Following the recent departures of Daniel Ricciardo and Carlos Sainz Jr. to Renault and McLaren respectively, in addition to Pierre Gasly’s promotion to Red Bull, the Austrian team now have a gap within its own junior programme.
At present, none of their seven drivers are ready for a call up to Formula One, leaving them to become victims of their own ruthlessness in releasing drivers.
In recent years, the likes of Alexander Albon, Antόnio Félix da Costa, Alex Lynn, Callum Ilott and Sérgio Sette Câmara have all been dropped from Red Bull.
Yet, when he spoke to Motorsport Magazine, da Costa was forgiving when he discussed his release:
“I don’t see it as [Red Bull] not giving me an F1 seat”, the Portuguese driver stated, adding “They’ve given me a career.”
“They’ve turned me into a professional racing driver; they supported me on the way to Formula 1, which ended up not happening.”
“But F1 is a tough world where sometimes politics plays a bigger role than talent. It’s a business – this is all a business – and if that’s what has to be done, then I understand.”
F1 is a tough business, and from the outset, Red Bull were set on winning the World Championship since they made their F1 debut in 2005.
After signing renowned designer Adrian Newey in 2007 and promoting Sebastian Vettel to the team for 2009, they achieved their goal four years on the bounce between 2010 and 2013, winning both the Drivers’ and Constructors’ titles.
Since then though, the Raging Bull has only produced two more Grand Prix winners in Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen respectively.
Red Bull’s large exodus of driver talent was partially caused by the fact that there was a large talent pool to choose from.
There were several numerous junior categories to choose from, some of which no longer exist as the FIA wanted to simplify the route to its premier series.
Because of this, Renault stopped funding the World Series at the end of 2015 and from 2019, the GP3 Series and the FIA Formula 3 European Championship will merge to create the brand-new FIA Formula 3 Championship.
This was a factor in Toro Rosso signing Brendon Hartley, a former Red Bull junior who was dropped in 2010, but after winning the FIA World Endurance Championship twice for Porsche, which included victory at Le Mans in 2017, the Kiwi found his way back into the setup.
Formula 2 driver Alexander Albon has also been linked with a return following his recent performances for DAMS, but finds himself behind the likes of current F1 driver Stoffel Vandoorne and McLaren junior Lando Norris in the pecking order.
However, Red Bull could find a solution to avoiding a similar gap persisting in the future, and that is the Super Formula Championship.
Pierre Gasly spent the majority of his 2017 campaign in Super Formula racing for Honda’s factory outfit, Team Mugen, after the Frenchman failed to secure a Formula One seat.
Since then, Gasly has impressive many in his short spell in F1, and recently earned himself a call up to Red Bull alongside Max Verstappen for the 2019 season.
At Round Five of the 2018 championship in Motegi, the Head of the Red Bull Junior Programme, Helmut Marko, was spotted in the paddock speaking with various team principals.
Talking ahead of the race, Marko explained why he made the trip to Japan:
“I wanted to see Super Formula for the first time in my life. We were very impressed last year with the performance and development of Pierre Gasly.”
“So that could be a reason why we send some drivers next year to Super Formula.”
“The cars are fast, it seems to be difficult to get [the best] out of the tyres, similar to Europe. But generally, I must say [it’s a] very impressive field, very good training ground of Formula One.”
Given that Red Bull are due to start using Honda engines in Formula One next season, this could lead to a collaboration between the two regarding their respective driver programmes.
Nirei Fukuzumi has raced on a part-time basis for Team Mugen in Super Formula this year but has suffered bad luck in his two appearances, which included an engine failure whilst in fourth place.
Fukuzumi is part of both Red Bull’s Junior Programme and the Formula Honda Dream Project, which would make him favourite to return to Super Formula in 2019.
However, it is possible that the Japanese would like to focus on Formula 2 instead, considering it is the main support series to Formula One, which would force Red Bull to look elsewhere.
Dan Ticktum, who is currently leading the FIA Formula 3 European Championship, made two appearances for Team Mugen when Fukuzumi had to prioritize his F2 commitments with Arden and was also unlucky not to score any points.
The Briton has been linked with a seat at Toro Rosso, but a previous driving ban saw Ticktum get blocked from appearing at the Young Driver’s test in Hungary.
Consequently, the Macau GP winner will be ineligible for a FIA Super Licence, even if he goes on to win the F3 title.
On the other hand, a move to Super Formula would allow Ticktum to experience a full season with a factory team and allow Marko to assess whether he is ready for a call up to Formula 1.
There are also further options within the current Super Formula line-up.
Nobuharu Matsushita spent three years racing for ART Grand Prix in GP2/Formula 2 and was a part of McLaren’s Young Driver Academy whilst Honda were partnered with the Woking outfit.
At aged 24, Matsushita still has time to break into Formula One, and this could lead to a similar relationship being fulfilled in the future.
On top of this, there are two Red Bull-backed drivers in Nick Cassidy and Ryo Kirakawa.
The pair won the Drivers’ title in last season’s Super GT Championship, and both have demonstrated their raw potential in Super Formula.
Cassidy and Hirakawa are also both 24-years-old respectively and have won the Japanese Formula 3 title in recent years.
However, the fact they are currently contracted with Lexus – Toyota luxury brand and Honda’s rival – is likely to be a hindrance.
Despite the reputation he has developed over the passing years, Helmut Marko is very experienced in providing opportunities for upcoming drivers, and having noticed a gap in the market in the form of Super Formula, it will be interesting to see how this idea develops in the coming years.