Bob McMurray: Red Bulls' Marko
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Was there ever a more brutal driver development programme than that of the Red Bull organisation?
Lorded over by the apparently humourless Dr Helmut Marko, a man more feared than respected by his various proteges, the programme has developed a staggering number of young drivers: many going on to be highly successful with Sebastian Vettel, Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen the most high-profile at the moment.
Marko, a doctor of law and hotelier in his native Austria, was a Formula 1 driver, with limited success, in very early 1970s — although he did win the 1971 Le Mans 24 hours race.
Blinded in his left eye by a stone thrown up by the Lotus of Emerson Fittipaldi in the 1972 French Grand Prix, he went on to found his own racing team that eventually morphed into the Red Bull driver development programme.
By my count, 57 drivers who have been through the programme have been cast aside for one reason or another, including Le Mans winner and FIA World
Endurance Champion, Kiwi Brendon Hartley. Six drivers have made it into regular Formula 1 seats with the Red Bull “junior” team Toro Rosso, and six have made the Red Bull Formula 1 team. The programme currently has four young drivers under contract.
That’s a staggering number in total, and that’s just the single-seater section, with more in the motorcycle and other motor sports categories.
Though many of these drivers are grateful for the support of Red Bull initially, it is a case of perform, improve, win, or OUT you go, with any contracts written being heavily in favour of Red Bull.
This was brought more to light during the week running up to the Malaysian Grand Prix, when it was announced Russian Toro Rosso F1 team driver Daniil Kvyat was to be dumped — my word, but that effectively is what it is — from his seat at Toro Rosso for the latest “hot-shoe” to come on to the scene — young French driver Pierre Gasly.
Officially Kvyat is being “rested” for the next few races but to do that mid-season is a merciless indictment of his abilities.
Due to a clash in Gasly’s racing commitments it is likely Kvyat will be back in the seat later in the season but his future with Red Bull and in Formula 1, remains on a knife edge.
Marko was similarly merciless when he installed Max Verstappen in the Red Bull team and effectively demoted the incumbent Kvyat to Toro Rosso mid-season last year.
It was hoped Kvyat would respond to that move by putting his head down and improving his performance but sadly he seems to have gone the other way with a continued litany of mistakes and below average performances.
There is considerable sympathy in the paddock for Kvyat, a competitor in the Toyota Racing Series in New Zealand in 2011.
Many believe his treatment by the good doctor is at the root of his performance woes.
But this is a tough business in a tough environment and sentiment counts for little. A look at the list of those drivers previously cast aside is proof of that.
As much as Marko is critiqued, he is doing the job entrusted to him as the man in charge of the development programme as well as being the trusted advisor to Dietrich Mateschitz, the billionaire co-founder of Red Bull and the ultimate authority over the racing programme and the Red Bull / Toro Rosso Formula 1 teams.
Marko can be seen at each grand prix staring intently at the timing screens with barely a flicker of emotion, personifying the “hard man” attitude he is known for.
In a recent article by Joe Saward, perhaps the most intuitive of all the Formula 1 journalists, Marko is quoted as saying: “Families ... have sold their houses to help the careers of boys who were not good enough.
"Not everybody can drive in Formula 1, let alone become world champion. This is a fact that you just have to deal with.”