The tide is high, HMS Gasly sails again

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.

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL – NOVEMBER 17: Second placed Pierre Gasly of France and Scuderia Toro Rosso celebrates on the podium during the F1 Grand Prix of Brazil at Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace on November 17, 2019 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

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.

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL – NOVEMBER 17: Second placed Pierre Gasly of France and Scuderia Toro Rosso celebrates in parc ferme during the F1 Grand Prix of Brazil at Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace on November 17, 2019 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)

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.

 

[Featured image – Mark Thompson/Getty Images]

Singapore GP preview: Mercedes favourites at Marina Bay

Formula One heads to the streets of Singapore, for the start of the final flyaway leg of 2019 under the lights at Marina Bay.

Ferrari and Charles Leclerc head to Singapore on the crest of two wins on the bounce at Spa and Monza. But compared to those two high-speed circuits, Ferrari’s low downforce package won’t be anywhere near as effective on the tight Marina Bay Street Circuit.

As has been the case for most of the 2019 season, Mercedes is expected to be the team to beat this weekend. It was in Singapore last year, where Lewis Hamilton took pole position and the race win, that Mercedes finally seemed to understand what was needed to conquer one of its few “bogey” circuits. And judging by the fact Mercedes has won every street race since, there’s every reason for them to be confident about their chances on Sunday.

Paul Ripke / Mercedes AMG

However, Mercedes does have one shadow looming over them this weekend—engine reliability. Since introducing their Spec 3 power unit at Spa three weeks ago, Mercedes have seen uncharacteristic failures in the customer cars of Sergio Perez’s Racing Point and Robert Kubica’s Williams. So far the works team has had no blowouts of its own, but after two demanding power tracks and with Singapore’s reputation for testing cars to their limit, there’s no room for complacency.

The other threat to Mercedes this weekend comes in the form of Max Verstappen and Red Bull. Verstappen has run well in in Singapore in recent years, qualifying second in 2017 and 2018 and finishing runner-up to Hamilton last year.

With the Red Bull-Honda package improving with every race, it would be no surprise to see Verstappen duelling with Hamilton for his third win of the season.

Mark Thompson, Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

As always, the difficulty and unpredictability of Singapore will provide the midfield teams with plenty of opportunities to sneak away with big points hauls.

Renault took a double points finish at Marina Bay last year, but their RS19 has been much more at home on high speed and lower downforce tracks this year. Given their results from slower tracks like Monaco and Hungary, Renault will likely find themselves scrapping with or even behind the likes of McLaren, Alfa Romeo and Toro Rosso this weekend.

Haas will also be bracing themselves for another tough Grand Prix on Sunday. Although their prolonged dispute with former title sponsors Rich Energy has finally come to an end, their struggles with tyre degradation certainly have not. And in the heat of Singapore, there aren’t many worse problems to have.

However, Haas and Renault can both take some optimism from the fact that this is the Singapore Grand Prix. With tempers running high and the walls never far away, Singapore is the place where anything can happen.

Haas F1 Media

Alex Albon ‘keeping feet on the ground’ ahead of first race for Red Bull

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.

Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

“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]

F1 makes its anticipated return: Belgian Grand Prix Preview

After a summer break that always feels like a lifetime, Formula One is back, and the circus this time arrives at the 7 kilometre Spa-Francorchamps circuit in Belgium’s Ardennes Forest.

The summer has seen a couple of changes. Pierre Gasly, who has endured a horrible season at Red Bull alongside the imperious Max Verstappen, has been dropped by Red Bull axe-man Helmut Marko and placed back at Toro Rosso. His replacement is Anglo-Thai driver Alexander Albon, who moves up from the junior team having impressed in his rookie season alongside Daniil Kvyat—although the Russian, having scored a podium in Germany and more points this season than his younger team-mate, will feel as though he should have been with the Austrian team heading into Belgium.

Albon joins the team for a race at which they are not expected to pull off the spectacular heroics that Max Verstappen has displayed in the first half of the season. Spa is very much a power track, but the tricky, twisty middle sector will provide somewhat of an opportunity for the Bulls to make up time on Mercedes and Ferrari.

Lars Baron, Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

Speaking of them, Ferrari need to establish some kind of foothold in this season’s championship, having failed to win a race in the first half of the season, with Charles Leclerc falling agonisingly short of victory in Bahrain and Austria, and Sebastian Vettel losing the win in Canada due to a penalty. The prancing horses, who have thus far been cantering ponies, are generally better in a straight line than Mercedes this year, and this weekend is a great chance to grab that first win.

