On Monday, we had the surprise announcement that Alex Albon will be moving up to Red Bull from Spa onwards, whilst the underperforming Pierre Gasly will return to the Toro Rosso.
For Pierre Gasly there is no doubt this is the right decision. He has talent but being promoted to the main team in his second year alongside an in-form Max Verstappen was a massive ask. He is now able to go back to the team where he put in some incredible drives last year.
Now they are putting Alex Albon, who is even less experienced, in that same position. It is a ruthless and risky decision from the powers that be at Red Bull, but far from their first such decision.
In the wake of the announcement, I am going to examine the benefits and flaws of the Red Bull Junior Programme.
The programme was actually launched back in 2001, four years before they bought the Jaguar team and rebranded it as Red Bull Racing. A year later, they bought Minardi and made that into Toro Rosso — the junior team to the main squad.
The way the programme works is they essentially scout young talent, without taking money into consideration, and sign them up from as early in the ladder as karting in some cases.
Whilst drivers are on the programme, they have their route through the ranks mapped out by Red Bull, and if they are good enough they make it to F1. The most notable drivers who came through the programme are Sebastian Vettel and Max Verstappen.
There are many benefits to the Red Bull Junior Programme. The main benefit is by signing with them, drivers get a massive career opportunity, particularly in the junior series where money is vital.
Drivers are provided with fully funded seats in their specific series, and can focus on the racing without having to worry about finances and sponsorship.
If they are good enough and seats are available, they often get an easy route into Formula One. The program essentially hands a driver a clear path not just into F1, but into their senior team as well, which is currently a race winning team.
However, the programme has its flaws, some of which have been exposed by events of recent months.
In the early years of the programme and the Red Bull team, they had too many drivers they wanted to promote to F1, and not enough seats. In 2005, Red Bull’s first year in F1, Christian Klien and Vitantonio Liuzzi has to share the second seat for the first part of the season.
This was solved to a point when they started Toro Rosso, however even that wasn’t always enough for their number of drivers. In 2011, Daniel Ricciardo was loaned to HRT as there was no space at the time at their two teams.
In recent years, on the other hand, talent in the programme has dried out, and their solution has been to give second chances to drivers they had previously dropped, such as Brendon Hartley, Alex Albon and Daniil Kvyat.
They were put in a tough situation when Daniel Ricciardo announced his departure last year. Their only choice was to promote Pierre Gasly, who only had one year in a Toro Rosso before being thrown in the deep end.
The same can be said to a degree about when Sebastian Vettel left and they promoted Daniil Kvyat to the main team whilst he was still growing. He had an easier time than Gasly (most probably because he didn’t have Verstappen as his team-mate) but that still led to a midseason demotion in his second year at the team.
The issue is they rely too much on their young drivers to fill their teams, when they could look elsewhere to see which drivers are available on the market. This is probably the biggest flaw with the programme.
Aside from the pros and cons, the other, perhaps most notable, aspect of the programme is the brutality. In F1, if you don’t deliver, you’re often out, and that is strongly the case with Red Bull.
By joining the programme, Red Bull essentially take full control of a driver’s career, and if they get booted (which can seemingly happen at any point) then that driver is often screwed if they don’t have their own funding.
The worst case scenario is to be booted whilst you’re at Toro Rosso. The seemingly forceful nature of the contracts, prohibits drivers from looking at other opportunities until they are given the sack, which often happens at a time when all the other doors have closed.
If no opportunity opens up at the main team, a driver often gets around 3 years at Toro Rosso before they are dropped in the manner as described and replaced with one of their upcoming junior drivers.
This is the fate that befell Sebastien Buemi, Jaime Alguersuari and Jean-Eric Vergne. None of them did much wrong but were simply victims of the brutality of the program.
The same almost happened to Carlos Sainz, when the forceful nature of the contracts became clear during 2017 when his requests to exit Toro Rosso kept being refuted by the powers that be at Red Bull. Eventually, they gave in and loaned him to Renault, which they likely only agreed to as they were their engine suppliers.
In a nutshell, the Red Bull Junior Programme can be seen as like The X Factor.
By signing up for X Factor, an aspiring singer gets primetime TV exposure and a pathway to stardom, but at the same time they are risking their image as the show can portray them however they want.
By signing up for the Red Bull Junior Programme, an aspiring racing driver is given a clear pathway to F1, but they risk their career as Red Bull can basically do whatever they want with them.
This is the harsh reality of the most brutal programme in Formula One.