In an exclusive interview with ESPN, Red Bull team principal Christian Horner explains why Max Verstappen holds such a big advantage over his teammates, compares him with Michael Schumacher and gives his reasons for why the team is still backing current Alex Albon over Monza race winner Pierre Gasly
Two of the most promising young drivers in Formula One have been made to look distinctly average compared to Max Verstappen at Red Bull in the last two years.
Both Pierre Gasly and Alex Albon are clearly talented and very fast drivers (Gasly recently became a race winner at Monza and Albon scored his first podium at Mugello), but neither have been able to match Verstappen in equal machinery.
So what's going on?
Red Bull team principal Christian Horner believes the gulf in performance between Verstappen and his other two drivers is partly due to the nature of Red Bull's cars in recent years. In trying to close the gap to Mercedes at the front of the grid, the team has produced a car that is difficult to drive on the limit, with the potential to sap the confidence of a struggling driver.
Snaps of oversteer are a common occurrence in qualifying, and Verstappen even lost control of his car on the way to a wet grid at the Hungarian Grand Prix.
Yet for the majority of time, Verstappen is able to deal with the edgy behaviour of the Red Bull, while his teammates have struggled.
For Horner, Verstappen's ability to throw a car into a corner and deal with the consequences is reminiscent of one of Formula One's greatest drivers.
"I would liken it to Michael Schumacher when he drove the Benetton in the mid-90s and there were not many teammates who could drive the car in the manner and fashion that Michael was able to," he told ESPN. "I think that Max is able to do the same with this car.
"Some of the car's nuances, he can cope with and they don't unsettle him. Whereas, whether it was Pierre or Daniel [Ricciardo] on occasions and certainly Alex, it has an effect.
"So that's what we are focused on as a team, trying to tidy up and reduce the car's sensitivity in that area."
The only issue is that if Verstappen is closer to Mercedes in an edgy car than he is in a less sensitive car, the team will always chase the best performance from the package and develop the edgy car. It's a reality his teammate, whoever that may be, just has to deal with.
"It ends up being a dilemma because you are always drawn to the fastest time, that's just natural," Horner adds. "Sometimes the drivers aren't talking about the same thing [in engineering debriefs] and you will always be drawn to listening to the faster driver with the fastest time, that's just human instinct."
But while Albon is struggling to keep up with Verstappen this year, his performances are not as bad as Gasly's in early 2019. The Frenchman lasted just 12 races as Verstappen's teammate before his poor results and lack of confidence saw him replaced by Albon for the second half of the season.
Yet when he moved back to Toro Rosso -- which changed name to Alpha Tauri at the start of this year -- Gasly excelled and his improved form culminated in the most unlikely victory of the past 10 years at the Italian Grand Prix this year. So was there more at play than just an edgy car?
Gasly himself recently said he knows "exactly why it didn't click" during his time at Red Bull, but is either unable to go into details due to his Red Bull contract or is simply unwilling to dig up the past.
When those comments were put to Horner by ESPN, the Red Bull boss responded: "I've got no idea [what he's talking about], to be honest with you. Really no idea.
"He had absolute equality of equipment to Max. Obviously, Alex then got in the car and scored more points than him in fewer races."
Horner maintains that Gasly's demotion to Toro Rosso after 12 races at Red Bull last year was the right move and has helped him rediscover his form.
"Pierre had a very tough time in the car here last year, so I think it was the right decision to make," Horner said. "He has recovered in that environment, the car is easier to drive, that's inspired confidence and he's got his mojo back.
"If we didn't think he was worthy of being in Formula One, we would have released him from his contract, but we didn't feel that was the case. We felt that circumstances had played out the way they had and that Alpha Tauri -- or Toro Rosso as it was at the time -- would be a better environment for him.
"I'm delighted to see that going so well and Alpha Tauri's aspirations as a team have changed from being a junior team to a sister team, so it's not just a case of just switching between one team and another. They are very happy with his performances, he's happy in that environment and I still don't believe we've seen the best of Alex yet."
One of the main reasons Red Bull is keeping the faith in Albon despite his lack of performance compared to Verstappen is his impressive performances on Sundays. Although he has consistently qualified off the pace of Verstappen, his ability to fight back in the race has resulted in some impressive overtakes, something Horner said Gasly was lacking.
"If you cast your mind back with Pierre, where he qualified tended to be where he finished," he said. "But with Alex, his racecraft has been first class since he got in the car. If you think back to Silverstone this year, driving around the outside of people into Copse, he's certainly very brave.
"He works tremendously hard and he's got a very good approach, he's very popular within the team and we need to make the car a little bit more predictable for him, which it tends to be on a Sunday but not on a Saturday. But we are making progress in that area and as we do that his performances will converge with Max."
As for why Verstappen is able to operate on the level that he does, the answer seems relatively simple.
"He's just got great natural speed, great natural talent and ability," Horner said. "He has great confidence and self-belief. He has got uncanny car control and racecraft and now he has experience.
"So if you put that package together at 22, you've got a very competitive racing machine."