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Formula 1

Red Bull's paying the price for its era-defining Verstappen swoop

by Ben Anderson
3 min read

Red Bull’s increasingly underwhelming driver choices are a direct consequence of two things: Max Verstappen’s incredible ascendancy and increasing competition in the junior driver ranks forcing Red Bull to operate in a more conventional sense in the Formula 1 driver market.

When the Red Bull Junior scheme was the only game in town for up-and-coming hot talents lacking in budget, Red Bull could pretty much have its pick of ‘next big things’, pile on pressure to see if and when they would crack, and generally succeed through a ruthless process of trial and error. Red Bull enjoyed a relative embarrassment of riches.

Other big teams have since caught on, and now really good drivers can almost take their pick. Verstappen was Red Bull’s last major play in this market - and that one literally broke the mould while pretty much undermining every subsequent attempt to promote a young driver in his wake.

Verstappen was too hot for Daniel Ricciardo to handle, and the considerable weight of Verstappen’s talent basically squashed Pierre Gasly and Alex Albon in quick succession. Sergio Perez’s ongoing incumbency in that team is a direct consequence of all that.

It means four things for Red Bull:

1. The whole house is bet on Verstappen - he single-handedly created a situation where finally it was a Red Bull junior driver calling the shots rather than the other way around. If he walks, Red Bull is now incredibly exposed because it has no obvious succession plan.

2. The short-lived ‘mistakes’ of over-promoting Gasly and Albon in the wake of Ricciardo’s unexpected departure, combined with Yuki Tsunoda’s unconvincing start to life in F1, plus a few misfires in the more competitive junior driver market, means the cupboard is a little bare now. 

Outside of Liam Lawson, Red Bull doesn’t have much in the way of pressure being applied upwards from the junior ranks. The top drivers who’ve burst into F1, or are about to, in recent times - Charles Leclerc, Lando Norris, George Russell, Oscar Piastri, Ollie Bearman and Kimi Antonelli - have either turned Red Bull down or very early on aligned themselves with a different team entirely.

3. That means Red Bull has to compete more on the open market to secure the drivers it wants. McLaren continually working to keep Norris and Piastri off that market means Red Bull’s preferred alternatives simply aren’t available in the near-term without presumably a lot of money changing hands. 

4. Verstappen’s iron grip on Red Bull makes his choice of team-mate more complicated. Two drivers who are now leading upper-midfield teams were chewed up and spat out so ended up being released and sold on. Seriously good drivers like Fernando Alonso and Carlos Sainz, who’ve become available recently, have been turned down - at least partly, or perhaps even mainly, because of how they might negatively disrupt Verstappen’s personal equilibrium.

Max Verstappen Formula 3 2014

In the end, it all comes back to Verstappen. Red Bull broke its own system to get him through the door and now Red Bull’s driver scheme can’t live with him and can’t live without him - and in the meantime other top teams have caught on and now offer top talents an alternative route to the pinnacle of motorsport that doesn’t involve signing your life away to an energy drinks company in order to chase your F1 dream.

I don’t think Red Bull has found it easy to adjust to that new reality - hence drivers with experience but obviously lower performance ceilings, like Perez, getting opportunities they no longer really merit; old favourites like Ricciardo getting recalled because options are scarce, and enormous punts being taken on drivers, like Nyck de Vries, that Red Bull clearly didn’t have much deep knowledge of.

Proper planning for a post-Verstappen world has to be a priority for Red Bull really. Yes, he’s under contract for a long time - but that means nothing if he decides he wants to drive somewhere else or do something else, in which case Red Bull simply needs to make sure it has a driver at least good enough to tide it over in his absence.

At the moment, it’s difficult to see who that driver would be - unless a straight swap with Mercedes for Russell happens in 2026…

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