As for Mercedes, Lewis Hamilton certainly cannot be counted out of a win, and it is not as if the Mercedes is tremendously slower than the Ferrari on the straights. However, Hamilton will surely have one eye on the title with a 62 point lead over team-mate Valtteri Bottas, and may opt to play the long game.

Bottas is in a different boat. Following a blistering start to the season, winning in Australia and Azerbaijan, the Finn has fallen back, and has since started to show the cracks that we have seen in the last two seasons partnered with Hamilton. No wins since race four, a crash in Germany and a clumsy incident with his team mate in Hungary has left his future in doubt, with Esteban Ocon among a couple of names potentially being lined up to replace him next year. Bottas is running out of time in the harsh climate of Formula One, and he needs a strong result at Spa to kick off the second part of the season and salvage his future at Mercedes.

LAT Images / Mercedes AMG

Further back, Haas drivers Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen both need strong weekends themselves. Several incidents between the two drivers have frustrated their demanding team boss Guenther Steiner, and neither of them currently have a safe seat for next season.

It was at this race 12 months ago where Racing Point, undergoing their transformation as Racing Point Force India, came close to a podium with Sergio Perez. A podium will not be expected this time, but points will certainly be the objective. So too will be the case for Renault’s drivers, who both failed to score points here last year after Nico Hulkenberg catapulted Fernando Alonso, and Daniel Ricciardo was caught up in the ensuing melee.

George Russell was hopeful that Williams were taking steps in the right direction following the last race in Budapest, but we should not expect them to be able to lift themselves off the bottom of the time sheets this time around.

Hamilton is back to defend his championship lead, Bottas and Ferrari need to bounce back, and Formula One is back, as is Eau Rouge, I mean Raidillon, oh forget it…

Follow full live text commentary of free practice, qualifying and the race on our Twitter account, @PitCrew_Online.

Header image by Wolfgang Wilhelm / Mercedes AMG

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.

The rights and wrongs of Red Bull’s Albon switch

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.

Mark Thompson, Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

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.

Mark Thompson, Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

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.

Lars Baron, Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

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.

Mark Thompson, Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

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.

German Grand Prix: Kvyat “readier than ever to fight” for podiums

Daniil Kvyat says he is “readier than ever to fight” for podiums after his P3 finish at last weekend’s chaotic German Grand Prix.

The Russian one of the first drivers to switch from intermediate to slick tyres when the track began to dry with 20-odd laps to go, and it was this decision that allowed him to leapfrog much of the grid and go from 12th to third when those around him pitted on the next lap.

It was his first podium in what Kvyat himself has dubbed his “second career”, with his last coming at the 2016 Chinese Grand Prix when he was still racing for Red Bull. It is also Toro Rosso’s first podium since Sebastian Vettel won the 2008 Italian Grand Prix.

Dan Mullan/Getty Images

“It’s incredible to be back on the podium in what could be called my ‘second career’,” Kvyat said. “I thought it would never happen again in my life, so I’m incredibly happy. There’s so many emotions, I still need some time to let it all sink in!

“This achievement is so great for us since it’s 11 years since Toro Rosso’s last podium with Sebastian in Monza. It was such an amazing day and I’m so happy. Thank-you to everyone in the team, it was just an incredible day.”

2019 marked Kvyat’s return to F1 after a year’s absence that saw him act as development driver for Ferrari. He had been unceremoniously dropped from Toro Rosso in the later stages of 2017 after a turbulent few years that saw him promoted to Red Bull for 2015, only to be pushed back to the junior team not even mid-way through 2016 after a series of incidents in the early rounds of that year.

Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

With the unwelcome nickname ‘Torpedo’ no doubt still ringing in his ears, Kvyat feels that he has matured significantly in recent times, and embraced the opportunity to once again prove his worth at a time when the security of Pierre Gasly’s position in Red Bull is more in doubt than ever.

“I was readier than ever to fight for this kind of position,” Kvyat said. “This year I feel more mature, my head is cooler, and I’m readier to fight on top, so I think I proved that today to myself and everyone around here. I hope this will become a habit soon!

