As Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton streak away towards their respective sixth Formula One world championships, the 2019 season at the front has largely been a tale of contrasting fortunes for rivals Ferrari and Red Bull.
When the end came it was swift and cold.
In a five-sentence press release, Red Bull Racing axed Pierre Gasly from Red Bull Racing; in his place will sit Alexander Albon, promoted after just half a season in Formula One.
The Frenchman earnt barely half a sentence in the missive, devoted only to explaining that he would spend the rest of the season at Toro Rosso.
“The Team will use the next nine races to evaluate Alex’s performance in order to make an informed decision as to who will drive alongside Max [Verstappen] in 2020,” the statement read. “Everyone at Aston Martin Red Bull Racing looks forward to welcoming Alex to the Team and supporting him during the next phase of his Formula One career.”
The timing of the announcement is a surprise, coming barely a week after Christian Horner expressed that his team’s “intention is to leave him in the car until the end of the year”. Based on Gasly’s performance, however, the decision is entirely reasonable.
As explained here last week, the 23-year-old’s form in 2019 has been nothing short of woeful.
He’s on average almost four places and more than half a second behind teammate Max Verstappen, and he’s scored less than 35 per cent of the Dutchman’s points, the intra-team tally reading 181-63.
Verstappen has made excellent use of his improving car to sit just seven points behind second-placed Valtteri Bottas in the drivers standings. Gasly, on the other hand, is sixth and just five points ahead of midfielder Carlos Sainz.
Worst of all is that neither Gasly nor the team appeared to understand why the Frenchman was struggling so badly relative to Verstappen. Sure, Max is perhaps the best driver on the grid today, but Pierre appears not to have even improved over the first 12 rounds, with only the odd inexplicable bright afternoon illuminating an otherwise barren season.
So with second in the constructors championship on the line — the gap between Ferrari and Red Bull Racing is less than that between Verstappen and Gasly — the trigger was pulled and Gasly was gone. Unto the breach steps Alexander Albon.
Albon’s had an impressive rookie season to date, doubly so when you consider that for so much of 2018 Formula One seemed closed to him, leading to a deal to race for Nissan in Formula E. Only the domino effect stemming from Daniel Ricciardo’s Renault switch opened an unexpected door for the Thai driver, who’s seized the chance with both hands to nominate himself as one of the season’s most impressive debutants.
He’s been more than a match for teammate Daniil Kvyat, whose 11-point advantage comes largely thanks to his podium in the chaotic German Grand Prix, and though he’s made some high-profile mistakes — big crashes in China and Hungary in particular — he’s been consistently quick. In both those crash-affected races, for example, he recovered to score points, including from a pit-lane start in Shanghai.
There’s no doubt he’s earnt his shot — at least in the unique circumstances of Red Bull’s four-driver set-up — but his positive rookie story is eerily familiar.
Gasly was similarly strong last season at Toro Rosso, where he easily dispatched two-time WEC champion Brendon Hartley, and Daniil Kvyat managed to impress the Red Bull hierarchy without even having to beat then teammate Jean-Eric Vergne. Both earnt promotion after only one season in Formula One and both were demoted back to Toro Rosso.
Why should Albon, with only six months of experience, fare any better under the extreme pressure of racing alongside the indomitable Max Verstappen in a race-winning car?
The key may be in identifying why Gasly has struggled so spectacularly, and in some respects it’s down to the poisoned nature of the second RBR seat. Red Bull Racing didn’t anticipate requiring so much of Verstappen’s teammate this season, fully expecting this to be a transition season with Honda power.
Lo and behold, the chassis and engine pairing has come up a winner and the second driver needs to pull his weight to deliver big championship points to overhaul Ferrari.
To expect Albon to fill this role immediately would be to repeat the same mistakes; the switch would therefore only make sense if Red Bull Racing is willing to afford Albon time to acclimatise with an eye to end-of-season improvement and a drive in 2020.
Realistically the Thai cannot be expected to deliver much more than Gasly’s performances initially — after all, Pierre had a full preseason to prepare for 2019, whereas Albon will have barely a fortnight to ready himself in a brand-new car surrounded by a brand-new team — but if allowed to adjust over several races without the burden of expectation, he could flourish.
In this respect his selection ahead of the more experienced Daniil Kvyat makes sense. The Russian would be a risk of overdriving on his return to the front to prove a point, whereas Albon appears to possess the temperament and capability to adapt to change — consider that his first taste of modern F1 machinery came only this year during testing and that he scored points in his second race.
But there’s a final sting in the tail of this gamble. By making the switch, Albon becomes Red Bull Racing’s last roll of the dice, for as much as Gasly remains in with a shout for return in 2020, no-one who witnessed the hollowed-out post-demotion Kvyat of 2016 could say with any certainty that the Frenchman won’t meet the same emotionally devastating fate that would rule him out of contention.
So he team cannot afford the Thai to fail lest it is left with three damaged-goods drivers on its books at the dawn of a championship-challenging season.
The midseason driver switch is classically Red Bull — ruthless, bold and aimed only at success. The only question is: can the team pull off the gamble?