Despite his non-specific job title, Red Bull motorsport adviser Helmut Marko is one of Formula 1’s best-recognised figures — and one of the most powerful.
The 79-year-old Austrian is the intermediary between Red Bull and its single-seater assets, and his purview includes the energy drinks giant’s bankrolling of 20 per cent of the F1 grid and one of its races.
But he’s best known for his control of the Red Bull Junior Team.
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By his hand no fewer than 91 drivers have worn a Red Bull logo on their overalls at some point in their careers. Of those 91 drivers, only 15 have made it to Formula 1, eight of whom made it to the senior Red Bull Racing team.
Every single one of them will have been on the receiving end of his frank advice — and the sinking feeling in the pit of their stomachs when his name appears on their phones — and almost all of them have at some point received their marching orders from the program.
His decision-making when it comes to hiring and firing has often been the subject of public debate, but for the first time, in an interview for the Red Bull magazine the Red Bulletin, he’s laid out some candid thoughts about some of his program’s highest profile graduates in his blunt and characteristic backhanded style.
Of the eight drivers he deigned to mention in the first place, only two managed to evade some form of excoriation. You’ll undoubtedly be able to guess one. The other may surprise you.
Years: 2012–18. Races: 100 with RBR, 39 with STR. Wins: 8 for RBR.
Daniel Ricciardo arrived in F1 as an underrated, lanky 20-something racer and quickly became reputed for his gutsy late-braking overtakes and no-comprises racing style.
And despite his sudden departure from Red Bull Racing at the end of 2018 — after, as Christian Horner purports, being made a massive contract offer for as many or as few years as he wanted — Marko has generally only nice things to say about the Aussie, although his sympathy for his current plight is limited.
“A cheerful, natural talent with outstanding car control,” he summarised. “Daniel gets into the car and is fast straight from the off.
“In his first year at Red Bull Racing, he beat Vettel by three wins to nil. Max coming on the scene was a crunch point in his career. Rather than taking up the fight, he wanted to keep his distance. And you know what happened next. That’s too bad!
“He was always nice to work with. His speed is comparable to that of Max, but he’s just lacking that ultimate consistency.”
Years: 2015–17. Races: 56 with STR.
There were two types of fans in Formula 1 in 2016: those who thought Carlos Sainz was underrated and those who thought he got exactly what he deserved when Max Verstappen was promoted to Red Bull Racing ahead of him in the middle of the season.
The subsequent lack of progression opportunities with Verstappen and Ricciardo in the senior team ultimately led to the mildly acrimonious split with Red Bull in favour of Renault.
It seems even several years later that comparison with Verstappen is still the lens through which Sainz is remembered.
“It was his bad luck to get Max as a teammate,” Marko said. “The atmosphere between the two at AlphaTauri/Toro Rosso was quite toxic. In the set-up we had at the time, I couldn’t see a way of keeping him with us and so he moved to Renault, McLaren and then on to Ferrari.
“Carlos is undoubtedly a top driver. He was almost on a par with Max at Toro Rosso.”
Years: 2019–20. Races: 26 with RBR, 12 with STR.
Alex Albon’s stint in Red Bull machinery was short-lived, but despite being punted from the grid just two years after making his debut, his talents were sufficiently highly rated by the program that he was retained as a development driver in 2021 and played a key role to developing the current championship-leading RB18.
He even retains Red Bull backing despite racing for Williams on an independent contract — which isn’t enough to guard against one of Marko’s more unusual backhanders.
“Alex is very fast, but I wonder if he’s too nice,” he said. “He’s a bit like David Coulthard, who everyone likes, but wasn’t tough enough in the end.”
He also pinpointed the moment he thought led to Albon’s collapse as a frontrunner.
“Lewis Hamilton didn’t destroy his career, but he did put a dampener on it,” he said.
“He was in second place in Brazil in 2019 when Hamilton drove him off the track. Then Alex wanted to pass Hamilton on the outside at the Red Bull Ring in 2020 but got pushed onto the gravel. He would have won that race, but he came away empty-handed.
