[F1 driver mid-season swaps – Schumacher, De Vries, Verstappen and more
In the earlier days of the championship, it was not uncommon for the smaller teams to phase out drivers depending on the money they could bring, while larger teams were not above that either if a driver had been unable to live up to expectations.
It proved to be the latter in de Vries’ case, as the Red Bull-owned team once more flexed its itchy trigger finger to relieve the Dutchman of his services for the rest of 2023.
Many recent examples of driving staff reshuffles come from within the team formerly known as Toro Rosso, but there are other high-profile examples of drivers being moved aside mid-season for another new hope to try their luck at a team. Here’s a few of the most interesting examples from the past 30 (plus) years.
1991: Benetton drops Moreno for promising young German
Schumacher was hot property after his debut at Spa for Jordan, and Briatore moved quickly to get him in at Benetton by ousting Moreno
Photo by: Ercole Colombo
After years of plying his trade at backmarker teams that barely had a hope of qualifying for races in the era of 20-team paddocks, 1988 F3000 champion Roberto Moreno looked set for the sidelines in the last two races of 1990 when his EuroBrun team withdrew from the championship. When Benetton’s Alessandro Nannini had his arm severed in a helicopter crash, Moreno got the call-up to replace the Italian and subsequently scored a podium at Suzuka first time out as he and team-mate Nelson Piquet secured a 1-2 finish.
Moreno sufficiently impressed Benetton to earn a contract for the 1991 season, but struggled to match Piquet’s pace over the opening 11 races of the season. He finished fourth at the Belgian Grand Prix, one position behind his compatriot, but it was not his performance that day which had turned the Benetton management’s heads. Lining up for Jordan that weekend, following the imprisonment of Bertrand Gachot for pepper-spraying a taxi driver, was a Mercedes-backed German sportscar driver named Michael Schumacher.
Schumacher rocked up at the Spa weekend and put his Jordan 191 into seventh during qualifying, outpacing team-mate Andrea de Cesaris and – crucially – Moreno. Although the 22-year-old’s race lasted mere corners as his clutch burned out, a legacy of having to effectively perform two starts as the field bunched up at La Source, Schumacher had earned keen suitors in Benetton bosses Tom Walkinshaw and Flavio Briatore.
Moreno initially did not accept the terms of his Benetton pay-off as the team managed to prise Schumacher from under Jordan’s nose, but eventually blinked and was bumped out of the Italo-British outfit. He replaced Schumacher at Jordan for two rounds, later emerging at Minardi for the Adelaide finale, then signed off in F1 with seasons at the hapless Andrea Moda and Forti teams in 1992 and 1995 before moving to the US to race in CART full-time.
Schumacher secured his first win for Benetton a year later at Spa, then won the 1994 and 1995 world championships at the team before moving to Ferrari in 1996 to prepare for five years of dominance in the early 2000s. For Benetton, the personnel shuffle rather worked out, to put it mildly.
2001: Frentzen loses Jordan drive to Alesi
Alesi took over Frentzen’s Jordan as the German went the other way and joined Prost
Photo by: Motorsport Images
In 1999, Heinz-Harald Frentzen had justified Jordan’s faith in him and enjoyed an unlikely title bid with two wins to his name that year. Jordan had signed Frentzen after two difficult years at Williams, and the more familial atmosphere at the Irish squad suited Frentzen’s sensibilities perfectly. But difficult seasons in 2000 and 2001, where Jordan’s unreliability began to cost it, put Frentzen on the brink. The two decided to part ways ahead of that year’s German Grand Prix, with Ricardo Zonta coming in as a substitute to replace him.
Jordan then signed Jean Alesi, who had won the Formula 3000 title in 1989 with Eddie Jordan Racing, from Prost as the French team was circling the drain despite an improvement in form owing to its neat Ferrari-powered AP04 design. Frentzen took Alesi’s place at the team in time for the Hungarian Grand Prix, but spun into the gravel on his first outing for the team.
In a wet-dry qualifying at the Belgian Grand Prix, the Monchengladbach-born driver managed to put his Prost fourth on the grid, but a stall at the start threw him to the back for the first restart and he eventually finished ninth. He scored no points in his five-race foray for Prost and, although the team wished to keep him for 2002, it was eventually liquidated.
Frentzen instead joined Arrows as the team dispensed with Jos Verstappen, but it ran out of money halfway through the season. He replaced Felipe Massa at Sauber during the 2002 United States Grand Prix to circumvent a grid penalty, earning a return to the Swiss team for 2003 – his final year in the championship. He recently revealed that Jordan had been courting his services for a return in 2004, but Frentzen instead decided to quit F1 and embarked on a move to DTM with Opel.
