At the top of the heap are Daniel Ricciardo and Kimi Raikkonen. Both offer pros and cons concerning their role should they be either promoted or moved to Red Bull, making the eminent decision over choosing who should fill Mark Webber’s void all the more difficult. Waiting for a verdict to draw near has made me think about Red Bull’s rather infamous Young Driver Program and its long-term viability in Formula One. Here is what I have come to.
By most people’s standards, a solid and meaningful Formula One career should be at lest five years long. There is some wiggle room in that number, for sure, but you can’t argue that if you haven’t achieved something significant in at least five years in the sport, then you probably aren’t going down in history as one of the greats. This is what makes Sebastian Vettel’s meteoric and storied rise through the sport all the more impressive. His is in his 5th year at Red Bull and is considered one of the sport’s all-time greats. Regardless of what people say, there is no denying that fact. Why, then, does Red Bull’s Young Driver Program take so much criticism? Surely Sebastian Vettel is the shining beacon of confirmation that the program is, indeed, worthwhile?
Take a look at the list of drivers formerly a part of the Red Bull Young Driver scheme, and you may be surprised. In the list are some current F1 drivers, Vettel, Ricciardo and Vergne, of course, but dominating the remainder of the list are drivers whose careers have either tapered off in unimpressive fashion, or diverted to categories other than Formula One, which was the ultimate goal in the first place. There are currently 29 drivers in that list of former RBR proteges, six of whom made the step up to Formula One. Three currently remain. These statistics are not confidence inspiring to anyone who may currently be in the program for, as I mentioned earlier, five years in Formula One is the sign of a meaningful contribution to the sport. This is even more worrying when you consider the “Red Bull Junior Team” as the program is called, was only formed in 2001, with the Red Bull F1 team making its debut in just 2005. This means that in the space of just over two average Formula One careers, Red Bull has finished 23 of 29 stints in the YDP without ultimate success. Hardly comforting numbers here.
Why then, do I believe that program is set to enter a period of success? The simple answer is consistency. Going back to the list of former YDP drivers, I saw that all of those drivers, the ones who did not make it to Formula One, that is, had short periods of success followed by long periods of mediocrity. These longer periods without success usually ended with the termination of their contract with Formula One. On driver in particular, Mikhail Aleshin won the 2004 Formula Renault 2.o Italy championship, but didn’t back that up with another championship until 2010, when he won the Formula Renault 3.5 championship. He didn’t make the step up to Formula One after that year (a year in which, I might add, he beat one Daniel Ricciardo to the title), instead returning to the championship this season to try his luck again.
This is the story of all the drivers on that list who won a championship early on in their career, but failed to back it up the next season, and that is exactly what Red Bull is hunting for. The second they think you’re on a downhill slope, they cut you off and say “Good luck to ya.” It is consistent championship challenges that get you the tenure you want at Red Bull. The top 3 current YDP drivers, in my opinion, are Antonio Felix da Costa, Carlos Sainz Jr and Daniil Kvyat. All three are frontrunners in their respective categories, though the latter two have had their bad days, and all three are getting outings in Formula One machinery in this week’s Young Driver Test. A sign of Red Bull’s commitment? One would hope so.
Red Bull needs to show its drivers that they are as committed to them as the drivers are to the program, regardless of what race results may suggest. If that commitment is not made clear, then drivers will turn them down, just as Luiz Razia did a few years ago. Red Bull also NEEDS to promote Daniel Ricciardo to Red Bull for next season. It is vital to the viability of Scuderia Toro Rosso and the entire Red Bull Junior Team that the Aussie is promoted. Otherwise, what is the point? I’ve seen this, and it won’t take long for young drivers to see it, too.
The choice is much more clear than we all think.