“He took a long time to get over that.”
Years: 2017–current. Races: 12 with RBR, 85 with STR/SAT. Wins: 1 for SAT.
Pierre Gasly’s relationship with the Red Bull program is a fascinating one and has unfortunately been stained by his too-soon promotion to the senior team in 2019.
It came little more than a year after his full-time debut, and combined with the team’s Verstappen-centric approach, he spectacularly bombed and was dropped back to Toro Rosso in the midseason break.
He’s flourished since then, but that half-season has resulted in what seems like a lingering mistrust of his ultimate potential. He’s not been considered for promotion again, and Sergio Perez’s two-year deal effectively means Red Bull is prepared to lose him to another team.
“At Red Bull Racing, he lost out to Max,” Marko said. “He looked for excuses instead of tackling his own mistakes.
“Since he has been back at AlphaTauri, he has driven his way into top form again. He is the team leader and doing incredible things.”
Years: 2021–current. Races: 31 with SAT.
It was only a week ago that Marko described Yuki Tsunoda as a “problem child” when relaying that he’d hired him a psychologist to help deal with managing his temper, which unfortunately precipitated a pointless streak that’s now stretched to five rounds.
But he’s largely grown out of the crash-prone ways of his rookie season, and Marko is generally optimistic about the future of the former self-proclaimed “lazy bastard”.
“Silly crashes in his first season in F1 chipped away at his self-confidence,” he said. “He’s on a par with his teammate Gasly in terms of speed, even if we don’t see that in the results from the start of the season.
“We believe in him and his huge potential. When he isn’t under stress, he’s incredibly funny and likeable. Everyone likes Yuki, even if no one can blow their top quite like he does.”
Years: 2021–current. Races: 33 with RBR.
A somewhat controversial inclusion given his career has largely thrived without Red Bull backing, Marko nonetheless took the opportunity to assess the man into whom he’s put his faith as Verstappen’s rear gunner.
“He arrived with a win under his belt and he was in a positive mood,” he said. “Then he met Max.
“This led to a certain amount of uncertainty, especially in qualifying. But he put that behind him. Checo is a great team player. Max wouldn’t have won the world championship without him.”
Years: 2007–14. Races: 113 with RBR, 25 with STR. Wins: 38 for RBR, 1 for STR. Championships: 4.
Finally a driver Marko appears to have genuine unadulterated affection for. Not only did Vettel win the brand’s first race via Toro Rosso in 2008, but he spearheaded its first championship victory in 2010 — and then kept winning until the change of regulations in 2014.
That he’s rated so favourably in that context isn’t surprising, and Marko, Vettel and Christian Horner are still often seen catching up in the paddock.
Interesting here is that Marko manages to sneak in some praise for Mark Webber, who he famously used fire up with public criticism — often, it has to be said, to good effect.
“He was a very, very analytical worker. Very industrious,” Marko said. “He made optimal use of all technical possibilities. This was also why he ultimately had the upper hand over a talented Mark Webber, and by quite some distance.
“Whenever there were technical innovations – the blown diffuser, a new tyre manufacturer – he made optimal use of his technical expertise. That ability is what made him a four-time world champion.”
Years: 2015–current. Races: 133 with RBR, 23 with STR. Wins: 26 for RBR. Championships: 1.
It’s no exaggeration to say Max Verstappen is at the very centre of Red Bull’s F1 universe, and after signing a big-bucks, super-long deal earlier this season, he’ll remain there until at least 2028.
But his internal status is unlikely to grow any larger simply by virtue of its already gargantuan size — certainly judging by Marko’s absolutely unequivocal praise.
“Max is the fastest driver we’ve ever had,” Marko says upfront. “He’s also gradually becoming the most complete racing driver. He is the type of generational talent you see once in a decade. That perfect combination of speed, performance and self-confidence is unique.
“In terms of driving, there’s currently no one quicker than him over a single lap. His race intelligence was there from the off.
“Max is a champion who received the perfect tools for his career from his father and who is more relaxed than ever thanks to that world championship.”