As we approach what has been hailed by some as a ‘make-or-break’ Turkish Grand Prix for the future of Alex Albon at Red Bull, I thought it worth adding some perspective to what has been an up-and-down six years of driver partnerships for the four-time World Champions.
For a while, the team based out of Milton Keynes could do no wrong. Having entered the sport in 2004, they quickly laid solid foundations from which a period of dominance would grow. And a fundamental part of that foundation was, and still is, the existence of sister-team AlphaTauri.
Making their Formula 1 debut in 2006, the constructor originally known as Toro Rosso acted as a testing ground for young drivers who were part of the Red Bull young driver programme. Impress for Toro Rosso and you had a great chance of earning a promotion.
Now in 2020, this arrangement has produced the likes of Sebastian Vettel (four-time World Champion), Daniel Ricciardo (seven-time race winner), and Max Verstappen (F1’s youngest ever competitor and race winner).
But, for every success story, there’s several drivers who faltered under the pressure, and in recent times, the young-driver conveyor belt has been faltering too.
It was the end of an era when Vettel announced he’d be leaving Red Bull for Ferrari in 2015. The four-time World Champion had decided to follow in the footsteps of his hero, Michael Schumacher, but who would be tasked with following in his? After all, for a while Vettel achieved levels of dominance even Schumacher himself would’ve been proud of.
That unenviable challenge was given to the promising Russian, Daniil Kvyat.
A mechanical failure before his first race for the team wasn’t the ideal start, but things picked up for Kvyat with a fourth-place finish at Monaco, before he got his first taste of the podium four races later in Hungary. But his time at Red Bull was blighted by incident. There was no doubt he had the speed, but the understanding of when to push and when to consolidate was developing too slowly for those at the helm.
And it all came to a head, coincidentally, at his home grand prix in 2016. Lining up eighth, a calamitous first lap – in which he ran in to the back of Vettel three times – was the final straw.
— Formula 1 (@F1) September 22, 2020
A period of stability followed when Verstappen inherited the hole left by the ‘Russian torpedo’, but it was back to the drawing board when Ricciardo yearned for a different challenge and departed for Renault.
Next in line was Pierre Gasly but unlike Kvyat, the Frenchman didn’t even last one full season. After 12 races in which he was outscored by Verstappen almost three to one, Gasly was demoted back to Toro Rosso.
It was another reminder of the ruthless nature of F1. Points mean prizes and the team were in a battle with Ferrari for second spot in the Constructors’ Championship, so there was no room for sentiment.
After impressing in his debut campaign for Toro Rosso, Albon came in and made an immediate impact. In his first seven races, the Thai-born driver amassed more points than Gasly could in 12, and would have added a podium were it not for that infamous collision with Lewis Hamilton in Brazil.
Unsurprisingly then, Albon’s services were retained for 2020 with the expectation that he would build on the early promise. But, despite finally picking up his first podium at the Tuscan Grand Prix, Albon has been comprehensively outperformed by Verstappen, who is consistently left to battle two Mercedes cars without backup.
With just one point from the last four races, speculation has reached fever pitch that a poor showing at this weekend’s Turkish Grand Prix could spell the end for another graduate of the Red Bull young driver programme.
So, with that in mind, I thought it worth delving into the numbers behind the Red Bull careers of Kvyat, Gasly and Albon. It’s far from an exact science, but I’ve used metrics that I believe to be fair and will highlight some of the obvious caveats along the way.
I’ve placed particular emphasis on the drivers’ performance in qualifying. The points are given out on Sunday, but the conditions to perform relative to a team-mate are at their fairest on Saturday, and I’ve excluded any results – qualifying or race – where a driver was hindered by an issue not of their making.
Your biggest rival in F1 is your team-mate, so I’ve compared each driver under scrutiny against theirs, before casting my final verdict.
Kvyat v Ricciardo (2015-2016)
In total, these two battled it out for inter-team supremacy for 23 races. But who came out on top?
In qualifying, Ricciardo definitely had the advantage. The Australian only missed Q3 once from the 22 times his car was fully functional, whereas Kvyat failed to make the final session eight times. Neither registered any poles, but Ricciardo did break into the top-three on three occasions; Kvyat’s best was fourth. The Russian’s average position in qualifying was a disappointing 9.22 compared to his team-mate’s 6.96 and, excluding the 2015 Italian GP where Ricciardo’s car failed, the Aussie won the qualifying battle 16-6.
Moving onto race day and it’s a little closer. Taking out DNFs where neither driver was at fault, Kvyat’s average finish (7.90) was right on the heels of Ricciardo’s (7.45). The points tallies were similar too. The Australian outscored his team-mate 128-116 – which comes in at 6.4 points per race compared to 5.8 – and both registered two podiums. Ricciardo edged out the race head-to-head 9-8.
Gasly v Verstappen (2019)
Nobody expected it to be easy for Gasly when he took over from the Renault-bound Ricciardo, but his struggles compared to his team-mate were stark.
An average qualifying position of 8.33 wasn’t great for a team who were pushing for a top-two finish, but all the more alarming was the fact that, on average, Gasly’s Q3 time was 0.591 seconds slower than Verstappen’s. The Frenchman secured fourth place once, whereas his team-mate had three top-fours and a pole to boot.
And on Sunday, the difference in performance was even more profound. Verstappen was able to extract the most out of the RB15 challenger every time, averaging a finish of 3.33 and scoring 15.08 points per race. Gasly, on the other hand, scored just 63 points – 5.73 per race – to his team-mate’s 181 and was even lapped on occasion. The Dutch driver stepped onto the podium five times in their 12 races together, which included victories in Austria and Germany.
Albon v Verstappen (2019-2020)
Harsh but fair was my assessment of Gasly’s demotion. The team needed points and turned to rookie Alex Albon to deliver.
And signs were promising in 2019. Twice battling from the back of the pack to fifth showed he had the speed as well as the race craft to make the seat his own if he could sustain this level of performance.
But in 2020, Albon has struggled alongside Verstappen much in the same way Gasly did. In their 22 races together, Albon has never outqualified his team-mate – barring Verstappen’s Q1 mechanical failure at the 2019 Italian GP – and like Gasly, the average gap in the top-ten shoot-out is over half a second in favour of the Dutchman.
By removing (generously) his retirement from the Eifel GP and the races where he collided with Hamilton, Albon’s points-per-race total sits at 7.37. It’s still well shy of Verstappen’s 15.24 but a slight improvement on Kvyat and Gasly. He has also picked up one podium but that pales in significance when you consider that, in the same time, Verstappen has won twice and had 13 top-three finishes.
Comparing the performances of the three drivers is not easy given the vagaries of a Formula 1 weekend and the fact they were driving different cars. What they all have in common, however, is that they all lost, or are losing, the inter-team battle.
In qualifying, Kvyat has the lowest average position (9.22) as well as the lowest percentage of Q3 appearances (65.2%). But then again, Red Bull finished fourth in the Constructors’ Championship in 2015, so these results don’t represent anything overly significant.
However, by shifting to a fairer basis of comparison, the Russian actually comes out on top. On average he qualified just 2.26 places behind his team-mate compared to 4.17 and 4.53 for Gasly and Albon respectively. And the average Q3 time deficit to his team-mate is also lower – 0.190s as opposed to 0.591s for Gasly and 0.501s for Albon.
The trend continues when looking at race data. Having excluded races where a driver was forced to retire through no fault of his own, Kvyat’s average finish (7.90) is the worst, then it’s Gasly (7.73), then Albon (7.05). But when you analyse the data relative to their team-mate, Kvyat, at an average of 0.45 places behind Ricciardo, comes out on top ahead of Albon (3.11) and Gasly (4.39).
It’s the same story with points-per-race and Kvyat also achieved more podiums (2) than Gasly (0) and Albon (1) despite having the least competitive Red Bull.
I’m not advocating that Kvyat shouldn’t have been dropped – after all, he was replaced by Verstappen – or that Albon should lose his seat, but given how savagely some of the young Red Bull drivers have been demoted or dropped from the grid entirely, it was an interesting development.
Using the metrics referenced, I don’t think there’s a standout candidate from the three drivers in question. It could be argued that Verstappen is the quicker team-mate of the two but, having also analysed the Ricciardo-Verstappen partnership, it’s by the smallest of margins.
Overall, Kvyat performed better compared to his team-mate but he was quite volatile – you don’t get nicknamed ‘the Russian torpedo’ for nothing. Nobody would argue that swapping him for Verstappen was a bad move.
There’s no denying Gasly struggled with the jump to the ‘senior team’, but since his return to Toro Rosso, he has more than shown his worth as a Formula 1 driver. The Frenchman has consistently outperformed Kvyat in the AlphaTauri, regularly finishing in the top 10 and picking up his first podium finish and grand prix victory.
And Albon has fallen somewhere in the middle. He’s been way off Verstappen’s pace but has shown glimpses of speed and was very unlucky not to step on the podium in Brazil last year and Austria this year.
But is that enough to retain one of the most sought after positions on the grid?
In a sport where high-calibre drivers come and go so regularly, all this leaves me pondering one question: Should Alex Albon be given another chance to prove himself when many that came before him were not?
Who will Alex Albon drive for next year? Let us know your thoughts in the comments or reach out to us on Twitter.