The sight of Brendon Hartley’s Toro Rosso crumbling into bits as it dangled on a crane was not a good look, and it hasn’t taken long for the rumours to begin circulating that the team are considering replacing him, maybe as early as Canada.
Early season sacking rumours are always to be treated with a truck-load of salt but when Red Bull Motorsport advisor Helmut Marko was asked about it by Auto Motor und Sport he simply replied: “That’s not the intention at the moment.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement.
The Kiwi is definitely under pressure but should we really be talking about replacing him at this stage of the season? I’d argue not.
For a start, the numbers aren’t actually that bad. Hartley trails Gasly 3-2 in qualifying results and 2-1 in races where both drivers finished. It’s not a great record but it’s far from diabolical. It’s one that Romain Grosjean would kill for right now and nobody is talking about replacing him.
You also have to look at what Toro Rosso’s current role is within the Red Bull family. With the final divorce from Renault ever looming, 2018 is as much about developing the Honda engine for the sister team as it is about developing drivers. In that scenario, Hartley, with his years of experience racing hybrid cars in the World Endurance Championship seems a much more valuable asset.
In a lot of ways, it’s Hartley himself who is his own worst enemy. His tendency to admit fault right away after an incident is refreshing but it doesn’t do him a lot of favours in the cut-throat world of F1.
Baku is a prime example of this; when his limping Toro Rosso strayed into the path of his team-mate and almost sent the Frenchman into space, Hartley immediately apologised and accepted blame. A more confident driver may have rightly questioned why the team didn’t give clearer instructions to both drivers about where they were on the track. But instead, Hartley put his hands up, blame was attributed to him and everyone moved on.
Finally, you have to look at the alternatives. Pascal Wehrlein is the name that keeps coming up and whilst the German has an impressive reputation, is he really good enough to warrant changing driver line-ups mid-season?
Wehrlein had a strong showing during his time at Manor and Sauber and yet eventually lost out to the legend killer that is Marcus Ericson. Some of that was to do with money but not all of it. Mercedes still backs him on paper but in reality has long since shifted its focus to Esteban Ocon (who currently sits behind Hartley in the 2018 championship by the way).
Toro Rosso is supposed to be about finding the next World Champion and I’m not sure you can convincingly say that Pascal Wehrlein falls into that category any more. That’s not to say that Hartley does either but if that’s the case then why spend money buying Wehrein out of his Mercedes contract just to end up in the same place you were before?
Is Brendon Hartley a future world champion? Probably not. But he is still a talented and technically minded driver at a time when Red Bull needs just that.