• Max Verstappen is Red Bull's number one F1 driver.
• Verstappen has never had a teammate to help fight Mercedes or Ferrari in the past.
• Red Bull needs to admit to the limits of their young driver programme.
• For more motoring stories, go to www.Wheels24.co.za
In January, the Red Bull Formula One team extended 22-year-old Max Verstappen's contract to the end of 2023 to deliver them a driver's championship as their number one driver.
The $15.7 million-per-year commitment put paid to any speculation of him as an heir to Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes in the immediate future. But while guaranteeing a generous imbursement for the Dutchman, it also ensures he will never win a world championship with the team.
Since being seconded by the Red Bull F1 team from the junior Toro Rosso outfit at the 2016 Spanish grand prix, where he won his debut race after the dominant Mercedes pairing of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg crashed into each other, Verstappen has successively finished fifth, sixth, fourth and third – twice – in the F1 driver's championship.
Yet never second, which on the one hand can be ascribed to Mercedes' hegemonic grip on F1 since the advent of the turbo-hybrid era in 2014; as well as Ferrari's intermittent flashes of speed.
Image: GettyImages/Mark Thompson
But crucially – by never having had a teammate to help fight Mercedes and Ferrari.
Verstappen's arrival at Red Bull as a young prodigy came as the team was suffering a two-year slump following the quartet of double titles enjoyed at the hands of Sebastian Vettel between 2010 and 2013. Although salvaging second in the constructor's championship, Daniel Ricciardo's explosive arrival and poor reliability from the new and equally often-exploding Renault V6 hybrid engine, pushed Vettel to jump ship for Ferrari at the end of 2014.
The year 2015 was another one to endure instead of enjoy. Winless, thanks to Renault's continued inability to get its head around the new engine formula, it was a season to forget as the team nosedived to fourth in the constructors' championship.
The years 2017 and 2018 saw the Verstappen-Ricciardo pairing mature into a powerhouse that at worst, exceeded that of Ferrari and at best, equalled Mercedes' in ability; only to be beaten by the latter and an occasionally resurgent Vettel.
Following the internecine war that raged between Hamilton and Rosberg in 2016, 2018 afforded viewers the last-ever glimpse of two alpha drivers sparring from opposite sides of the same garage in the Red Bull pit.
In August 2018, aboard a flight from the Hungarian Gran Prix to Los Angeles, Daniel Ricciardo decided he'd had enough; committing to a two-year contract with Renault. He's admitted to the need for a change of scenery - code for saying that however high, he'd reached his plateau in the team, and an uncomfortable realisation that the team was gravitating towards Verstappen.
Ever-supportive team boss Christian Horner called it "running away from a fight." But rarely in F1 is the truth just black or white.
Up to then, Red Bull had been the only top three contenders not to build the team around a superstar driver backed up by a pliant number two, as was the case with the Hamilton/Bottas and Vettel/Räikkönen pairings at Mercedes and Ferrari. But once Ricciardo had departed, Red Bull Racing became Max Verstappen's plaything. This was either a deliberate change in tack or only down to the fact that after years of hiring and firing, the Red Bull junior programme conveyer belt of young talent – which has struggled to constantly delivery star quality drivers – had finally been exhausted.
Toro Rosso's Pierre Gasly was first shoved into the Aussie's Red Bull seat for 2019, only to be dumped after 12 races and being swapped back with Alexander Albon from the second half of 2019. During this time, Red Bull's position in the constructors' standings was largely mirrored by Max Verstappen's in the driver's championship (third), which highlights who was bringing home the points – and who'd been hired to not trouble the team leader - or Mercedes and Ferrari.
And that's the point. A driver number two exists to scupper the strategic options available to the opposition – as Mercedes did to Verstappen at Spa two weekends ago – and cover off of any strategic divergence available to the chasing driver by having two cars that can run different tyre strategies.
Red Bull's previous first-world problem of equal drivers taking points from one another has, since 2019, mutated into the present disaster of having a second driver that's under-performing to such an extent that it has become a one-car team.
Image: GettyImages/Mark Thompson
In 2020, Alexander Albon's respective qualifying and race-finishing positions have averaged 8.25 and 8, which is nowhere near the second row of the grid where Verstappen set up camp at most races, and as a consequence is having to target the Silver Arrows, devoid of any assistance for race after race.
Admittedly, apart from prize money and Instagramability, the constructor's title appeals less to top teams than the lure of a driver's world championship. Ferrari has repeatedly echoed this notion in the past. And it may be that Red Bull is similarly well-funded that it is content to forgo the lesser-fancied trophy when the history books are only concerned with the ultimate.
Yet, if Red Bull was genuinely serious about winning the constructor's title in F1, let alone another driver's title, they'd first need to admit to the limits of their young driver programme; then call on the experienced services of a Fernando Alonso, or even Sebastian Vettel (who incidentally has been the programme's only F1 world champion after nearly two decades) because as things stand right now, they won't win either - and won't do so any time soon.