Alesi collected sixth in the 2001 Spa race, the sole point from his short spell at Jordan, but pressure from Honda to sign Takuma Sato for 2002 left the mercurial Frenchman out of a drive. He instead joined McLaren as a test driver, partnering Alexander Wurz in its test team for 2002.
Prost ended up racing with five different drivers in 2001: Luciano Burti replaced the underperforming Gaston Mazzacane at the squad, before the Brazilian’s accident at Spa with former Jaguar team-mate Eddie Irvine at Blanchimont prompted the team to sign Czech F3000 racer Tomas Enge.
2004: Trulli gets the flick as Jacques comes back
Renault called up Villeneuve to replace Trulli in 2004, but he didn’t score a point
Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images
Managed by Flavio Briatore, Jarno Trulli was signed for the returning Renault team in 2002 as Giancarlo Fisichella left the Enstone outfit for Jordan. Having been relatively even with team-mate Jenson Button, Trulli kept the drive into 2003 and was partnered by Fernando Alonso. Renault and Briatore knew that Alonso was its future star, which irked Trulli, but the Italian began the 2004 season in good form and even won at Monaco to match Alonso’s Hungary 2003 victory.
Top 10: F1 one-hit wonders ranked
But Trulli’s relationship with the team began to sour and, with Fisichella set to come back for 2005, Renault gave Trulli his marching orders with three rounds to spare, as he had not scored a point in the previous five races. Trulli emerged at Toyota for the last two races of the season, replacing the ousted Cristiano da Matta full-time as Zonta had held the fort since Hungary.
Renault elected to sign Jacques Villeneuve for the final three races of the season, as it hoped to reclaim second in the constructors’ championship from Villeneuve’s former team in BAR. However, Villeneuve was unable to manage a single point despite the strength of the Renault R24, finishing 11th in China and then 10th at both Suzuka and Interlagos. The Canadian had already secured a switch to Sauber for 2005, as Fisichella left the Swiss team to partner Alonso for both of his championship seasons.
Trulli remained at Toyota for five seasons, claiming seventh in 2005 drivers’ championship, but the big-budget Japanese manufacturer never got a foothold in F1 and departed at the end of 2009.
2006: Ide loses superlicence after just four races
Ide struggled desperately with Super Aguri and was soon stripped of his superlicence
Photo by: Mark Capilitan
The Super Aguri team was a last-minute addition to the 2006 grid, and the Honda-supported team hurriedly prepared cars based on the 2002 Arrows A23 in its hopes to build an all-Japanese outfit. Team principal Aguri Suzuki earned Honda’s support as it ensured Takuma Sato could stay on the F1 grid, the Japanese driver having courted much popularity in his home country. Although the likes of Satoshi Motoyama and Sakon Yamamoto had been on the fringes of F1 for a short while, Super Aguri plumped for 31-year-old Yuji Ide as its second driver.
What could have been: The Japanese ‘Emperor’ who missed his F1 vocation
Ide was ill-equipped for the rigours of F1, however, underpinned by limited testing possibilities and his scarce command of the English language yielding a lack of communication with his engineers. While the hastily cobbled-together Super Aguri cars were some way off the pace of the Midlands and Toro Rossos, Sato at least remained in touching distance of them, while Ide was 2.5 seconds away from his team-mate in qualifying at Bahrain. Ide had closed that to 1.7s in qualifying for Sepang, but was nearly four seconds off his team-mate’s pace in Melbourne and could barely keep control of his SA05 car despite finishing the race at Albert Park.
After causing a first-corner crash at Imola which pitched Christijan Albers into a barrel roll, the FIA revoked Ide’s superlicence, but on the proviso that he could earn it back with more experience. Super Aguri promoted third driver Franck Montagny to the race seat in Ide’s place, and the Frenchman remained there for seven races before being replaced by Yamamoto, at the same time that Super Aguri introduced its new SA06 car.
2016: Kvyat torpedoed out of Red Bull seat by Verstappen
Kvyat was demoted from Red Bull to Toro Rosso after a first corner clash with Vettel’s Ferrari at Sochi in 2016
Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool
A surprise promotion to the Red Bull squad after just one season, Daniil Kvyat replaced the Ferrari-bound Sebastian Vettel at the expense of Jean-Eric Vergne. The Russian impressed in his first season at the team, outscoring Daniel Ricciardo and earning his keep for a second season at the Milton Keynes squad.
However, Red Bull was very keen to promote the prodigious Max Verstappen into its ‘A-team’ as the young Dutchman had been particularly impressive in his first year at Toro Rosso. Kvyat’s missteps in qualifying for the Australian and Bahrain races had put him under pressure, but he responded with his aggressive manoeuvres in China to earn a podium – albeit infamously putting Vettel’s nose out of joint in the cooldown room.
