One of the more entertaining F1 side shows of past weeks was the spat between Scott ‘not got any’ Speed and the Red Bull junior team, which has led to Speed’s departure from the Toro Rosso.
Speed is latest in a string of Red Bull-backed drivers who have been rushed into F1 and failed to hold onto their seats – like Christian Klien
In the world of motorsport sponsorship the backing given by Red Bull is unrivalled by any other organisation. Nearly every series of any stature has at least one Red Bull backed driver or car. This is particularly noticeable in the junior formulae where a large number of up and coming drivers are heavily backed by Red Bull, and has been the case for several seasons now.
However despite the huge investment a Red Bull development driver is yet to go all the way and forge a lasting career at the top of motorsport – be it F1, Champ Car, Indy Racing League or NASCAR.
Furthermore given the disappointing performance of Red Bull drivers in GP2 and World Series by Renault in 2007 (Sebastian Vettel aside) the pipeline for future superstars doesn’t look too hot. So what’s gone wrong?
Klien is a case in point. An exceptional F3 driver he found himself in F1 with Jaguar in 2004 (at a cost of $20m for Red Bull for one season) probably a year too soon. With an experienced team-mate (Mark Webber) and a collapsing team Klien was always going to struggle, and he did.
However, ensconced behind the wheel of the Red Bull in 2005 he had a strong opening to the season and was comfortably quicker than team-mate David Coulthard before the team’s rotation cycle saw him moved aside in favour of Vitantonio Liuzzi. Arguably this cut momentum from Klien’s career that was never regained.
Eventually Klien got his seat back full time, only to be fired towards the end of 2006 for refusing to take a Champ Car seat for ’07. At the times when Klien really needed coaching and support it wasn’t there and the impact of this has been evident.
In Klien’s case the investment was probably justified as when all the pieces have fallen into place he showed signs of real talent. The same could not be said for Scott Speed who at no point has demonstrated anything in the way of talent to back up the investment in his career.
Given a different surname Scott would never have left the USA. Inexplicably Red Bull still seem keen to back Speed, as it appears the nature of his departure was related to his poor relationship with Toro Rosso bosses Franz Tost and Gerhard Berger.
Other drivers taken under Red Bull’s wing have simply never delivered on their potential – Vitantonio Liuzzi being a case in point. Admittedly the 2004 F3000 field was not strong, but even so his dominant title win marked him out as a future star.
Now he faces imminent redundancy from the Toro Rosso team, with two years of bad results meaning that some serious sponsorship cash may be the only reason he stays in F1 next year.
In the junior championships the Red Bull backed drivers seem to have been selected more by phone book bingo rather than any serious analysis of their talents and ability. It is always bizarre watching a Formula BMW or Formula Three race and seeing the Red Bull (and Toyota and Renault) development drivers battling intensely for seventh, while in the lead is someone who is not a ‘son of’, does not have film star looks, but who has the talent to go all the way. Inevitably this driver will win the championship by a mile and then go nowhere.
It is admirable that large corporations and manufacturers are seriously backing up and coming racers, I have two cautionary points. First, the influx of ‘development drivers’ into any series inevitably ramps up the cost of being competitive, as Toyota’s wallet is certainly larger than mine.
Second, if the will is there to invest, would Red Bull not be better served by massively subsidising a series such as Formula Palmer Audi or Formula Ford to allow the more budget conscious drivers a chance to race and then dangling a prize drive in Formula Three for the champion – as has worked extremely well with the Virgin Media Cup in superbikes. This way top-level racing becomes more affordable and talent rather than wallets can be the key to progression.
In the meantime I’m just glad I didn’t buy shares in the career of AJ Allmendinger, Robert Doornbos, Christian Klien, Scott Speedâ€¦.
Image: GEPA / Franz Pammer | Ford Media