For a number of years, the possibility of three car teams have been mooted throughout F1. This hasn’t been a popular idea of course, with even those at the front somewhat sceptical about the extent of the benefits when there would be such huge financial outlay. However, one team who may feel slightly more inclined to look into this suggestion at present might be those at Red Bull.
The Austrian team currently have one of their strongest driver line ups since their introduction in 2005, boasting two race winners in Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen, both the right side of 30 (and in Verstappen’s case not yet 20), and who can have legitimate aspirations of world titles due to their talents. The problem for the multiple world championship winning team though is that they now also have a driver waiting in the wings in Carlos Sainz, who is displaying the class required for a top drive, yet with no immediate space to be accommodated.
Sainz came into the sport at the same time that Max Verstappen debuted, and the comparisons were there for all to see. Both were part of the Red Bull young driver program, both were the son of a former racing driver, both with greater ambitions than simply a midfield drive with Toro Rosso. However as Verstappen made headlines, Sainz went quietly about his business, closely matching his more celebrated teammate, with perhaps only reliability preventing him from making similar waves.
The hype that surrounded Verstappen meant it came as little surprise that he would be the next promoted to the lead team last year, but what now for Sainz? He’s demonstrated he can match Verstappen, and outside of the top three teams it’s really only double world champion Fernando Alonso who stands out as being above Sainz’s current ability, and yet at just 22 Sainz is 13 years his junior as Alonso reaches the twilight of his career.
His consistency as well as pace remain a huge strength of the young Spaniard, last season he scored points on 10 occasions, including two sixth placed finishes in the last 4 races, despite Toro Rosso clearly falling away as the season progressed. This year he has already scored points in each race except Bahrain, where a power unit issue in qualifying ruined his chance of further success. What makes these results even more impressive is that teammate Daniil Kvyat, no slouch himself having had podiums in the sport, has just two points finishes in 2017, and was completely blown away by Sainz during their time together last year.
It’s clear Sainz is at the front of the Red Bull queue and rightly so, but how long can they hold on to such a talent without rewarding these performances with a more competitive drive? Red Bull have no reason to promote him at present, but it’s hard to imagine Sainz will be happy to continue viewing bottom end top 10 finishes as a true reflection of his capabilities. Franz Tost believes Toro Rosso can hold onto him for next year at least, but Sainz’s patience will surely soon wear thin, especially if he continues to bring in good points at Toro Rosso.
It’s difficult to imagine other teams aren’t looking at this situation as well, should Sainz’s progression be delayed any longer. In Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari have a driver nearing the end of his career and struggling to match Sebastian Vettel, a race seat will presumably be opening up in Maranello in the not too distant future. Also at Mercedes Valtteri Bottas has a one year contract, if he doesn’t impress with his chance this year there may well be a seat in a silver arrows, too. A 22 year old with the ability to match Verstappen who will be itching for a move looks a no brainer on paper, should either team want to roll the dice and pinch talent from under one of their rival’s noses.
The prospect of losing Sainz isn’t the only issue Red Bull face however, their lack of performance compared to their two title contenders at present spells danger for the Milton Keynes based team. Unless they can improve their position, one of Ricciardo or Verstappen may also be angling for a move to match their ambitions. This wouldn’t be a complete disaster if Sainz is still at Toro Rosso as a ready replacement, but if this happens with the team having already lost Sainz, then the Red Bull hierarchy will be less than pleased to see their nurtured talents search for success elsewhere.
They are not ones to employ externally either, so the current options to replace anyone exiting would include Kvyat who they have already tried and demoted, and in Pierre Gasly, a driver yet to experience F1 at all. Either would be a notable step down from current personnel.
It’s a difficult predicament for Red Bull as something has got to give, they won’t be looking to push a talented driver out, but it’s imperative they manage this situation to maximize their chances of keeping a competitive driver line up, they are already playing catch up to the top two as it is. Three into two may not go, but the worry if they don’t get this right might be looking at one into two and the third strongest car. The driver market could well get very interesting before the season is out.