In the battle to set off the dominoes in the Formula 1 driver market, few would have expected Red Bull to be the team that made the first move.

But the cut-throat nature of the team’s driver programme hit with a fresh vengeance on Monday when it was announced that Alexander Albon would be replacing Pierre Gasly at the senior Red Bull outfit for the remainder of the season.

Coming just 12 races into Gasly’s time with Red Bull - and, indeed, Albon’s whole F1 career - the shock level of this decision exceeds even that of the similar call to replace Daniil Kvyat with Max Verstappen just four rounds into the 2016 campaign.

So what is the thinking behind Red Bull’s decision?

It was clear that Gasly was coming under intense pressure after his difficult start to life with Red Bull. His own promotion to the senior team was never expected so soon - Daniel Ricciardo’s departure put paid to the succession plan in place - but after impressing through his first full season with Toro Rosso in 2018, Gasly was given the chance to step up.

Alas, the reality at the front of the grid has bit Gasly hard. Early struggles were to be expected, but as Verstappen and engine supplier Honda began to hit their stride at the start of the European season, Gasly continued to stumble. Come Austria, Verstappen was celebrating his stunning victory while Gasly was left feeling the heat after managing just a single top-five finish through the opening nine rounds of the season.

Silverstone looked like a turning point for Gasly. He was much closer to Verstappen all weekend, and fought with Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel through the early part of the race, eventually crossing the line fourth after Verstappen and Vettel collided. Gasly explained that “many changes” had been the key to his breakthrough, with team boss Christian Horner saying the Frenchman was like a “different driver”.

But the positive momentum did not carry through to Germany. A crash in FP2 acted as a setback for before he qualified fourth - albeit 0.4s off Verstappen - but in a race where opportunities fell to so many, Gasly was never in the frame. Gasly never ran any higher than sixth at Hockenheim, and ultimately squandered the chance to bring home some points with a clumsy run into the back of - ironically - Albon’s car forced him to retire with damage in the closing stages.

And then came Hungary. Verstappen once again starred, taking his first pole position and leading the majority of the race before being passed by Lewis Hamilton late on - but Gasly was nowhere. Eight-tenths of a second off the pace in qualifying and lapped by his teammate in the race, Gasly was left fighting the midfield leaders, far away from Red Bull wanted or needed him to be.

Horner made clear after the race that an improvement was needed if Red Bull had any desire to battle Ferrari for second place in the constructors’ championship, the gap between them standing at just 44 points. The deficit between Gasly and Verstappen? 118 points.

“I think he really needs to take some time out during the summer break, reflect on the first half of the season and take the lessons from that into the second half of the year,” Horner said of Gasly.

“It’s vital for us if we are to stand any chance of catching Ferrari that we have him finishing further ahead. We need him to be racing Ferraris and Mercedes, and everything we can do to help him to achieve that is what we will do.”

Horner added: “Our intention is to leave him the car until the end of the year. But we desperately need to see him realising more of the potential of the car.”

Something changed in the eight days between Horner speaking of that intention and the decision - made swiftly, it must be noted, with little lead-up for any party - to put Albon in the car for Spa. Having a new driver come up to speed immediately is always difficult. There is likely to be a period of adjustment for Albon - but Red Bull will be eager to see if the youngster, just 12 races into his career and having shown some flashes of brilliance, will be able to do a better job than Gasly.

The statement from the team said the move up for Albon was in order to evaluate him for a possible Red Bull seat in 2020, making clear the fight is open. The team knows what Gasly can do in a top car. It also knows what Kvyat is capable of from his first stint at the team, with this knowledge perhaps reasoning its decision to overlook him to join Verstappen from Spa onwards. At the end of Albon’s stint, Red Bull will have three drivers to pick from - assuming it does not go outside its umbrella for the first time in over a decade - to partner Verstappen full-time in 2020.

For Albon, this promotion caps off a remarkable rise over the last 18 months. From starting the 2018 Formula 2 season wearing someone else’s overalls due to the last-minute nature of his deal with DAMS after, to securing a works Formula E deal with Nissan, to then breaking out of that to link up with Toro Rosso - and then finally land a Red Bull seat. Talk about a turnaround.

The worry with Gasly will be that Red Bull burns him up the same way it did Kvyat following his demotion from the senior team in 2016. Kvyat did not fully recover from that blow until last month’s German Grand Prix, saying he felt the difficult three years “crashed from my shoulders” at the moment. The focus will now be on ensuring Gasly does not face the same kind of struggles - although with Juri Vips on the rise in Formula 3 and set for a Super License, it is not a given that the four current Red Bull-backed drivers on the F1 grid will remain in the four Red Bull seats.

Red Bull’s decision to drop Kvyat for Verstappen in 2016 seemed harsh at the time, yet it quickly paid off. Hitting the jackpot again in such a spectacular way is harder to expect with Albon, but the team is the only one of the grid with such scope to roll the dice like this.

Summer break? What summer break? F1 never truly stops.

 

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