LONDON (Reuters) - Toro Rosso team boss Franz Tost expects Thai rookie Alexander Albon to stay at Red Bull Racing after this season, and he would be happy if he does.
The 23-year-old British-born driver traded places with Frenchman Pierre Gasly, who started out with Toro Rosso before being promoted to the energy drink company’s senior team, in August as Max Verstappen’s team mate.
Red Bull have said they will evaluate Albon’s performance to the end of the season “in order to make an informed decision as to who will drive alongside Max in 2020.”
The youngster has started strongly in his new surroundings, fifth and sixth in the Belgian and Italian Grands Prix respectively.
“Unfortunately I think he’s gone, but you never know what’s going on in Formula One,” Tost told Reuters when asked if he thought Albon would return.
Toro Rosso has been a feeder team since energy drink giant Red Bull bought struggling Minardi at the end of 2005 and renamed them with the aim of bringing on young talent for the senior outfit.
Successful graduates include four times world champion Sebastian Vettel, now at Ferrari after dominating with Red Bull, and race winners Daniel Ricciardo and Verstappen.
“I would complain if Red Bull was taking drivers from the outside,” said Tost.
“Then we would have a serious problem. As long as our drivers are good enough, it’s fine. I am more than happy about this. I feel well if a driver goes to Red Bull Racing and wins races. That’s the best. Then we know we did our homework.”
At the start of the year Tost made two big predictions — that Albon would be a surprise package and Honda, engine providers to both Red Bull teams, would win races.
The blunt Austrian was mocked for the latter assertion after the Japanese manufacturer’s three years of failure with McLaren, but has been proved correct. Verstappen won in Austria and Germany.
“People laugh all the time about me. But most of the time I am right,” he said.
Tost said Albon, who nearly went to the all-electric Formula E series before Red Bull stepped in, had impressed from the start of pre-season testing with his tyre management and technical feedback.
“I didn’t expect that he is doing such a good job,” added the Austrian. “It’s a positive surprise.”
Toro Rosso and Red Bull, with consultant Helmut Marko, have acquired a reputation for ruthlessness over the years with a list of young talent tossed on the F1 scrapyard.
They include the likes of Frenchman Jean-Eric Vergne, now a double Formula E champion, and Spaniard Jaime Alguersuari whose F1 career started at 19 and was over two years later.
Gasly’s Russian team mate Daniil Kvyat has run the rollercoaster, promoted and demoted before being dropped altogether and then given a rare second chance.
Tost, who hailed the new Kvyat and was defensive of Gasly, said every driver controlled his own destiny.
“When young drivers come to Toro Rosso, I tell them always that now is when the real motorsport life starts... they really have to be focussed and concentrated and live 100% for Formula One,” he said.
“Some of them understand it, some of them don’t. And if they don’t understand it, they are out. It’s as simple as that.”
Tost played down fears that the feed of talent might be drying up.
“The pipeline is there. The Max Verstappens or the Vettels are not growing on trees like apples, which you can take every autumn,” he said.
“There are a couple of young drivers in Formula Three and I think that some of them will have a future, but it takes time.”
Toro Rosso are planning to run 31-year-old Super Formula champion Naoki Yamamoto for the benefit of Honda fans in first practice at next month’s Japanese Grand Prix, although he is too old to be a prospect.
Honda’s Red Bull-backed Monza Formula Three race winner Yuki Tsunoda looks one to watch, however.
Tost said Toro Rosso, winners against all the odds in Italy with Vettel in 2008, might even dream of returning to the top of the podium once new Formula One rules began to play out after 2021.
“It should always be the target for a team to fight for a victory,” he said.
Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Toby Davis