The Red Bull Young Driver Programme is a ruthless world where failure is simply not an option. Just ask Lewis Williamson, who had his backing cut after just five races outside the points.
However, while it punishes drivers who fail, it also greatly rewards those who succeed. Four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel is a graduate of the programme, as are his team-mate Daniel Ricciardo and Toro Rosso drivers Daniil Kvyat and Jean-Eric Vergne. Other alumni of the programme race in top series around the globe including the DTM, IndyCar, and the World Endurance Championship.
Unless Vergne becomes the longest-tenured Toro Rosso driver in history – no one has lasted longer than three seasons, and the Frenchman is in his third – he is likely to be cast aside for new talent in 2015.
So, who will be the next star to break out of the cut-throat Red Bull Junior Team? Lets take a look at the top contenders: Alex Lynn, Carlos Sainz Jr, Jann Mardenborough, and one potential surprise return.
20-year-old Englishman Alex Lynn is currently dominating the GP3 championship, with two pole positions and two feature race wins so far this year. On Sundays, where the cars line up in a reverse grid and Lynn has found himself deeper in the pack, he's had less luck – a tactical gamble in Spain for wet weather tyres didn't pay off and a puncture in Austria all but ended his chances of glory. However, it's safe to say that with clean runs he'd be even further ahead.
More impressive is that he seems to have a lot in common with Red Bull poster boy Vettel. After leading the entire of the first Austrian race, he pulled Seb's favourite trick of pushing the car hard at the end, setting the race's fastest lap on the penultimate go-around. While he comfortably won, this hammered home to the field that if he could have gone even faster if he'd needed to.
Since taking victory in last year's prestigious Macau Grand Prix – which has previously been won by Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher and David Coulthard on their way to the top – Lynn seems to have stepped up his racing even more. Now, he can only hope to follow reigning GP3 champion Kvyat in making the jump from GP3 champion to F1 superstar.
However, despite seemingly having all the traits, experience may count against him. He has never driven a Formula One car, and hasn't raced in the faster GP2 or Formula Renault 3.5 Series. When he gets his chance in a Young Driver Test, which he no doubt will, he'll have to ensure he's at the top of his game if he wants to secure the F1 drive he is seemingly in pole position for.
Carlos Sainz Jr
The son of two-time World Rally Champion and 2010 Dakar Rally winner Carlos Sainz, 19-year-old Sainz Jr is carving out his own name in single-seaters. The young Spaniard is currently leading the Formula Renault 3.5 championship by a monster 43 points, with five poles and four wins from seven races. Giving more credence to his position as the next Red Bull F1 star is the fact that his championship lead is over the third of the Red Bull junior drivers, the eighteen-year-old Frenchman Pierre Gasly, who is in his first year with the programme.
This is an all too welcome turnaround for Sainz Jr, who experienced a lacklustre 2013 in GP3. Moving series and into the faster Formula Renault 3.5 cars has breathed new life into him, and he can only hope that his inspired drives will show that 2013 was just an off year.
Sainz Jr is also the only one of the current Red Bull developmental crop to have driven F1 machinery, having tested both a Toro Rosso and a Red Bull last year. In order to win a second chance he must have impressed in these tests, but from now on he'll have to be absolutely flawless in order to progress further.
With a few years in the programme, knowledge of several different series, and quick F1 tests under his belt, Sainz Jr has the experience to step up. However, he'll have to make sure his performances are impressive enough to erase the question marks left by some unspectacular past campaigns - and that is a big ask.
It's unlikely, if Mardenborough were to make it to F1 it would be the stuff of fairytales. If they wrote fairytales about racing drivers, that is.
Although he karted a child, Mardenborough was never able to take his career further. Instead, he rose to prominence in 2011 when he won the groundbreaking GT Academy competition based on the Gran Turismo series of PlayStation games. He's since forged a successful sportscar career, highlighted by a superb drive in this year's Le Mans 24 Hours to bring his OAK Racing-Ligier to the very front of the LMP2 class before mechanical gremlins halted their progress.
It needs to be highlighted that 22-year-old Mardenborough is not an official Red Bull Junior Driver. However, he is currently driving for Red Bull boss Christian Horner's Arden team in GP3 as a part of his development for Nissan, and that could be a crucial foot in the door.
The ultimate goal for Mardenborough is a spot for Nissan's new LMP1 programme, but he shouldn't look away from F1 just yet. Given the alliance between Renault (Red Bull's engine supplier) and Nissan (his current bosses), and the fact that he drives for a team owned by Horner, an impressive season could well land him a test drive. From there, the sky is the limit.
Antonio Felix da Costa
This would be a return straight out of left field, but crazier things have happened in F1.
If 2013 had gone to plan, we'd be watching 22-year-old Portugese Felix da Costa racing for Toro Rosso instead of Kvyat. From the moment Red Bull poached him in 2012, his career path was seemingly set on F1. However, a poor 2013 campaign in Formula Renault 3.5, coupled with Kvyat's superb run in GP3, consigned Felix da Costa to the enormous Red Bull scrapheap.
He is still associated with Red Bull, racing a BMW sponsored by them in the DTM and being registered as one of their test drivers, but it would take something special for him to work his way back into the team's F1 plans.
However, like Mardenborough, he has a foot in the door. Success in the highly competitive DTM championship and some impressive simulator work could make Red Bull rethink their plans.
Although it would be great to see a story like Mardenborough or Felix da Costa play out and have one of them take a Toro Rosso seat, in all likelihood it'll be a straight fight between Lynn and Sainz Jr.
Red Bull haven't been put off by inexperience before, placing Kvyat and Jamie Alguersuari in race seats when both were young and raw. This perhaps gives the advantage to Lynn, and forces Sainz Jr to show that he has the mentality and race-craft to match his undeniable pace.
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