Think Red Bull, and you think youth. You think edgy. You think prodigies. You think outside the box.
And in Formula 1 2015, you think “are they almost too young?”
Combined, Red Bull has four race drivers between Red Bull Racing and Scuderia Toro Rosso, and only one with more than one year of F1 experience.
Daniel Ricciardo is 25, born in 1989, and was alive when neon was still a thing. He’s also about to embark on his fourth full season in F1, fifth overall, and first as the undisputed team leader.
Meanwhile Daniil Kvyat will turn 21 in April – the age when the Russian could actually drink Russian vodka legally in the U.S. – and gets the call-up to Red Bull to replace the team’s most recognizable youngster in its F1 history, Sebastian Vettel.
Toro Rosso has gone for the all-youth, all-rookie route with Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz Jr., who combined are age 37, only two years older than the oldest driver on the grid, 35-year-old Kimi Raikkonen. Verstappen’s the 17-year-old wunderkind who many expect to turn F1 on its head, and Sainz Jr., 20, has already garnered an impressive string of results – and a World Series by Renault championship – in the junior categories.
The evolution to this truly youth-dominated lineup is something that has taken much of this quartet’s life to evolve, since Red Bull (the team) entered F1 in 2005. It’s marked a culture shift and has also been a signal of Red Bull’s intention to give its young talent a shot in F1, even if not all young drivers it grooms make it to the mountain top.
With David Coulthard and Christian Klien/Vitantonio Liuzzi in 2005 and 2006, the team opted for one pair of safe, veteran hands while also promoting from within. Once Coulthard was joined by Mark Webber in 2007, suddenly a team known for its youth-conscious image had two drivers that were among the most experienced on the grid.
Webber’s run through 2013 ensured the veteran presence stuck, and even last year Vettel was still just 26 but already into his seventh season of F1 but four times a World Champion. He was an entrenched team leader and a true set of veteran hands.
Toro Rosso has always sought the younger driver or drivers. But only Vettel, Ricciardo and now Kvyat have fully made the leap into Red Bull – the likes of Scott Speed, Sebastien Bourdais, Sebastien Buemi, Jaime Alguersuari, and Jean Eric-Vergne are all out of F1 race seats at the moment. Many others didn’t even make it that far. All bar Bourdais were groomed for F1 from the start in Red Bull’s youth incubator, and once they arrived, it was up to them to prove it. Vergne stands the best chance of that group in terms of coming back.
Now, the proof of Red Bull’s driver development is in the pudding with four of its own in the pair of cars for the two teams. True, the same could be said last year, but Vettel was a more finished product at this point than is Ricciardo now.
It’s arguably Red Bull and Toro Rosso’s most inexperienced lineup across the board to date, and one where both teams hope their drivers grow quickly in this most dog-eat-dog world of F1.
Mercedes, McLaren and Ferrari have the five World Champion drivers on the grid in their cars. Red Bull and Toro Rosso don’t – yet – but this is a year where the seeds could be sown to see their drivers become the next Vettel, or Hamilton, Button, Alonso or Raikkonen.
Ricciardo, a year ago, was in an almost ideal position where he had nothing to lose against the four-time World Champion. Now, he must be the driver that helps lead Red Bull’s return to title contention, and look to build on his three victories in 2014.
Kvyat had a solid if unspectacular debut season. On merit, there were probably other drivers who Red Bull could have opted to pick to replace Vettel. The Russian has a high ceiling but it remains to be seen whether he can match Ricciardo’s leap of a year ago.
Down at Toro Rosso, Verstappen has the weight of the world on his shoulders as he will become the youngest driver to ever start a Grand Prix, nearly a full two years younger than past Toro Rosso debutante Alguersuari. His rapid rise caused the unintended consequence of an 18-year-old age limit, and a points system for junior drivers that changes the pathway to getting into F1. All of this for a special talent who top observers say is far beyond his years.
Sainz is the wild card, as perhaps the one member of Red Bull’s overall four drivers with the least amount of pressure on his shoulders. Whereas Ricciardo, Kvyat and Verstappen immediately enter the season with something to prove, Sainz can go about his business quietly and seek to outperform expectations.
As ever, any of these four drivers will only be as good as the chassis provided to them. Additionally with Lotus shifting to Mercedes, these two teams are also the only two with Renault engines on the grid. The respective chassis and power unit performance will have much to say about how the quartet gets on this year. Both teams excelled in testing in terms of lap counts, which is more than can be said a year ago.
From a long-term planning standpoint, this is the year where Red Bull’s future seeds are sown. Ricciardo, Kvyat, Verstappen and Sainz represent the beginning of a new era. This year marks their first season as a unit where their performance will be matched against the veterans, and how well they go now will lay the groundwork for successful careers in the future.