Four years ago, Max Verstappen replaced Daniil Kvyat at Red Bull ahead of the Spanish Grand Prix and pulled off a fairytale debut performance to become the youngest driver to win a Formula One race.
While Christian Horner and his team were already impressed by the then 18-year-old’s results for Toro Rosso [now Alpha Tauri], that display not only vindicated their decision to take a chance on the youngster, but also convinced them that they had a future world champion in their garage.
Since then, everything at Red Bull has been geared towards extracting the very best from Verstappen. It’s perhaps less surprising then that Pierre Gasly struggled to settle in after being called up to partner the Dutchman last season.
A myriad of issues plagued Gasly’s 2019 season during which he was consistently well behind his team-mate. Having been lapped by Verstappen in Austria and then again in Hungary, his eventual return to Toro Rosso was inevitable.
He swapped seats with Alex Albon whose initial performance was an improvement, but the 23-year-old has begun to fall off Verstappen’s pace this term.
On average, he’s been over half a second slower than his team-mate in qualifying this season while during the race in Hungary, Verstappen was over 40 seconds ahead at one stage.
It must be said that Albon was in position to challenge for his first win at the opening race in Austria before a collision with Lewis Hamilton as they jostled for second place ended his charge.
The six-time world champion was at fault and was handed a five-second penalty but there was also an air of naivety in Albon’s rushed attempt. With a new set of softs on, he was comfortably quicker than Mercedes and could’ve waited for an easier opportunity but dived in at Turn Five and paid the price.
Red Bull has also had trouble with the balance of the car during the opening three weekends but those circumstances affect both drivers and Verstappen has been significantly faster.
Given how far off the pace Gasly was as well, could it be that keeping up with Verstappen is just an unreasonable expectation for Red Bull’s No2 driver?
That’s a challenge that was put to a certain Daniel Ricciardo as soon as the young Dutchman joined the team.
After qualifying third on the grid during that Spanish GP in 2016, one spot ahead of Verstappen on his debut, Ricciardo finished just outside the podium places with his three-stop strategy costing him dearly.
It wouldn’t be the last time the Aussie found himself overshadowed by the driver who is nine years his junior, but the man they call ‘The Honey Badger’ for his grit, tenacity and aggression behind the wheel, always pushed the envelope.
For the majority of their time as team-mates, Ricciardo may even have had the edge over Verstappen until the competition grew so fierce that they began to collide on track. As soon as that happened, Red Bull made the decision to put their complete backing behind the emerging star while the Aussie contemplated his future before choosing to switch to Renault.
Despite the drop off in results for Ricciardo once he made his decision during the 2018 season, his record against Verstappen is still commendable.
In 58 races together, Ricciardo had four wins to Verstappen’s five, only three fewer podiums and just 18 fewer points. Prior to him signing with Renault, they were neck-and-neck in all categories.
“Sometimes you just gotta lick the stamp and send it,” goes Ricciardo’s motto that has adorned several t-shirts in his tribute. But swapping Red Bull for Renault immediately seemed like one dive bomb he shouldn’t have attempted given the French team’s struggles.
With a McLaren seat secured for 2021 though, it seems like Red Bull might’ve lost more in the split. Sure, Ricciardo was a threat to Verstappen and they occasionally came together during races but he also challenged him and the team had two drivers scoring points at the top of the grid more often than not.
If Red Bull are to challenge for a championship, they need that kind of dynamic pairing mixing things up at the front of the pack. In fact, even Verstappen needs a driver like that to take points off the likes of Lewis Hamilton if he is to realise his dream of being world champion.
Is Albon capable of being that driver? He’s only shown glimpses of that potential. Sooner or later, he’s going to have to lick the stamp and send it.
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