The Red Bull Driver Search: The Early Key To Red Bull F1 Junior Problem

As the resident American journalist and content creator, you’d think I’d be all over this.

Wrong.

The Red Bull Driver Search, or simple “The Search” as I’ll refer to it henceforth, was one of the more shambly attempts at tapping a market that’s been the kryptonite to the top single seater series since… well, ever.

On it’s face, the search was nothing new. Teams have committed resources to developing young talent long before, and after, Red Bull’s ill fated attempt. What made this unique was it’s focus specifically on Americans. It’s one thing to have the objective of boosting underrepresented talent to even the playing field – keyword there being “even”. It’s another thing entirely to have the goal of placing drivers with specific cultural backgrounds in the sport on the basis of where they were born.

This concept may not compute to Danny Sullivan. This search program was his brain child as it turns out. Which makes perfect sense, the Tyrrel wash out turned 1985 Spin & Win Indy 500 champion made his Formula 1 debut as a result of Tyrell bending the knee to Benetton. Back in 2016 Sillivan speculated that Benetton was looking to dive into the American market. So an american driver would play well. It helped that he had been backed previously on a whim by Garvin Brown, heir to the Jack Daniels fortune in his 1980 CanAm campaign. This was after Sullivan had given up on motorsports and took a job as a crab fisherman in Alaska.

 

“Next thing that happens, I get a call from Ken Tyrrell. In F1 you never get told the whole story, but Benetton, the team sponsor, was going into the American market and they liked the idea of an American driver. Also I think Ken had his eye on Garvin as a possible source of money. Anyway, I’m summoned to Paul Ricard for a test in December, and Garvin comes along to watch. It’s freezing cold, and they’re also testing Stefan Johansson, Beppe Gabbiani, Bruno Giacomelli. Of course I knew all the Tyrrell mechanics from 12 years before.”

– Danny Sullivan

Yes, exactly like the “Deadliest Catch” apparently.

So I’m sure Ken Tyrrell had his eyes on that lovely Jack Daniels money, too.

With that in mind, who better than to lead the charge for Red Bull who themselves were new to the American market with their energy drinks only stateside since 1997.

Sullivan’s search program which officially began in 2002 was separate from the official “Red Bull Junior Team” whose roots begin a year earlier. The aim of Red Bull’s junior team was to support promising young drivers and help them navigate the motorsport world – something Helmut Marko who was running that show had a great deal of experience with.

Sullivan’s plan was to have a group of American drivers all compete for just a handful of seats that would be funded by Red Bull in their european efforts. This differed from the support that Red Bull’s official Junior team got – a class which included Christian Klien as well as Sebastian Vettel.

The Search officially announced the group of 15 Americans that would compete for the inaugural class seat.

The list was as follows:

  1. Phil Giebler, Oxnard, Calif
  2. Ryan Hunter-Reay
  3. A.J. Allmendinger
  4. Michael Abbate
  5. Paul Edwards
  6. Joey Hand
  7. Patrick Long
  8. Grant Maiman
  9. Rocky Moran Jr.
  10. Joel Nelson
  11. Scott Poirer
  12. Boston Reid
  13. Bryan Sellers
  14. Scott Speed
  15. Bobby Wilson

With the list finalized, the only thing left was to widdle the group down to just four drivers through a testing program at Paul Ricard. All that was left, was some paperwork. No big deal, right?

CONTRACTS FROM HELL

The young drivers were in for a rude awakening. Before they hopped on a flight across the atlantic, they first had to sign a long term contract with Red Bull. The first sign of trouble was the language in the contract – it was considered by a source familiar as “indentured servitude”. The contract was so bad that once the language was leaked, Maxim Sports, the “suits” of Red Bull’s American Search, were forced to issue a second draft. It initially had the drivers responsible for all their own expenses while forgoing pay all while Red Bull had the right to cancel or change their situation without notice.