“These kinds of races aren’t easy, it was a tough call to pit that lap earlier, but it’s a 50/50 call between the team and me, we win and lose together and today we won together.”

 

[Featured image – Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool]

How Hockenheim affects the F1 driver market

With the summer break just around the corner, the German Grand Prix was always going to be a key race for those drivers chasing new contracts for 2020. And when the rain came down on race day, the crazy conditions allowed some to shine and left others dreadfully exposed.

Pierre Gasly

Mark Thompson, Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

Already under pressure just to keep his Red Bull seat for the rest of this year, Pierre Gasly’s German Grand Prix was a nightmare he just didn’t need. After starting the weekend with a chassis-wrecking shunt in FP2, Gasly then spent most of the race once again mired in the midfield pack, before retiring in ignominious fashion after rear-ending (ironically, some might say) Alex Albon’s Toro Rosso.

With his teammate again excelling across the weekend to take Red Bull’s second victory of the season, Hockenheim might just be the final nail in the coffin for Gasly.

Daniil Kvyat

Peter Fox, Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

Gasly’s error-strewn weekend was bad enough by itself, without Daniil Kvyat putting in arguably the drive of his career to steal an unlikely third place for Toro Rosso.

Helmut Marko was quick after the race to say Kvyat’s podium didn’t guarantee him Gasly’s seat for the rest of the year—after all, a podium wasn’t enough to keep Kvyat himself in that seat back in 2016. But even if Red Bull don’t give him another chance at the senior team, Kvyat’s Hockenheim performance will have certainly raised his stock ahead of a potential midfield reshuffle.

Valtteri Bottas

LAT Images / Mercedes AMG

Toto Wolff said at the start of the German Grand Prix weekend that Valtteri Bottas needed “two solid performances in Hockenheim and Budapest” to be sure of a contract extension for 2020.

Judging by Wolff’s table-banging and audible cry of “Damn it, Valtteri!” as Bottas spun into the wall on lap 56, the Finn’s chances of keeping his seat from Esteban Ocon have been considerably reduced. Add to that his lacklustre early race pace and qualifying defeat by both Max Verstappen and an unwell Lewis Hamilton, and this becomes a very costly weekend for Bottas’s future.

Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen

Haas F1 Media

Gunther Steiner was visibly furious with Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen after they hit each other late on at Hockenheim, just one race after taking each other out on the first lap at Silverstone.

A driver change now looks like a certainty, though whether Steiner and Gene Haas have enough patience left to wait until 2020 is still up for debate. If not, Ferrari simulator driver Pascal Wehrlein is thought to be the most likely to slot into one of the cars after the summer break.

Toro Rosso expecting “tough” Hockenheim weekend

Alex Albon has said he’s expecting this weekend’s German Grand Prix to be “another tough event” for Toro Rosso, as they try to get on top of the latest developments to its car.

The team enjoyed a competitive outing at the last race at Silverstone, with Alex Albon qualifying in the top ten and Daniil Kvyat rising from P17 on the grid to score points in P9.

But that was Toro Rosso’s first points finish since Canada as the team have struggled for pace in the intervening rounds, and in Austria they saw their lowest finish of the year with Albon in P15 and Kvyat P17.

Mark Thompson, Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

Speaking about the team’s prospects in Hockenheim this year, Albon said: “In Silverstone, we were definitely more competitive than at the previous two races…and the car generally felt good. We have made progress and we know which parameters we need to work on.

“However, that doesn’t mean I expect an easy weekend in Germany, which will be another tough event for us.”

Albon identified tyre management as a particular issue for Toro Rosso in Germany, due to Hockenheim’s rough track surface: “Even in qualifying, you have to make sure you look after them on a single lap, or the tyres can be shot by the last couple of corners. It’s something we will be keeping an eye on.”

Kvyat was similarly wary about expecting a strong race in Germany after returning to the points in Britain: “It’s a bit too early to tell if our performance in Silverstone was the start of an upward trend, as…conditions at Silverstone were quite different to those in France and Austria.

“Germany will be an interesting challenge for us. I’m not expecting it to be easy, but we will try our best as always to be in a position to score points.”

Toro Rosso scored a point at last year’s German Grand Prix, courtesy of Brendon Hartley finishing in P10.