But a lap one crash with Vettel at Sochi did for Kvyat, who was unceremoniously relegated to Toro Rosso for the following Spanish Grand Prix at Verstappen’s expense. The move seemed particularly drastic, but Red Bull’s willingness to pull the trigger worked out exceptionally in its favour as Verstappen won his first race with the team at Barcelona. Kvyat’s form at Toro Rosso nosedived and struggled over the next two seasons and was dropped for Pierre Gasly in the latter part of 2017, seemingly unable to string results together in a solid car.
Kvyat returned in 2019 at the team after a year at Ferrari as a reserve, the highlight being his podium at the rained-out German Grand Prix that year. Verstappen’s promotion to Red Bull, on the other hand…
2017: Palmer waved out of Renault, as Sainz moves out of Red Bull family
Palmer was dropped by Renault when Sainz became available towards the end of 2017
Photo by: Sutton Images
After winning the GP2 title in 2014 for DAMS, Jolyon Palmer served as the reserve driver for Lotus which, at that time, was in dire financial straits. The team earned a reprieve when it was re-purchased by Renault, and Palmer earned his F1 debut at the team alongside Kevin Magnussen.
The 2016 car was nothing more than the previous year’s Lotus with a Renault powertrain crammed into it, given the financial shortages at the team during its development. Magnussen managed seven points while Palmer scored his sole point of the year at Malaysia, but the Briton was kept for another year to partner Nico Hulkenberg as Magnussen moved to Haas for 2017.
With a vastly improved car for 2017, Hulkenberg was a semi-regular visitor to the points and had accrued 34 on the scoreboard by the time the field had arrived in Singapore; Palmer had managed none that season. He scored a career-best sixth at the Marina Bay Circuit that year to buy himself more time, but the next two races in Malaysia and Japan were scoreless outings.
In the meantime, Carlos Sainz had been looking for a way out of Toro Rosso having surmised that a chance at Red Bull was not particularly forthcoming. Renault had been in contact with the Spaniard and had agreed to a move for 2018. Owing to Palmer’s struggles, the move was brought forward and the second-generation Palmer was dropped for the US Grand Prix at Austin.
Sainz’s move prompted Toro Rosso to bring in Brendon Hartley, who was fresh from winning Le Mans with Porsche’s 919 LMP1 car, soon to be departing the World Endurance Championship. Owing to Gasly’s commitments in Super Formula, where the Frenchman was embroiled in a title race, Kvyat was called back for one round to join Hartley – two races after being dropped.
2019: Gasly demoted to Toro Rosso, Albon promoted in rookie season
Gasly was dropped back to Toro Rosso as Albon took his place at Red Bull midway through 2019
Photo by: Jerry Andre / Motorsport Images
During the 2018 season, where Toro Rosso was effectively a rolling test bed for Honda as it geared up for a partnership with Red Bull that ultimately delivered a drivers’ title in 2021, Pierre Gasly had been able to impress enough to earn a call-up to the Red Bull squad when Daniel Ricciardo left for Renault.
But his season began on shaky ground, and never really got his confidence back after a high-speed testing shunt at Barcelona. Managing a best finish of fourth, Gasly struggled with the Red Bull RB15 and never managed to close in on Verstappen during their brief stint as team-mates.
Before the summer break Gasly’s position looked precarious, and the team eventually decided to swap him with Toro Rosso rookie Alex Albon, who had replaced Hartley for the 2019 season. It was a huge turn-around for Albon, who had only been extricated from a Nissan Formula E contract a few months before to earn a chance in F1.
Albon was quietly impressive in his half-season at Red Bull, and a chance at a first F1 podium in Brazil was nixed after contact with Lewis Hamilton – which later handed a surprise podium finish to Gasly. The 2020 campaign proved far more trying, and the Anglo-Thai driver could not live with a nervous RB16 that had been developed to suit Verstappen’s driving style. Despite managing two podiums, Albon was demoted to reserve driver and the team signed Sergio Perez during the Abu Dhabi weekend, as the Mexican had recently claimed his first F1 win for Racing Point at the Sakhir Grand Prix.
Gasly’s return to Toro Rosso/AlphaTauri yielded a race win at the 2020 Italian Grand Prix, and he has since moved to Alpine after punching above his weight at the Italian team. Albon, meanwhile, has been Williams’ leading light after replacing the Mercedes-bound George Russell, both drivers earning their place at the F1 table with other teams.
Gasly’s return to Red Bull’s secondary team yielded a victory at Monza in 2020
Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images