Stick with Albon, twist with Perez? Weighing up Red Bull's 2021 options

play
Hulkenberg: I've delivered when I've had the chance this year (1:23)

Nico Hulkenberg shares his thoughts with Nate Saunders about the possibility of him racing in the 2021 F1 season. (1:23)

For the past two years, the Red Bull drive alongside Max Verstappen has been a poisoned chalice.

Had the team got its own way during contract negotiations in 2018, Daniel Ricciardo would still be occupying it, but instead Red Bull has burned through two promising junior drivers in as many years.

Pierre Gasly lasted just 12 races alongside Verstappen, and while his replacement Alex Albon has notched up 20 races with the team, his performances have steadily declined the longer he has been in the role.

Unfortunately for Albon, the Red Bull driver progamme has a history of cannibalising careers, with a tendency to replace underperformers first and ask questions later.

As a result, the potential candidates to replace him are already lined up and are currently well known within the paddock.

But before we get stuck into the pros and cons of each option, let's hear from team principal Christian Horner thoughts on who should be Verstappen's teammate next year.

"I think that you've got to look at all of the options," he said on Sunday evening after Albon's 12th place finish in Portugal.

"I don't think we'd be doing our job if we didn't look at the situation within Formula One and there are obviously drivers that have significant experience and ability. It's a very unusual situation they could be available.

"So our first and foremost priority is to give Alex the opportunity to lay claim to that seat.

"Let's not forget when he jumped in that car last year he outscored and outperformed Pierre significantly in the balance of 2019. If we were to swap them back, why would it be any different?"

The case for keeping Albon

Publicly, Red Bull says it wants to keep Albon if he can up his game. He is popular within the team and showed impressive pace throughout 2019, both at Toro Rosso and when he was originally promoted to Red Bull. His Thai nationality also makes him a perfect fit with the Red Bull brand, which remains 51 percent owned by Thai billionaire Chalerm Yoovidhya.

It's strange to think how different Albon's season and current situation might have been if he'd not collided with Lewis Hamilton in Austria and gone on to win the opening race of the season. Albon's fundamental struggle with the car may not have changed with a victory under his belt, but it would have built his confidence and significantly strengthened his case for staying in 2021.

Instead Albon has just one podium to show for his 20 races despite having one of the fastest cars on the grid at his disposal. That's not the kind of return Red Bull expects from the investment in its drivers, and the lack of points would be a genuine weakness for the team if it found itself in a title battle next year.

Ultimately, Red Bull has to decide whether Albon's issues are specific to the car or to the driver. Horner has often explained that the RB16 is a difficult car to drive and, while Verstappen can live those characteristics and adapt, Albon can't.

If Red Bull produces a milder mannered car next year, Albon may be able to fulfil more of his potential. But as the team chases down Mercedes, it will understandably develop the car in whichever way makes it the quickest in Verstappen's hands.

Only the team can predict whether that will be the case and whether the undesirable characteristics of RB16 will be transferred to next year's RB17. If they are and it means Albon's career becomes a casualty along the way, it's hard to imagine the team changing path.

The case for Sergio Perez

As a veteran of ten seasons in Formula One, Perez should be able to slot right into the Red Bull team in 2021. Taking a driver from outside its own talent pool would be a regressive step for Red Bull in many ways (although Albon could be seen as an outsider as he was ditched by the driver programme in 2012 and then rejoined ahead of 2019), but it might be necessary to gain a better understanding of what's going on.

With a driver like Perez, you know what you're getting. He's scored podiums for underdog teams, matched or beaten a number of talented teammates over the years and shown an ability to adapt to different styles of cars (just this year Racing Point switched from a Red Bull philosophy to a Mercedes one and Perez continues to shine).

If Perez joins and struggles, you know there's something wrong with the way the team is set up. But if he joins and consistently scores good results, you know the issue is with Gasly and Albon.

Perez also comes with the added bonus of a decent budget from his personal sponsors, which may not be a deal-breaker for the well-funded Red Bull team, but certainly won't harm his chances.

The case for Nico Hulkenberg

Many of the same arguments can be made for Hulkenberg as have been made above for Perez. On paper, he doesn't have the podiums or the money that Perez brings, but his substitute performances this year for Racing Point have shown he's still an adaptable and talented driver.

Over the course of three seasons as teammates at Force India between 2014 and 2016, Perez outscored Hulkenberg by ten points, meaning there is very little to choose between the two.

Rumour has it Verstappen is pushing for Hulkenberg behind the scenes, but while the team would never want to be seen to be dictated to by its lead driver, a good relationship between both sides of the garage would certainly help.

Hulkenberg recently told the ESPN F1 podcast that he will not pursue any other options until he hears from Red Bull, suggesting he is in serious contention for the role.

What happens at AlphaTauri?

This week, Red Bull confirmed Pierre Gasly will stay at AlphaTauri for another year. While the news was not a surprise, it has left many questioning Red Bull's logic.

Ever since he was dropped to Toro Rosso last year, Gasly has looked like a completely different driver. There have been stand out performances in Brazil 2019 and Italy this season, but the most impressive thing has been his consistency throughout 2020. He is ninth in the drivers' standings, one point behind Albon, and 49 points clear of teammate Daniil Kvyat, who is likely to be shown the exit at the end of the year.

He seems like the obvious solution to Red Bull's driver issues, but whatever tarnished him in the team's eyes in 2019 is still enough to prevent the team giving him a second chance in 2021.

If Albon is dropped, it would make sense for him to slot in alongside Gasly at AlphaTauri, so Red Bull can make a fair judgement on the two drivers in equal machinery. Horner believes Albon would be doing just as good a job as Gasly in the same car, which, if true, would mean an Albon/Gasly pairing this year would have been enough to put Alpha Tauri third in the constructors' standings on 126 points and two wins.

Yet, Red Bull's programme is notoriously cut-throat and if Albon can't make a case for himself at Red Bull, perhaps he won't be given the lifeline at the junior team in the same way Gasly was in 2019. Formula 2 driver Yuki Tsunoda is waiting in the wings to make the step up to F1, but while very few believe he would do as good a job as Albon, his promotion is necessary to prevent further stagnation in the young driver programme.

Of course, in an ideal world Albon would prove himself as deserving candidate for the 2021 Red Bull seat alongside Max Verstappen and Gasly would lead AlphaTauri alongside the promising Tsunoda, but that requires Albon to immediately up his game.

Over to you, Alex...