Home Featured Red Bull has reduced its future options with its de Vries replacement

Red Bull has reduced its future options with its de Vries replacement

by Ida Wood

Photos: Red Bull Content Pool

AlphaTauri decided to sack Nyck de Vries today and replace him with Red Bull’s veteran reserve driver Daniel Ricciardo for the rest of 2023. For a team with a history of running young drivers, has it changed tactic?

Red Bull has two teams in Formula 1, and a driver development programme which is active in every tier of single-seater racing this year and even in karting too. But the last Red Bull Junior Team members to make their way to Red Bull Racing did so in 2019, and only for 12 races, and the B-team AlphaTauri (now branded as a ‘sister team’) has been running the same junior single-seater graduate for two-and-a-half years and they were the first direct RBJT graduate to the team since 2015.

Despite this lack of active progression from drivers in junior series into F1, AlphaTauri still has a reputation for being the team for providing such opportunities. That probably needs reviewing by this point.

And ignoring any ‘obligation’ that AlphaTauri may hold to be the end destination for Red Bull juniors to justify the continued existence of the RBJT, at the end of the day it is still a bad decision to put Ricciardo in a car with handling characteristics that are unlikely to suit him and also to do so now rather than later in the year.

Nyck de Vries only lasted 10 grands prix before getting sacked, the shortest career of any Toro Rosso/AlphaTauri driver, and he didn’t even make it to the summer break. While the very concept of the summer shutdown actually makes it harder for a new driver to integrate themself into a team if they join in that period, it is also a gap in the racing schedule not just for F1 but its support series too. Therefore it’s the best time to sit down and review the season up to that point, and the targets for the rest of the year and the next one too.

Had AlphaTauri postponed the decision to sack de Vries until then, or even to the end of the European leg of the F1 season at the start of September, rather than signing up Ricciardo for the rest of the season now, then they could have been in a better position with their options for 2024.

Yuki Tsunoda, the most recent RBJT graduate at AlphaTauri

Despite the team saying the contrary, Sergio Perez is under pressure to perform at Red Bull Racing right now and if an AlphaTauri driver was performing strongly enough then on previous form they would not hesitate in moving them into Perez’s seat. It had already been determined that de Vries was not doing enough to retain his place on the F1 grid, let alone be in consideration for a move to RBR, but Red Bull has now denied itself the opportunity to assess drivers other than Ricciardo.

A shootout test in old F1 cars or practice outings for seat candidates in the next few races would have left Red Bull in a better place to choose who should replace de Vries. It’s a mistake they made with de Vries in the first place, as he was signed long before he even tested an AlphaTauri car for the first time.

Ricciardo had not even driven a 2023 F1 car until today, doing a Pirelli tyre test at Silverstone that reportedly seriously impressed the team. Hours later, it had been agreed he would be ‘loaned’ to AlphaTauri.

It’s important to note that only a few teams were invited to that test, and AlphaTauri was not one of them. Therefore the trackside staff were not the crew that Ricciardo will be working with going forward. Had AlphaTauri been nominated to test Pirelli’s new tyres, they likely also would have wanted an experienced driver in their car for the sake of applicable feedback on how the prototype tyres differ to those used in recent seasons.

But at the same time, AlphaTauri would have been going into such a test knowing they wanted to replace de Vries, and with an opportunity to assess multiple drivers in their 2023 car and observe their working relationship with the team’s engineers and mechanics. The question is would Red Bull (and specially its motorsport advisor and RBJT chief Dr Helmut Marko) have picked the drivers or would have AlphaTauri’s (changing) management?

So, to the real point of this column: who are the options that have been ignored by going down the Ricciardo route?

The first is Red Bull junior Liam Lawson, who made free practice outings with AlphaTauri and RBR last year.

Liam Lawson

The 21-year-old Kiwi was snapped up by Red Bull a week after winning the Toyota Racing Series early in 2019, and placed in a dual F3 programme for the rest of the year.

He won four races in Euroformula and claimed two podiums in the FIA F3 Championship, then started 2020 by coming second in TRS before returning to FIA F3 and winning three times en route to fifth in the standings.

The lack of an F1 pipeline even at that point was shown by the fact Lawson then got placed in the GT3-spec DTM series for 2021 in addition to stepping up to Formula 2. He controversially was denied the DTM title in the final race, and won on his F2 debut but only got two more podiums after that and sank to ninth in the standings.

