Formula 1

Red Bull can use Verstappen to settle RB driver question

by Mark Hughes
2 min read

Two questions hung over the second Red Bull Formula 1 team going into 2024: what was it going to be called and how strong is its driver line-up?

The first has now been answered, but it’s difficult to know how the second can ever be.

Yuki Tsunoda has matured nicely as a driver over the last couple of seasons, but how outright quick is he? Daniel Ricciardo used to give Max Verstappen a hard time as a team-mate - and subsequently destroyed both Nico Hulkenberg and Esteban Ocon at Renault.

But then came the McLaren years and the trashing of that hard-earned reputation in a car that just could not be driven in the way that his muscle memory insisted. When the rookie Oscar Piastri replaced him there and was instantly a closer match to Lando Norris than Ricciardo had been over the previous two years it seemed the final confirmation that his F1 career was at an end.

Ricciardo’s AlphaTauri lifeline as rookie Nyck de Vries was deemed unsatisfactory came off the back of an impressive test in the Red Bull at Silverstone. In his comeback there were some promising signs, but nothing solid gold. Taking only the sessions in which a valid comparison could be made, he qualified on average 0.12s slower than Tsunoda. (Yes, he was a starring fourth on the grid in Mexico, but on that occasion, Tsunoda was taking power unit penalties and made no serious qualifying attempt).

Where the drivers are relative to the front is not terribly clear. Was the late-season AlphaTauri a quick car being driven a few tenths off the pace by both drivers? Or a mediocre car being taken to its limit by both drivers? Or a mediocre car with mediocre drivers?

Red Bull is not the sort of organisation that would be relaxed about not knowing the answers to these questions - as it potentially impacts throughout the organisation, especially after two unsatisfactory seasons for Sergio Perez in the main team. If it decides to replace him in the future, it will surely want to know if it should promote from within or recruit from outside.

It’s not just a concern for the main team, either. This season could represent a fantastic opportunity for the smaller RB team given its much closer technical links to Red Bull Racing. But how would it know if the new car’s Red Bull-lite potential were being fully accessed by its drivers?

Well, there’d be one very simple and surely quite definitive way of finding out. Red Bull has the world’s #1 driver under contract, the two teams share a simulator. What is there to stop them having Max Verstappen drive the car in the sim?

Nothing. Article 17.2.8 of the technical regulations even says: “Competitors may make available to other competitors test facilities and equipment.”

If Verstappen is a big chunk faster than either Ricciardo or Tsunoda or if he’s not, either way, Red Bull has its answer.

No other team has the luxury of such direct comparison to the gold standard of F1. It would seem churlish not to use it.

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