For the last two years, Red Bull Drive, with Max Verstappen, has been a poisoned bowl.
If the team had made it to the 2018 contract negotiations, Daniel Ricciardo would still have made it, but instead Red Bull burned two promising juniors in the same number of years.
Pierre Gasly managed only 12 long distance races, and although his replacement Alex Albon had 20 races ahead of the team, his performance steadily deteriorated the longer he stayed in the role.
Unfortunately for Albon, the Red Bull Driver Program has a history of career cannibalization, with a tendency to replace bad students first and ask questions later.
As a result, potential candidates for his replacement have already prepared themselves and are now well acquainted with the exam.
But before we lose ourselves in the pros and cons of each option, let’s listen to team manager Christian Horner telling us who should be on the Verstappen team next year.
I think you should consider all options, he said Sunday evening after Albon celebrated his 12th birthday in Portugal.
I don’t think we would have done our job if we hadn’t looked at the situation in Formula 1, and there are clearly drivers who have a lot of experience and skills. This is a very unusual situation in which they may be available.
So our first priority is to give Alex a chance to qualify for that seat.
Let’s not forget that last year, when he jumped in that car, in 2019 he broke Pierre’s record and clearly surpassed it. If we had to change the weather, why wouldn’t it be different?
Fault! The file name is not specified. The pressure on Alex Albon continues to increase, his future after 2020 has not yet been confirmed by Red Bull. Mark Thompson/Getty Pictures
Red Bull states publicly that he wants to leave Albon if he can keep playing. He is very popular with the team and has shown an impressive pace both with Toro Rosso and in his first climb to Red Bull in 2019. His Thai nationality also makes him an ideal partner for the Red Bull brand, which still owns 51% of the shares of Thai billionaire Chalerme Yoowidhya.
It is strange how much Albon’s season and his current situation would have changed if he had not played against Lewis Hamilton in Austria and won the first race of the season. Albon’s fundamental struggle with the car may not have changed with the victory on his shoulders, but it would have strengthened his confidence and significantly improved his arguments to stay in 2021.
Instead, Albon has only one podium for his 20 races, despite having one of the fastest cars on the market. This is not the return that Red Bull expects from an investment in its drivers and a lack of points would be a real weakness if the team would be in the fight for the title next year.
Ultimately, Red Bull must decide whether Albon’s problems are specific to the car or to the driver. Horner has often explained that the RB16 is a difficult car to drive, and while the pile can live and adapt with such features, Albon can not.
If Red Bull produces a softer car next year, Albon could exploit its potential even further. But while the team is looking for the Mercedes, it is clear that they will develop the car in all directions to be the fastest in long-distance driving.
Only the team can predict whether this will happen and whether the undesirable properties of RB16 will be transferred to RB17 next year. If that is true, and it means that Albon’s career is going to be an accident along the way, it’s hard to imagine the team taking a different course.
Body of Sergio Perez
Fault! The file name is not specified. Sergio Perez currently has no racetrack for 2021. Stephen Blackberry/Action More about Getty Images
As a ten-year veteran of Formula 1, Perez is expected to join the Red Bull team in 2021. Recruiting an external driver would in many ways be a step backwards for Red Bull (although Albona can be considered an outsider, who was taken off the grid in 2012 and then joined the team before 2019), but it may be necessary to better understand what is going on.
With a driver like Perez, you know what you get. Over the years he has scored podiums for teams in the check, lost races or several talented teammates and has shown that he can adapt to different styles of cars (only this year Racing Point has gone from the Red Bull philosophy to Mercedes and Perez continues to shine).
When Perez joins the team and fights, you know there’s something wrong with the way the team works. But if he continues and gets good results, you know the problem is Gasly and Albon.
Perez also receives an extra bonus in the form of a decent budget from his personal sponsors, which should not be an obstacle to the well-funded Red Bull team, but certainly doesn’t diminish his chances.
The case of Nico Hulkenberg
Fault! The file name is not specified. Niko Hülkenberg was impressed by his three performances as an understudy for Racing Point this year. Bryn Lennon/Getty Pictures
Many of the same arguments in favour of Hülkenberg can be put forward as those put forward above in favour of Pérez. On paper he has neither the podium nor the money that Perez brings, but his performance as a replacement for Racing Point this year has shown that he is still a flexible and talented driver.
In Force India’s three seasons from 2014 to 2016, Perez has outperformed Halkenberg by ten points, meaning you can’t choose between the two.
There are rumours that Verstappen is pushing Hülkenberg behind the scenes, but although the team never wants to be dictated to by the main driver, a good relationship between the two sides of the garage would certainly help.
Recently, Halkenberg said in ESPN’s F1 podcast that he would not look for other options until he heard from Red Bull, indicating that he has serious aspirations for the role.
What’s happening in Alfa Tauri?
This week Red Bull confirmed that Pierre Gasly will stay in the Alpha Tauri for another year. Although the news was not surprising, it raised many doubts about the logic of Red Bull.
Since he was dropped off at Toro Rosso last year, Gasly looks like a completely different driver. He has performed exceptionally well this season in Brazil 2019 and Italy, but most impressive is his consistency in 2020. He is ninth in the drivers’ championship, one point behind Albon and 49 points behind teammate Daniel Kwiat, who will probably be led at the end of the year.
It seems the obvious solution to the problems of the Red Bull driver, but whatever stain the Red Bull driver had on him in 2019 in the eyes of the team, it is still enough that the team did not give him a second chance in 2021.
If Albon falls, it is logical that he stands next to Gazlie in the Alpha Tauri, so that Red Bull can honestly judge the two drivers on equal cars. Horner thinks that Albon would be as good as Gali in the same car, which, if true, would mean that this year’s Albon/Gasli combination would be enough to put Alpha Tauri in third place in the manufacturers’ table with 126 points and two victories.
However, the Red Bull program is known to cut the throat and if Albon can not prove it in Red Bull, he can not get a lifeline in the youth team, as Gasly did in 2019. A Formula 2 driver, Yuki Tsunoda, is waiting on his wings to take a step towards Formula 1, but although few people believe he will do as well as Albon, his promotion is necessary to prevent further stagnation of the young driver’s programme.
Of course, in an ideal world with Max Verstappen, Albon would be a worthy candidate for the Red Bull 2021, and Gasli would lead with the promising Tsunoda AlphaTauri, but to do so, Albon must immediately improve his game.
Your turn, Alex…