The debacle cost The Search two of their most well known and highly decorated drivers at the time, in A.J. and Ryan Hunter-Reay. The remaining 13 drivers would undergo a multi day test that was by all accounts full of unequal cars, ever-changing standards, and inconsistent judging. Not necessarily ways you want to set up a test to select the “best” four drivers. Phil Giebler, who was already in Europe racing on his own with a solid record, reflected on the experience years later. He remembered being told he was `too experienced’. They went on to explain he should have won by more and for that reason, he wasn’t selected.

Ultimately the first class was made up:

  • Paul Edwards who went to the Nissan world series
  • Grant Maiman who went to Formula Renault 2000 Masters
  • Joel Nelson who went to Formula Euro 3000
  • Scott Speed who went to British Formula 3

The class would struggle in their 2003 assignments with edwards, maiman, and nelson all leaving europe within 2 years. Edwards would find some success in GT racing though and the 2008 GT series title. Speed would return home – but with the caveat of it being for treatment for a serious case of ulcerative colitis midway through his British Formula 3 drive.

He’d be back to racing in 2004 racking up a pair of european titles to earn his promotion into the inaugural GP3 series where’d place third behind 2016 world champion Nico Rosberg and Nelson Piquet Jr.

In the follow up year to The Search a number of changes would be made including a more formal shootout program where competitors would compete in sanctioned races to fill the 2 newly added spots joining the original group. Though the change was more formalized, it wasn’t any more fruitful.

Red Bull was extending their reach into racing and wanted to commit beyond just sponsoring Sauber. They made strategic choices to purchase Jaguar in 2004 as well as Minardi in 2005.

Scott Speed would eventually land in Formula 1 via Toro Rosso, the newly branded sister squad to Red Bull proper. junior team Minardi team.

It soon became apparent that this was to be their formal junior team. Dietrich Mateschitz would clarify this by saying:
“The positioning for the Minardi team is rather that of a rookies’ team for our junior drivers.”

Despite this, Red Bull bosses as high up as the man himself Christian Horner were still behind Speed. He was quoted as saying:

“Scott Speed and Colin Fleming are the new wave of American talent that’s coming through, and the standard just gets higher and higher every year,”

But it didn’t last long. He’d race in the 2006 season and in 2007, he was replaced by a young Sebastian Vettel. Where Speed failed to score in the points in all of his 28 starts with Toro Rosso, Vettel would need just a handful points to narrowly miss a podium.

The Search program ended swiftly after the acquisition of Minardi and no class was installed for 2006. Speed would be the only Search driver to race in an F1 car for Red Bull or its sister team. This is reflected on the Red Bull Driver Search website which you can still find today. If you visit the site which clearly hasn’t been touched in years, you’ll find the reasoning for ending the program. It reads:

 

“It took just four short years for the Red Bull Driver Search to successfully place an American driver at the pinnacle of world motorsport, Formula 1. Next season, 2002 Red Bull Driver Search winner, Scott Speed will take his seat in Formula 1 with one of Red Bull’s Formula 1 Teams, Red Bull Racing or Squadra Toro Rosso.

With its primary goal complete, the Driver Search will not continue to operate in its current format for 2006. No formal or organized search will be conducted, but Red Bull will continue to monitor upcoming American racing talent.”

– Maxim Sports Management

 The eerily empty site goes on to describe The Search Program as providing an “unparalleled opportunity to thousands of aspiring, American race car drivers”.

Unparalleled – meh. That’s generous.

Thousands – in a way, sure.

Thousands were exposed. But certainly not giving a fair shake to everyone. The Program conveniently has shifted the objective to “placing an American at the pinnacle of world motorsport”.

Likely The Search left considerably more young American drivers with the same feeling their site or original mission statement holds – abandoned.

But that said, Red Bull clearly learned how to develop young talent. They identified some of the best juniors in recent history. The Search contributed nothing to that cause but for a few young Americans, it did provide a very brief window of possible F1 glory. And for Scott Speed, it became a reality – albeit short lived. But for every Max Verstappen, there’s dozens of ‘Joel Nelsons’ & ‘Scott Speeds’. His replacement turned out to be pretty decent.

So atleast they got something right.