As Formula 1 begins its month-long summer break, the news that has rippled through the tranquil waters came in the form of Red Bull making a driver change. Pierre Gasly has been demoted to Toro Rosso beginning with the next race, the Belgian Grand Prix on September 1.
The driver taking Gasly’s seat will be 23 year-old Alexander Albon Ansusinha, better known as Alex Albon. The British-Thai driver earned the seat with his steady performances with Toro Rosso during the first half of the season.
Albon’s history with Red Bull goes back a bit, as he signed on with their development program in 2012. His stint lasted until 2017, when he joined McLaren and raced in the FP2 series. That year he placed 10th, but it was the following year when he finished third, battling future F1 drivers Charles Leclerc and Lando Norris that impressed Red Bull enough to resume their relationship.
He had originally been slated to take on a seat in Formula E for the 2019 season, but Red Bull scooped him up and placed him at Toro Rosso for the year.
Even though they had made a statement avowing that Gasly was safe for the rest of the 2019 season, the proclamation caused a reaction that was more guffaw than belief. There was a sense in the paddock that Gasly was just not giving the team what they expected or hoped for, that he should have been closer to teammate Max Verstappen in time and points.
That comparison, however, may not be fair (though racing is like everything else and fairness can be a silly notion). Verstappen looks to be a transcendent talent, the one that will take Red Bull well into the 2020s. The way he continues to mature while showing blazing speed is the stuff of a future champion, and to think that his teammate would approximate those results is just reaching.
For Toro Rosso, they seem to have developed a habit of being a place that tinkers with their driver lineup. They have faced changes during the season in three of the last four years which seems to indicate that they are no more than the test team for their big sister Red Bull. While that notion is not new, the problem with it is that it, in itself, may not be a great place for actually testing out drivers.
While Toro Rosso can run cars similar to what Red Bull run, they cannot, due to the rules, run the same car. That makes comparisons problematic and raises issues about team organizations and how they may differ.
What is funny is that Toro Rosso looks to be a team that has been improving. They may have finished ninth in the standings last year, but they were the guinea pigs for the Honda engine that has shown remarkable improvement this year and has the team now placed in fifth. If they were to hold on to that position, it would be their best-ever finish for the year. Their may competition for that spot is Renault, and no one has any clue if Renault are improving, getting worse, or just making a funny habit of shooting themselves in the foot while making decisions with a Magic 8-Ball.
Toro Rosso, with Daniil Kvyat and now Pierre Gasly holding down the seats for the rest of the season, should be in fine shape to manage fifth.
Albon here is the wildcard. He might just as well drive the car into the gravel in every remaining race as he might be able to hold his own with Verstappen. Albon has shown, if not anything, that he is quick. Managing that quickness is the trick.
He was behind Kvyat in points, but much of that came from Kvyat lucking into a podium at the German GP when all but two drivers in front of him found rain to be like falling Kryptonite mixed with oil.
This decision looks to be one that states that Gasly is never going to be THE driver and that it is time to see if another investment will pay dividends, or whether Red Bull and Toro Rosso clean out the seats and start fresh next year — save for Verstappen, natch.
At the very least, we can thank Red Bull for adding a bit of intrigue to what will likely be a quiet Silly Season.