Peter Fox, Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

Daniil Kvyat: a rise from the ashes

Russia, 2016. The third running of Sochi’s very own Grand Prix. This article doesn’t begin there, nor does it click into gear a race prior, when Shanghai played ringmaster. You’d be expecting those, given the point of discussion. The destination, for those wondering, is actually the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez. Mexico, 2015.

If Red Bull’s junior academy is the seeding bed, and Toro Rosso the tomato plant, then Daniil Kvyat’s career path was one of the fruit being picked, placed in a bag and chopped up for the salad bowl a little earlier than the gardener would have liked. Not that it was apparent in this race – the Russian was ripe, for both a second career podium and a mission statement for next year, first sentence: ‘I’m the boss now’.

As it turned out, after a mid-race safety car restart, Kvyat would be nailed on the entry to Turn 1 by Valtteri Bottas’ Williams. The taste of champagne trickled away, replaced by his inner choice words, and so did the opportunity to prove he didn’t need a whirlwind of madness to clear his route to a rostrum. I’ve not just harked back to this race to avoid treading down a popular path, dissecting those moments – I’ve done it to pinpoint where Kvyat really began his fall.

Kvyat’s career (arguably, given his opportunism the next year in China) never reached those heady heights again. It was the last time he was placed atop F1’s ‘next best thing’ shrine, the last time he was hailed as the clean-cut superstar about to take a top team by the scruff of the neck. The last two races of his 2015 season weren’t alarming, but left much to be desired, and then came the intense beatdown he received at the hands of Daniel Ricciardo in 2016’s first four races.

Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

And we all know how the story goes from here. From edging his teammate, a star burning ever so bright in himself, to a path towards humiliation, Kvyat was javelin-launched out of the Red Bull first team for their next pack of motorsport chewing gum, Max Verstappen. While his 18-year old successor held aloft the winner’s trophy in his very first race, Kvyat was given a rude awakening by his new partner Carlos Sainz.

His stint at Toro Rosso was painful for us all, but especially so for him. His interview after qualifying at the 2016 German Grand Prix symbolised the most desolate side of Formula One, that of a man fighting not only 22 drivers but his own mental health. And after a 2017 season littered with mistakes, culminating in a crash in Singapore while Sainz romped home to 4th and more ‘Vamos!’ than a Peruvian football stand, Kvyat was dropped. A superb cameo in the US, earning a point for 10th, couldn’t save him. And that, looked like that.

But amazingly, given the cascade of humiliation he was made to endure in his unconventional F1 career, Kvyat didn’t let that weekend in Texas be the end of it. A year as development driver under the tutelage of Ferrari allowed him to take reprieve from the right-at-you cannon fire of a 21 race season, every Grand Prix spent under the sea of microphones, cameras and expectations.

And it’s done him the world of good. When Kvyat was announced for a return to Toro Rosso in September – a move borne out of necessity given how sparse the Red Bull academy was at the time – to replace the man who ironically replaced him to begin with, Pierre Gasly, I’m sure we all feared the worst. Like the close friend who picks up the phone to a toxic remnant of the past, we wanted to tell him no. Don’t do it. They’ll only hurt you again. But from where I’m standing, five races in and a slew of European races still in the distance as blank canvases, Toro Rosso have sent him on his way with paintbrushes in his hand, art on his mind and hope in his heart.

Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

And this time, I really don’t think the hope will kill him. Because he’s too busy killing it, as he proved to such eye-widening effect in Barcelona. A 9th on the road, which should’ve been so much more were it not for a botched pitstop, signalled a performance beyond the sum of its parts. The overtakes were masterful, the racecraft was impeccable and the confidence was brimming. And it’s no flash in the pan, because it was much the same in Australia, where he strong-armed Pierre Gasly into staying behind, and qualifying in Azerbaijan, when he waltzed it into 6th on the grid as if he was Baku’s ruling king.

To conclude, I’ll throw a little fact here that puts all of this into context: three years ago in Spain, Kvyat began the weekend having been told, while watching Game of Thrones, he was surplus to requirements at Red Bull Racing. In the race, all he could muster was 10th place while his teammate wooed the crowds a half-minute up the road in sixth. Three years on, he’s forced the F1 door open, reclaimed his lost seat, and been the main cause for outcry over Spain’s Driver of the Day vote. Fans are beginning to wonder if he can once again reach the top, and rejoin Red Bull. Winter came, and Kvyat prevailed. And that can surely warm even the most icy of hearts.

 

[Featured image: Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool]