Red Bull dropped a bombshell on Formula 1 just a week into the summer break, with Alexander Albon promoted to the senior team in the place of Pierre Gasly.
Everyone could see Gasly had struggled to adapt to the big move, but the team remained adamant they would stick with the Frenchman until the end of the season.
However, it took just eight days after the Hungarian Grand Prix before Gasly was demoted to Toro Rosso, with Albon — a driver with just 12 Grands Prix to his name — getting the call.
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For many, it was a call Red Bull had to make at some point. Max Verstappen was crushing Gasly, with the Dutchman carrying the team through the opening half of the season.
For others, it provides a bleak future for Gasly who, in the cutthroat nature of F1, now faces an even greater test to remain in the sport at all.
What changed in just eight days for Red Bull?
Monday’s news carries shock value considering Red Bull boss Christian Horner said — just over a week ago in Hungary — it was the team’s “intention” to leave Gasly in the car until the end of 2019. He also said Gasly needs to “get it together”.
However, one of the great luxuries for Red Bull is that they have two teams — and four contracted drivers — on the grid. A mid-season driver change is always a surprise, but when it comes to Red Bull, the shock is somewhat dimmed. They have freedom to do as they please.
It was Verstappen that was vaulted into the senior team as a teenager in 2016 at the expense of Daniil Kvyat, whose string of early-season high-profile incidents became too glaring an issue. It affected Kvyat greatly, who at the back end of the 2017 season, was replaced in races by Gasly and Brendon Hartley at Toro Rosso.
Gasly and Hartley then formed the Toro Rosso line-up in 2018, before the former was promoted following Daniel Ricciardo’s exit, and the latter was axed. In came Albon and Kvyat, who returned from a one-year hiatus.
Just how badly was Gasly travelling?
Gasly impressed at Toro Rosso in 2018. He finished fourth in Bahrain — just his second race of the season — and scored 29 points overall. Hartley, meanwhile, managed just four points.
Gasly was a driver seemingly worthy of the Red Bull seat, and certainly would have arrived to season 2019 expecting to compete not just with Verstappen, but Mercedes and Ferrari.
However, after 12 races, Gasly is just five points ahead of Carlos Sainz, who has wildly impressed for McLaren.
Is Verstappen really in a class of his own? Perhaps — he has scored 181 points, and has taken two wins and three other podiums, to sit just seven points behind Valtteri Bottas in the dominant Mercedes.
However, the numbers for Gasly this season make for ghastly reading. He has managed a third of Verstappen’s points haul, and a season-best finish of fourth at Silverstone came as Verstappen was wiped out by Sebastian Vettel.
Verstappen has scored 81 points from his last four races. Gasly has scored 63 points all season. Go figure.
Kvyat rebuilt himself to win back an F1 seat, and has been strong this season, with his Germany podium a clear highlight. Gasly can use the Russian as inspiration as he returns to Toro Rosso, but he’ll need to quickly acquaint himself with his former surroundings should he keep his F1 dream alive.
Red Bull would have been reluctant to promote Kvyat considering the open wounds from 2016, and Gasly’s form was far too poor to obviously keep him in the drive.
Name a current junior Red Bull driver outside of F1 that could be vaulted in alongside Verstappen. It simply wouldn’t happen, at least overnight, and the senior team can’t rest on its laurels as they pursue Ferrari.
So, there is Albon, a 23-year-old British-born Thai with 12 races under his belt. He has also faced adversity, being dropped from Red Bull’s driver programme in 2012. However, he battled back to express his potential, and won his F1 drive after engaging in a ding-dong Formula 2 championship battle with fellow F1 rookies George Russell and Lando Norris.
Albon’s 2019 has been equally as impressive, with drives in China and Germany — where he fought through from the rear in tough conditions — typifying his fighting spirit. Perhaps minds were made up at Red Bull in Germany once Gasly crashed into Albon in the race, just two days after Gasly binned it in practice.
Is it a risk worth taking?
Red Bull are just 44 points behind Ferrari in the fight for second in the constructors’ championship. Considering the monetary benefits — among others — of constructors’ rankings, every point counts.
Being usurped by a driver from a team outside the ‘Big Three’ also isn’t not an option for Red Bull. However, Sainz’s form is so good, that it was inevitable he would eat Gasly alive. In hindsight, Red Bull would have loved a 2019-version Sainz alongside Verstappen, but that can’t happen either.
However, something had to give — and for Red Bull, it was Gasly. A genuine risk lies with Albon being unable to make the most of his opportunity, as well as Gasly completely falling from grace and losing his Toro Rosso drive at season’s end.
Both drivers will be rusty – for Red Bull, Albon will also need time in the simulator, considering the first time he’ll drive the RB15 will be at the daunting Spa-Francorchamps circuit.
Time is a beautiful thing.