His sophomore F2 campaign resulted in four wins and third in the points, more than enough to earn the FIA superlicence required to race in F1. But Lawson was seventh in the standings at the point earlier in the year when de Vries was signed (with team-mate Yuki Tsunoda signed for 2023 before that), and Red Bull had set Lawson the target of becoming champion.

No room at the F1 inn, and no point staying in F2? Red Bull is used to that conundrum, and by the end of the year had secured Lawson a seat in Super Formula with Team Mugen.

Racing in a top-level single-seater series against professional and very experienced drivers, with a more consistent formbook too, has shown how talented Lawson is.

He qualified third on his debut at Fuji Speedway, and went on to take victory with fastest lap, and at Autopolis he won from the front row. He has finished the other three races in the top five, and sits second in the standings with four races to go.

The next two don’t clash with F1, while the double-header Suzuka finale is on the same weekend as the Mexico City Grand Prix. That means Lawson won’t be free to be RBR’s reserve driver in Mexico, or alternatively it could have meant Lawson would have only had to miss one weekend of SF to race for AlphaTauri in F1.

Lawson in Super Formula

It would have been disrespectful to break Lawson’s contract with Mugen so he could race in F1 that weekend, which has more sway than you would think in these kinds of decisions.

When Red Bull chose to put their junior Pierre Gasly in a Toro Rosso seat mid-season in 2017, he was fighting for the SF title and they had to send him back to Japan to contest the finale which clashed with the United States Grand Prix.

Talking of SF-experienced racers, the other candidate to replace de Vries that Red Bull would have been well-placed to take more patience on was Alex Palou.

The 26-year-old Spaniard has no previous relationship with Red Bull, but it’s known that he has caught Marko’s eye this year while he romps towards a second IndyCar title. Palou won in Euroformula, GP3, Japanese F3 and Formula V8 3.5 before reaching the top level of single-seaters in SF in 2019.

While Mugen rotated through several Red Bull juniors that season, Palou shone with Nakajima Racing and claimed a win, three poles and two fastest laps en route to third in the standings. Japanese connections then helped him move to IndyCar for 2020, and he was on the podium by just his third race.

Chip Ganassi Racing signed Palou for 2021, and he rewarded their faith by winning three races and the title. His form dipped last year as he pursued a move to McLaren SP, which ultimately did not go ahead, but he won the season finale and this year he has won four races out of nine and only once finished outside of the top five.

However Palou is still pushing for a move to McLaren, and not just to its IndyCar team. His attention now is on a F1 move for 2024 and the whole IndyCar driver market is in a state of gridlock until it is settled on whether Palou will leave Ganassi.

Marko’s interest in Palou stemmed, aside from his stunning form this year, by the fact the IndyCar season concludes in September and therefore he would technically be free for the last eight rounds of the F1 season.

Photo: IndyCar

The courting that took place between McLaren and Palou did lead to a deal where he gets to test their old F1 cars, so he’s building useful experience.

Red Bull could have benefitted from another team’s work with a driver, particularly by waiting for not only Palou’s season to conclude but for him to get even more F1 test mileage.

But Red Bull’s decision means Palou’s potential F1 future lies solely in McLaren’s hands, unless AlphaTauri do snap him up for 2024 before the F1 season is done, and there is seemingly no way McLaren can actually provide Palou with an F1 seat.

So if he stays in IndyCar next year, then it will be just as impactful on if he remains with Ganassi or moves to McLaren.

Ganassi only has one driver signed for next season, with their Indianapolis 500 winner Marcus Ericssion also potentially leaving, and there are several young drivers interested in joining including the team’s junior Kyffin Simpson who is racing in the Indy Nxt support series.

David Malukas has eyes on joining a top team, and F2 graduate Marcus Armstrong wants a full-time seat for 2024 as he has been a part-time Ganassi driver this year. They need to know if to look elsewhere if Palou is staying, such as the third McLaren entry that Palou is earmarked for.

However if Ganassi lose Palou and Ericsson, they may look to the other top teams to try to buy one of their drivers out of contract, and then that potentially opens up an attractive seat at say Andretti Autosport or Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.

There could be as many as four Indy Nxt graduates headed to IndyCar next year, while F1’s new line-ups may not include any junior single-seater graduates.