Are Red Bull heading for a driver dilemma?

Max Verstappen

With so many quick youngsters on their books and Daniel Ricciardo starring at the senior team, Red Bull's driver production line could soon grind to a halt.

Remember former Red Bull proteges Michael Ammermüller, Adrian Zaugg and Mika Maki? If so it’s time to buy an anorak and that deluxe thermos you’ve been dreaming of. Most will not, because those drivers have vanished into the obscurity of lower-level professional motorsport. Even the Red Bull juniors who tried and failed in Formula 1 are becoming distant memories; has anyone heard from Patrick Freisacher lately?

Things have improved in recent years, with Sebastian Vettel re-writing the F1 record books and now Daniel Ricciardo showing him up at Red Bull Racing. Even their ‘failures’ are a different class: after all, Brendon Hartley and Neel Jani both race for the iconic Porsche squad in the WEC.

But their junior driver programme is becoming too successful. And if Red Bull continue to churn out prodigiously talented youngsters, eventually it will come back to bite them.

This is a new problem for the company. Though the Red Bull junior programme has been running in some form for well over a decade, it is only in recent years that they have begun to produce consistently good drivers.

The programme's chief aim is, by its very nature, to develop talent to drive for its senior F1 team, with the Toro Rosso squad acting as a half-way house. This is why young drivers join the programme: if there was no potential for an F1 seat, they would be far less inclined to place their future in Red Bull's hands.

And this incentive was always very real thanks to the presence of Mark Webber at Red Bull Racing. Webber’s departure from the sport had seemed imminent since as early as 2010. The Australian was the wrong side of 30 and seemingly at constant odds with the team hierarchy; his departure was always on the cards.

And that kept the young drivers happy. Whether you were racing for Toro Rosso or competing in Red Bull colours further down the ladder, the dream of joining F1's best team remained very real. Webber would be gone soon, so what you needed to do was keep your head down and focus on performing.

That no longer exists. Having promoted Daniel Ricciardo to a spot at the senior team, Red Bull have two drivers in the mid-twenties. So long as they remain happy and perform well, there is no need to drop them for several years yet.

Add to this the presence of two very young drivers at Toro Rosso. The team will kick off next season with Daniil Kvyat, a comparative veteran at 20 years and 11 months, and 17-year-old Max Verstappen. Neither of those boys are going anywhere for the next few years.

That's a significant problem, because there are several other Red Bull proteges doing an excellent job in the lower categories - none more so than Formula Renault 3.5 points leader Carlos Sainz Jr. The Spaniard had been set for a seat at Toro Rosso until it was handed to Verstappen. What does he do next? Red Bull may keep him in the fold in another series, as they have by placing Antonio Felix da Costa in the DTM, while a seat in F1 with Caterham has been rumoured.

But unless they do that Sainz's chances of going grand prix racing are slim. Red Bull may be looking after Da Costa, but they clearly don't see him in a Formula 1 car as first Kvyat and now Verstappen have leapfrogged him into F1.

That means Sainz may need to leave the programme if he is to have any hope of an F1 seat. And he's not the only one - his fellow Red Bull juniors are also showing well. Britain's Alex Lynn leads the GP3 standings in his rookie season, while 18-year-old Frenchman Pierre Gasly is a strong third in Formula Renault 3.5. But what hope do they have of an F1 break now? Lynn turns 21 next month; by Red Bull junior standards he is getting a little long in the tooth, and he's not even next in line for an F1 seat.

It creates another a potential problem on the Formula 1 side, too: the team now has a logjam that could cost them dear.

Let's assume both current Red Bull Racing drivers get two year contract extensions next season. That's entirely possible: Ricciardo has been the star of 2014, while Vettel is enduring an off year but will undoubtedly bounce back come 2015. There's no reason to change. That locks them in through 2016 and '17.

Meanwhile, Kvyat takes another step forward next year and looks like a bona fide star. That gets (hypothetically) Mercedes interested; they offer him a race seat and, with no vacancies likely to open up at the senior team for a few years, Kvyat accepts. He then goes on to become a superstar for the Silver Arrows.

Verstappen could be equally problematic - because anyone who signs an F1 race deal at 16 clearly isn't interested in hanging around.

Of course, by bringing him in so young they have a bit more time. Max will be afforded a very quiet first year due to his age and lack of experience. In fact, he is almost certainly guaranteed a second season regardless of how 2015 goes, as Red Bull have given him such a huge task.

But if his progress is as rapid as Helmut Marko believes it will be, Verstappen will be knocking on the door of the senior team very soon. With Ricciardo and Vettel in place, however, what need is there to change? Red Bull could face losing Max as well.

Meaning Red Bull could untimely be helping drivers into F1 only to prepare them for a career with one of their chief rivals. Perhaps Kvyat will have some loyalty to the Red Bull programme, but Verstappen is less likely to do so. He signed with them to secure an F1 seat having done the hard work himself.

Red Bull could argue that this is not the worst problem to have, but if Kvyat or Verstappen beat one of their drivers to the 2020 World Championship they may feel differently.

Their junior programme has been excellent for Formula 1, not least in that it guarantees two talented youngsters seats at Toro Rosso. No 28-year-old GP2 veterans with a thick wad of cash here - just quality.

But if one of their proteges flies the nest, then returns to defeat them in Formula 1, Red Bull may rue the success of their own junior programme.