You’ve got to love Helmut Marko sometimes.
There’s been plenty of times that I’ve been critical of Red Bull’s approach to drivers, and there have been multiple occasions where Marko has been a little too quick to open his mouth before thinking about how what he’s saying could be taken – most recently with some comments about Sergio Perez’s heritage that he quickly learned were not acceptable. But one thing that is refreshing about the Red Bull advisor is that if you ask him a question, he’ll give you a straight answer.
Quite often that answer might be that he doesn’t want to talk about it and he’ll walk off, but on Sunday in Zandvoort, he was more than happy to confirm the plans for Colton Herta.
“Astonishingly enough, all of the parties and teams involved, we found an agreement,” Marko told me while I was on air with SpeedCity Broadcasting on SiriusXM.
He knew much of America was excited about the prospect of Herta getting a Formula 1 seat, and wanted it to be clear that Red Bull was pushing to give him that chance.
But for that to happen, Herta needed two other teams to not want to stand in his way.
The first is the obvious one: Andretti Autosport. Herta is that team’s future in IndyCar, but he has ambitions of making it to F1 and has never hidden that. He started out on the European single-seater ladder, and has openly spoken of his desire to test himself against the F1 grid.
So Andretti accepted that it would allow Herta to leave should he be offered an F1 seat, and it had already been doing its bit to try and help further his career in that way. Not only was there the interest in an Andretti entry, but Herta was allowed to sign a deal with McLaren to test the 2021 car this year.
That deal, it turns out, also included options on Herta moving forward over the next two years, too. There were no obligations on either side, but the framework was in place, meaning McLaren also had to be willing to release the Californian to Red Bull.
And for a bit of context as to why McLaren would be open to doing that, you have to look at a driver that Herta has actually been vying with for F1 attention at Andreas Seidl’s team: Pato O’Ward.
O’Ward got to test the 2021 car at the end of last year in Abu Dhabi and has been hoping for further opportunities, but his whole McLaren career came about via some help from Marko. In a similar situation to the one we now have with Herta, Red Bull signed O’Ward to its junior program back in 2019 with the intention of putting him in the Toro Rosso, but initial feedback from the FIA that he would be eligible for a Super License proved to be misleading.
So Red Bull backed O’Ward for a Formula 2 weekend and then a Super Formula seat before Marko agreed to release him early to join McLaren’s IndyCar team after Zak Brown had shown a long-held interest.
In some ways, the roles are reversed now. It remains to be seen if the same issues regarding a Super License will play out, but after McLaren secured Oscar Piastri’s signature for 2023 onwards there is no immediate opportunity for Herta, and to hold onto his rights on a ‘just in case’ basis would potentially block his best chance of ever racing in F1.
As Zak Brown himself said on Friday in Zandvoort: “We would never want to hold a driver back.
“Racing drivers want to drive. I think it’s admirable that someone like Oscar sits out a year, we’ve seen Esteban (Ocon) sit out a year, but we want to encourage racing drivers to race.”
And so, owing Marko a favor and no doubt keen to avoid any further backlash after dropping the hugely popular Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren is another team in agreement with Red Bull’s plan of action.
Which just leaves Alpine.
As the final link in the chain, Alpine can’t actually derail Red Bull’s move for Herta if the Super License is forthcoming, but it would create an interesting situation if it looks elsewhere for Fernando Alonso’s replacement.
Pierre Gasly is very much on the list and will be released to Alpine if Herta joins, but sources suggest Alpine still wants to keep its options open at this stage. Whether that’s being used as a bargaining chip to pay Red Bull as little as possible or a legitimate sign of uncertainty is open to debate, but the French constructor wouldn’t be silly to take its time over a decision. After all, if Gasly is available, Alpine has the most competitive seat open to him.
Should Gasly be confirmed then the circle – OK, triangle – could be completed by Piastri being released to McLaren early. He already performs reserve driver duties for both McLaren and Alpine and could continue in that role if necessary, but would be able to prepare for 2023 more effectively and carry out some potential FP1 running as a rookie for his new team.
Compensation might be required, but then that would be attractive to Alpine if it has paid Red Bull for Gasly, and that would be attractive to Red Bull if it has paid McLaren for Herta, who in turn would be paying for Piastri. So maybe very little would actually change hands after all…
You can now see why Marko used the term “astonishingly enough”, because a lot of dominos still have to fall and some might be more stubborn than others. But it’ll all stem from whether the FIA kickstarts the effect by approving a Super License, or if they all stay standing.