Red Bull motorsport boss Dr Helmut Marko has given the strongest hint yet that Kiwi driver Brendon Hartley is seriously under pressure to retain his spot in Formula 1.
Rumours swirled prior to last weekend's Monaco Grand Prix that Hartley would lose his seat at Toro Rosso as soon as next weekend's Canadian Grand Prix. Hartley was surprised to hear the rumours and gave the impression he was confident his spot was secure but the notoriously demanding Marko added fuel to the fire with his comments post-Monaco.
"The situation around Brendon is not pleasing," Marko told Speed Week.
"We will go through this in peace and see what we can do in the future."
While he was signed to the Red Bull-backed team to help develop the car as the team made the off-season switch to Honda power, Hartley was expected to be competing regularly with young teammate Pierre Gasly and produce drama-free performances. But he has consistently been out-driven by the Frenchman and has made a number of uncharacteristic driving errors during the six races so far this season.
Hartley did demonstrate improved pace to be running on the verge of the top 10 during Monday's race only to be taken out by the Sauber of Charles Leclerc late in the piece. The two-time World Endurance champion and Le Mans winner enjoyed his best all-round weekend of Formula 1 on the tight street circuit of the principality and feels he may have turned the corner on his early season struggles.
"It had been a strong weekend. Not really much to show for it unfortunately," Hartley told crash.net.
"I'm still pretty positive for Montreal. We have an engine update coming, and we had a new floor here so we had some performance to put on the car. It looks like the team is really starting to unlock the car's potential."
Next weekend's Canadian Grand Prix will see Honda unveil its first engine update of the season where it is expected there will be significantly more power available.
Until now the Toro Rosso has struggled compared to rivals on long straights or high speed circuits. That could be a thing of the past with testing indicating that weakness will at least put the Honda-powered car on a par with other teams if not better than some.
"I don't know exact numbers, I think it's better you ask someone from Honda or Toro Rosso," Hartley said.
"But I think it's meant to be a sizeable step," he admitted.
The Montreal track is one suited to power with a couple of long straights featuring in the 4.36km long Circuit Gilles Villeneuve and will give the new Honda engine an instant assessment.