Red Bull Racing’s second seat is currently one of the most lucrative available on the Formula 1 grid and the team hopes to make a call by mid-November. But who to pick? MotorsportWeek.com analyses the candidates to partner Max Verstappen at the outfit next season.
Albon’s meteoric rise has been such that it has only been two years since he looked set for a mid-grid Formula E seat before Red Bull came calling. Albon’s eye-catching form at Toro Rosso, allied to Pierre Gasly’s struggles, prompted Red Bull to promote the inexperienced Thai-British driver to the front-running marque.
However, as Gasly did before him, Albon has struggled for consistent performance and has regularly been a substantial chunk behind Verstappen. Red Bull boss Christian Horner has indicated that the rear-end instability trait of Red Bull’s cars is hurting Albon, just as it did Gasly before, with Verstappen supremely adept at driving around the issues.
It took Albon 18 attempts to secure a podium – though, in fairness, Lewis Hamilton denied him twice before – and in the same period Verstappen claimed 10 podiums, which included two victories.
Albon has been given a lot more time in the car than his predecessor Gasly, but still trails Daniel Ricciardo, Sergio Perez and Lando Norris in the championship and is 83 points down on Verstappen. After 11 races of 2020 he has 64 points. After 12 races of 2019 – when he was replaced – Gasly had 63.
Albon still has time on his side to prove his worth to Red Bull but Helmut Marko sounding out rivals adds public pressure to a driver who has endured a fraught couple of events.
One problem for Albon is that the trend has not necessarily been upwards – if anything his progress has stagnated.
A return to Red Bull just over 12 months ago was almost inconceivable for Gasly, who couldn’t settle at the team following his promotion from Toro Rosso at the start of 2019.
But as sudden as his downfall was, Gasly bolstered his reputation immediately, capping a mostly sour season with a podium at last year’s Brazilian Grand Prix.
In the Faenza squad’s new identity of AlphaTauri, consistently strong performances peaked with that shock victory at Monza, as Gasly survived sustained pressure up front to deliver the win.
Gasly all but secured his future in F1 with the memorable victory but with which team?
Red Bull has repeatedly emphasised that it regards Gasly as an adept fit at AlphaTauri and it almost looks at pains to heap any compliment upon the Frenchman.
“It wouldn’t make sense to switch the drivers back,” said Horner last month, while also talking up AlphaTauri as more of a sister team to Red Bull than a junior team in the wake of its rebranding.
If Red Bull loses faith in Albon then it appears the company does not have trust that Gasly would be the favourite to replace him – which suggests Red Bull could, for the first time in over a decade, look outside of its camp.
A handful of months ago, Sergio Perez was safe and secure at Racing Point, and looked set to spearhead the team into the Aston Martin era.
However, the Silverstone-based squad ousted the Mexican for Sebastian Vettel, leaving Perez on the market for the 2021 campaign.
Perez has outlined that his primary goal is to remain in F1, and a seat at Red Bull, which is currently more competitive than the Racing Point team, is a viable option for him.
Perez has had an excellent 2020 season and holds fifth in the standings despite missing two events after being struck down by Covid-19.
His qualifying pace is one relative weakness; that is not to say it is a mark against his status more that he excels on a Sunday. He is also supremely dependable and has finished in the points at each of the last 15 events that he has started.
Despite Perez’s longevity in Formula 1 he is still only 30 years of age – young enough to not just want a pay check, old enough to bring heaps of experience, and motivated enough to show his capability with a race-winning package.
Perez also has healthy financial backing which, while not of huge important to a brand as large as Red Bull, would nonetheless oil some of the coffers.
And, if Perez was to follow in the footsteps of Gasly and Albon in struggling, it would surely prompt Red Bull to analyse whether the problem goes deeper than the drivers.
Following three super-sub appearances in 2020 with Racing Point, Nico Hulkenberg has brought his name right back into contention for an F1 seat.
After being ousted at Renault at the end of 2020, the German has previously said that returning with a team that can compete for points would be enough for him, so the prospect of getting in where he could, at the very least, bury the hatchet surrounding his zero podiums, is tantalising. He has previously blown opportunities but if the chance is there every weekend it relieves some of the pressure.
The apolitical Hulkenberg is unlikely to seriously challenge Verstappen but would surely slot into the ideal number two: backing him up through strategy and interrupting with his own speed when he needs to.
He has shown he has the ability – third on the grid at the second Silverstone event was outstanding and his rise to eighth at the Nürburgring validated his position as the fastest unemployed person in the world.
“Max is an absolute killer, and in terms of speed one of the fastest, if not the fastest,” Hulkenberg told Motorsport-Magazin last week. “So it is already a huge task to have him as a team-mate. I would like to find out, measure myself against him. Let’s see if it comes to that.”
Hulkenberg also has a good relationship with almost-compatriot Verstappen, who said he “he definitely deserves to be in F1” earlier this year.