Of all the various academies and junior driver programmes operated by Formula 1 teams, only one has successfully produced multiple world champions: Red Bull’s.Sebastian Vettel and, now Max Verstappen, the Red Bull Junior Team has yielded the youngest and fourth-youngest world champions in history respectively. While exciting young drivers have emerged from the Mercedes, Ferrari, McLaren and Alpine (formerly Renault) stables – many of whom are capable of winning grands prix and potentially world titles in the future – it’s Red Bull who have the most reason to feel satisfied with their junior programme’s production so far.
But not that long ago the pickings looked slim for one of the sport’s more successful driver development programmes.
It was all change at Red Bull’s junior F1 squad Toro Rosso (now AlphaTauri) late in 2017. Within short order Carlos Sainz Jnr had been shipped off to Renault while Daniil Kvyat was also being shown the door.
Red Bull’s brightest junior talent at the time – reigning GP2 champion Pierre Gasly duly got the call-up to Toro Rosso. But that still left them with one vacancy.
Gasly was the only Red Bull junior at the time realistically ready to make the step up to the top level: GP3 driver Niko Kari was already heading for the exit, while Richard Verschoor and Neil Verhagen were still only in Formula Renault 2.0. Sean Gelael – not an official Red Bull junior – had run practice sessions with Toro Rosso during the season but did not have the requisite superlicence points.
Red Bull instead turned to former driver Brendon Hartley. He had been supported by Red Bull throughout his rise through the junior ranks, until he departed the programme back in 2010.
Then, when another former Red Bull driver, Alexander Albon, had an impressive season in Formula 2 in 2018 fighting against Mercedes’ George Russell and McLaren’s Lando Norris, they again opted to reunite with a former driver by hiring Albon for 2019 in place of Hartley. And with Gasly moving to the main team to fill Daniel Ricciardo’s now-vacant seat, they recalled Kvyat to join alongside Albon, rather than thrust another rookie into the spotlight.
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What had once been an ordered progression of young talent into F1, if perhaps sometimes hasty, became more haphazard in those years immediately after Verstappen’s rapid ascent to F1. But in recent years Red Bull’s young driver programme has regained some of its former shape. And in 2022 their junior line-up looks like its strongest for years.
Red Bull will be represented by no fewer than five different drivers in this season’s Formula 2 championship – almost a quarter of the field.
Perhaps most notable of the five is Formula 3 champion, 18-year-old Dennis Hauger (top), who joins fellow Red Bull junior Jehan Daruvala at Prema for the upcoming season. With Prema having produced the series champion for the last two seasons, there’s a high level of expectation for both to perform – for very different reasons. Hauger is looking to emulate Oscar Piastri by ‘doing the double’ and taking the two most important junior titles back-to-back. Daruvala, at the age of 23, is likely aware that he has limited time remaining to make his case for a future F1 drive.
Liam Lawson will move to Carlin for his second F2 season, while his Red Bull-backed team mate from last year, Juri Vips, stays at Hitech. Finally, Ayumu Iwasa jumps into the category with DAMS after a single year of Formula 3, where he claimed one victory on his way to 12th in the championship. For Red Bull, it’s an embarrassment of riches to have such a volume of young talent knocking on the door of Formula 1.
At such a tender age still, Hauger knows he has time on his side. Although he will still want to make as big an impact as possible in his first season in Formula 2. He impressed Prema during the three day post-season test in Abu Dhabi back in December, with the team describing his “consistent and impressive progress” on his way to setting the tenth overall fastest time of the test and covering 136 laps.
But of all the F2 drivers heading towards the new season, none will be doing so with as much confidence as Daruvala, who signalled his intent by being the fastest of all 22 drivers during the Yas Marina test. After a breakthrough victory in the final race of 2020 he could not quite seem to get fully comfortable with Carlin in 2021, but ended his season on a high again with a win in the first sprint race in Abu Dhabi. Returning to Prema, who he last raced with in Formula 3, Daruvala knows there will be no excuses to fall back on if he does not become a serious contender this season.
Of the two other Red Bull juniors who contested last year’s F2 season, Lawson and Vips, 2021 was a year of mixed emotions. Lawson complimented his F2 duties by racing in the DTM championship, where he was denied the title in a controversial conclusion to the season, and won the first race of the F2 season in Bahrain. But that was as good as it got for the Kiwi who scored regular points finishes but only appeared on the podium one more time all season. In his first full F2 campaign, Vips took two commanding wins in Azerbaijan and enjoyed more trips to the podium than Lawson, but four retirements over the final nine races took the momentum out of his season.
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Finally, Iwasa joins Hauger by progressing into Formula 2 after a single season of F3. The 20-year-old beat the likes of Isack Hadjar – yet another Red Bull driver – to the French F4 title in 2020 before stepping up to F3 with Hitech last year. It was a reasonable if unspectacular campaign, highlighted by Iwasa inheriting a race win in Hungary after Lorenzo Colombo was given a five second penalty for falling too far behind the Safety Car.
As if that wasn’t enough, Red Bull has one more driver who could eventually return to either of its F1 teams: Albon, who is a Williams driver this year.
The major advantage that Red Bull hold over their rivals lies in the fact they own a second team beyond their senior outfit of Red Bull Racing. AlphaTauri’s raison d’être is unique in that it exists purely to cultivate the most promising of the energy drinks conglomerate’s racing prodigies and prepare them for promotion into Red Bull Racing, where they will be expected to fight for victories and even championships.
That golden opportunity at AlphaTauri is the ultimate carrot-on-a-stick to motivate drivers on the Red Bull programme. If you show enough promise, there will likely be an opportunity waiting for you. After all, Red Bull have shown time and again they have no qualms about letting drivers go from their secondary squad when they feel they have run their course. Just ask Kvyat, Hartley or even double Formula E champion Jean-Eric Vergne.
That reality puts an intense spotlight on Yuki Tsunoda, who showed flashes of promise in an otherwise challenging debut season in Formula 1. While rookies can be expected to make mistakes, Tsunoda’s plight was not helped by established team mate Gasly having his most impressive campaign to date, taking AlphaTauri to sixth in the constructors’ championship virtually single-handedly. Should Tsunoda not turn in more consistent performances in his second season, then his seat could very much be in play for 2023.
That is the benefit of the Red Bull programme which Piastri is not offered at Alpine, whose two racing seats for 2022 and beyond appear to be very much secure with their current owners. While Guanyu Zhou has been given a chance at Alfa Romeo instead of the Alpine team itself, the route into F1 is clear if you’re fortunate enough to have the right to wear the well recognised double-bull logo on your racing suit.
With Gasly and even Sergio Perez’s futures within the Red Bull family under no guarantee depending on how the upcoming season plays out for the pair of them, there could even be more than one vacancy for Red Bull to fill on the F1 grid for 2023.
Destiny appears to be within reach of one of Red Bull’s juniors for this upcoming season. The question is, which, if any, of the five will be able to reach out and grasp it.
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