, Jack Doohan has joined fellow Red Bull juniors Lawson and Tsunoda in this year’s Euroformula Open Championship. He is currently seventh in the standings with two second places and six other points finishes. Doohan has also taken multiple victories driving for Hitech in Asian F3 this year.

Dennis Hauger

Dennis Hauger celebrating victory in ADAC F4 (Dutch Photo Agency / Red Bull Content Pool)

After a successful Formula 4 debut last year, Red Bull has rewarded 16-year-old Dennis Hauger with a dual programme in Italian F4 and ADAC F4 for 2019. Driving for Van Amersfoort Racing in both series’, the Norwegian driver has taken six wins and seven pole positions altogether this year and is currently second in the Italian standings.

Jonny Edgar

Jonny Edgar driving in the Italian F4 Championship (Dutch Photo Agency / Red Bull Content Pool)

15-year-old British driver Jonny Edgar has stepped up to his first season of racing cars this year, driving for Jenzer Motorsport in the Italian F4 Championship. He is currently 13th in the standings after six points finishes, the best of which so far is a fifth place at the Hungaroring. Like Hauger, he is also entered in the ADAC F4 series.

Harry Thompson

Harry Thompson in the 2018 WSK Final Cup (Dutch Photo Agency / Red Bull Content Pool)

Having only turned 15 earlier this month, Harry Thompson is the youngest current member of the Red Bull Junior Team. After being named FIA Karting Rookie of the Year in 2018, Thompson is continuing his karting career this year in both European and British championships.

Cassidy the Super Formula victor in Suzuka

With live coverage finally in our neck of the woods, available on YouTube rather than a suspect stream, there’s every reason to be watching Super Formula this season. And if today’s first round at Suzuka, one of the all-time great Grand Prix circuits, was anything to go by, with Nick Cassidy storming through the field to win and attrition aplenty, it’ll be worth getting into.

The race started with Tadasuke Makino, formerly of F2, cementing his lead ahead of the battling Alex Palou. The opening laps remained fairly static, with few successful moves until Lap 7, when Cassidy, who qualified 12th, pitted for soft tyres. This would turn out to be a masterstroke, as only a few laps later, both 18 year old debutant Tristan Charpentier and stalwart Ryo Hirakawa went off at 130R and into the barriers, bringing out the first safety car.

This was where the madness kicked in. Palou, who had been straining to get past Makino at the start, was slapped with a drive-through penalty and served it just before the Safety Car was deployed, but the field bunching up did alleviate some of the damage. Dan Ticktum was slow to get into his pit box due to his Mugen team double-stacking, and a mechanic even acrobatically jumped over Cassidy’s car to change the wheels as quickly as possible.

Yuhi Sekiguchi’s car appeared to momentarily stop in the pitlane before he was able to get it going, but a lap later he pulled back into the pits and became the third of what would turn out to be a long list of retirees. Meanwhile, Cassidy was on the charge, his perfectly-timed pitstop jumping him up into 5th before he dispatched first Makino then Yuji Kunimoto to place himself 3rd. Shortly after, the safety car was out again: Kazuki Nakajima beached his TOM’S Toyota into the Degner 1 gravel, with a distracted Harrison Newey then following him into retirement at Degner 2.

Five retirements within 15 laps just signals the frantic drama Super Formula is good for, and a second safety car three laps later when Hiroaki Ishiura pulled into the pits and Palou’s machine gave up on him only furthered that point. From then on, Cassidy was into a prime position to win a race which looked for all the world yesterday evening to be an exercise in damage limitation. Kamui Kobayashi, the on-track leader, would have to pit again to use a different compound.

A third safety car was brought out this time by Makino, who’s car suffered a right-rear wheel nut failure and sent him into the gravel beside the run up to 130R. Makino would prove, finally, to be the last of the retirements, but there were still twists and turns up the road with Kobayashi trying to find the perfect slot to pit in, Cassidy managing to keep within arms’ reach, and the others jostling for podium/lower positions. Ticktum began to fall down the field, his airbox lighting glowing red (this signals a lack of attack mode – versus green for full, and blue for halfway used) and tyres appearing to be spent.

The final laps proved to be the killer for Kobayashi’s hopes of a strong finish. The late Safety Cars prevented the ex-Sauber F1 driver from banking a good result on a happy hunting ground for him, finishing tenth. Cassidy took the on-track lead on the final lap, and Kenta Yamashita was kept at bay in the end by Naoki Yamamoto, last season’s title winner. Cassidy lost that title by a point, but already, he’s taken first blood and cemented a troubling marker for his rivals.

Ericsson considering IndyCar, Super Formula for 2019

Marcus Ericsson has said he is targeting a move to either IndyCar or Super Formula for 2019 following the loss of his Sauber Formula One race seat.

Alfa Romeo Sauber F1 Team

Ericsson will remain with Sauber next year as reserve driver and brand ambassador, but has said he is also looking to continue racing with a full-time drive in another single-seater category.

“I want to race at the highest level possible [next year] because I see myself coming back to Formula One in the future,” Ericsson said.

“To be able to come back to F1, I want to stay in single-seaters and fast cars. IndyCar is the best series to do that in.

“We’re talking to some teams there and I think it is a realistic target.”

Most of IndyCar’s 2019 drives have already been settled, although seats are still available at Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports, Carlin and Juncos Racing.

Alfa Romeo Sauber F1 Team

Ericsson has also admitted Japan’s Super Formula is “also an option”, and that he would be interested in contesting the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

But despite insisting on a single-seater programme for 2019 to keep him prepared for an F1 return, Ericsson said that Formula E is not high on his preferences:

“It is interesting in many aspects but to stay in F1-type of driving it’s maybe not the best one.

“FE is more of a career move. There are some other options that you can keep on the F1 radar [to] come back.”

Alfa Romeo Sauber F1 Team