Formula 1: Red Bull junior program facing a growing problem

Daniel Ricciardo, Yuki Tsunoda, AlphaTauri, Formula 1 (Photo by Peter Fox/Getty Images)
Daniel Ricciardo, Yuki Tsunoda, AlphaTauri, Formula 1 (Photo by Peter Fox/Getty Images) /

In the history of Formula 1, perhaps no driver program has been more successful in bringing young talent to the sport than the Red Bull Junior Team.

Since purchasing the Jaguar team and entering Formula 1 in 2005, Red Bull have won 107 Grands Prix, six world constructor championships, and six — soon to be seven — driver world championships. While they’ve built some truly dominant cars over the years, their success is due in large part to their drivers and the way they’ve been fielded.

The Austrian outfit has produced two of the most successful and downright dominant drivers of all-time in Sebastian Vettel and Max Verstappen, backed up by their combined six (almost seven) titles with Red Bull. They are the only two drivers to bring championship glory to Milton Keynes.

And they weren’t just randomly picked out to drive for the team, either. Rather, they were scouted out by Red Bull, signed to their junior program at a very young age, and promised a drive in Formula 1 with their sister operation, Scuderia Toro Rosso, now known as AlphaTauri.

With this, Red Bull single-handedly reinvented how to scout, develop, and promote young talent in such a way that is still yet to be fully replicated. Looking at the 2023 grid, all of Verstappen, Sergio Perez, Liam Lawson, Daniel Ricciardo, Yuki Tsunoda, Carlos Sainz Jr., Alex Albon, and Pierre Gasly either have or have had Red Bull ties.

The number of drivers, many of whom are of high quality, given a fully paved pathway to Formula 1 from this program is unheard of from any other team, and that alone deserves to be fully respected.

In the last few years, however, Red Bull’s Formula 1 junior program has started to run into some problems.

Aside from when the team opted to sign David Coulthard, Vitantonio Liuzzi, Christian Klien, and Mark Webber in its first two years, Red Bull have always made a habit of promoting drivers from within.

As well as that method of operation has worked, that is ironically where the problems all started.

Since Ricciardo left Red Bull for Renault at the end of 2018, Red Bull’s driver pool has been in complete disarray. The Australian’s shock departure left the team scrambling to fill the second seat for 2019 before eventually promoting Gasly. Later during that same season, they brought it Albon to replace a struggling Gasly and partner Verstappen.

With both drivers having struggled mightily, the team deviated from their driver pool for the first time by signing Perez for 2021.

In the midst of Red Bull’s second driver struggles, AlphaTauri also brought back the struggling Daniil Kvyat, who had been replaced by Gasly at the end of 2017, for 2019 — before dropping him again at the end of 2020. They even retained a de facto “lame duck” Gasly for 2021 and 2022.

Once the Frenchman left for Alpine at the end of last season, Red Bull appointed Nyck De Vries, another driver from outside the program, to AlphaTauri. But he was dropped mid-season, leading to the 34-year-old Ricciardo’s return to the Red Bull family.

With Ricciardo having been retained for the 2024 season, despite Red Bull junior Liam Lawson’s outstanding performances as his ongoing injury replacement, many viewed the move as a slap in the face to the team’s junior program.

Despite having a talented pool of drivers, including Lawson, Juri Vips (before his release for inappropriate online behavior), and Ayumu Iwasa waiting in the wings, the organization has continuously brought in and retained older drivers for the junior team instead.

Of course, there are a multitude of factors that have caused these issues, and they’re not all Red Bull’s fault. First off, had Gasly, Albon, and even Perez not struggled in the limelight, the two driver lineups would certainly be much more stable, as there wouldn’t be a need for frequent change.

Additionally, in the buildup to the announcement of Ricciardo and Tsunoda staying through 2024, there were rumblings across the paddock about AlphaTauri wanting to have at least one experienced driver competing for the team, rather than another fresh, young, mistake-prone driver, to help develop the car and get the team out of Formula 1’s basement.

Red Bull are also seemingly learning from their past mistakes of rushing young drivers into too high of an opportunity too soon.

Should Perez be dropped from the big team, which is becoming more and more likely post-2024, they want to make sure that they have a proven, experienced driver ready to go, rather than effectively throwing another rookie or sophomore driver to the wolves.

While all these factors are fully understandable, it still shows that Red Bull’s junior program is being heavily misused — and becoming somewhat irrelevant.

The whole purpose of the Red Bull Junior Team and AlphaTauri is to acquire young talent and give them a chance to race in Formula 1, with the opportunity to race for a top team if they show out.

If the team is occupied by an older, experienced driver in the midst of a career revival such as Ricciardo, or who has been there for a while like Gasly was and like Tsunoda currently is, doesn’t that defeat the whole purpose?

Sure, there is a benefit of having full control over more drivers than other teams do, but that results in less room for young talent to shine.

If Lawson finishing inside the top 13 in each of his first four races in Ricciardo’s place, including an AlphaTauri season-high ninth place finish in Singapore, isn’t enough to warrant a full-time seat, then what is?

It’s clear that Red Bull no longer trust their young driver program to produce a top-level driver, nor do they feel a desperate need for new talent.

With rumors of AlphaTauri being sold, or even Red Bull scrapping their junior program altogether, swirling through the paddock, it seems that even Red Bull themselves see the writing on the wall.

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Should the team stay on this path, it’s very likely that the once revolutionary program will soon fade away for good.