Red Bull’s ruthlessness has become a prominent talking point when considering their future driver line-ups and, with Sergio Perez out of contract at the end of this season, there’s a chance he could be sacked.
A few names can be thrown into the hat, and a few more names would likely love to be thrown in there; it’s difficult to image any drivers would not be interested in racing one of the two quickest cars in Formula 1 at present.
Perez got that opportunity last year when he was signed to replace Alex Albon following a dire 2020 season that yielded two podiums for the Thai-Brit, but little else.
The 32-year-old, having taken an incredible victory for Racing Point at the Sakhir Grand Prix in 2020, managed something that Albon and his own predecessor, Pierre Gasly, had not achieved before him – winning a race.
Along with his victory in Baku – where Gasly joined him on the podium – Perez claimed five podiums in 2021, and was instrumental in holding off Sir Lewis Hamilton on more than one occasion as he aided Max Verstappen’s title success.
But he would ultimately lose the battle of the “number two” drivers to Valtteri Bottas, leaving Mercedes to take home their record eighth straight constructors’ crown.
Perez’s Red Bull future far from secure despite positive start
Perez has made an impressive start to 2022. He was set for a podium after Verstappen’s reliability failure in Bahrain before he suffered the exact same fate himself, and his pole lap in Jeddah a week later was something to behold.
His own proficiency in the first sector, despite Ferrari’s prowess there all weekend, came as a surprise, not just to the Scuderia, but to fans as well.
Perez made an exceptional start to proceedings in the race in Saudi Arabia, and was comfortably leading prior to going for the undercut and pitting before Charles Leclerc, Carlos Sainz and Verstappen behind him.
He insisted that the stop “wasn’t early” due to the longevity of the Hard Tyres, and it is likely that the three leaders would have pitted o the next lap anyway after seeing just how strong the undercut was in Bahrain with the new tyres.
However, Nicholas Latifi put his Williams in the wall at Turn 27 and extracted the Safety Car, giving the three drivers who had all inherited a position a cheap stop.
Misfortune befell the Mexican again as he was deemed to have passed Sainz on the racetrack as the Ferrari driver re-joined the race from the pits, but a “mess” of a restart in the eyes of Sainz involved the stewards ordering Perez to cede the place after green flag running had resumed, and not during the caution period.
Sainz expressed a degree of sympathy after the race that Perez lost an abundance of time in the first sector as a result, and he was unable to battle for the podium places while the Spaniard could only watch as Leclerc and Verstappen sailed off into the distance.
Gasly pushing for return to Red Bull
So far this year, Perez’s form has been nothing to scoff at, but as effectively a number two driver alongside his reigning world champion team-mate, he will be aware that there is a target on his back, and Gasly is one of those aiming right at it.
Red Bull Dr Helmut Marko has emphasised that the team “don’t want” the Frenchman to leave their programme at the end of 2023, but the 25-year-old has said that, ahead of 2024, he will either “make the move to Red Bull, or not.”
Gasly endured a torrid time during his debut half season with Red Bull in 2019, and was ultimately dropped halfway through the season in favour of Albon, but he achieved one of his three F1 podiums later on that same year with Toro Rosso before they became AlphaTauri.
Norris another strong contender
Gasly may well appear the obvious choice to replace Perez should his performances slip in 2022, something that the Mexican cannot afford due to his contractual situation.
But another potential option might be Lando Norris. The current McLaren driver joked that he would fare better than other young racers in the Woking team that have struggled before him because he is “better,” but out-qualifying Carlos Sainz 20 times in 38 races is no mean feat considering Sainz’s impressive form in 2021 with Ferrari.
He also convincingly beat Daniel Ricciardo – a former Red Bull driver himself – 14 times in 22 races last year in equal machinery, and is thus far in 2022 out-performing the eight-time race winner again.
He was cruelly denied victory at the Russian Grand Prix last year by changing conditions after scoring a remarkable pole position, but the British team are lightyears away from their podium-contending form of 2021.
Norris himself claimed a seventh-placed finish in Jeddah after a scoreless outing in Bahrain, and a reliability failure for Ricciardo was the epitome of the issues McLaren have faced under the new technical regulations.
Former McLaren racer and 2009 world champion Jenson Button has expressed concerns over the “surprising” decision on the 22-year-old’s part to extend his deal with the eight-time constructors’ champions until the end of 2025.
“You never know where the team is going to be in three years,” he added.
Team principal Andreas Seidl confirmed upon agreeing the extension that there would be no “get-outs” in the Briton’s deal, but Norris contradicted this by suggesting that there are “various things” in the fine print that could allow him to depart.
However, the legacy of jumping from an uncompetitive car to a front-runner can be an issue in terms of adaptability, as Perez testified last year.
“We have to take into account the fact that I came into a very different philosophy of car compared to what I’ve been driving all my career,” he said, reflecting on his first year with the Milton Keynes squad.
“In that aspect, it has been a slow adaptation, but yes, just a very different car, very different engine. A lot of things to learn with a new team with no testing, basically.”
There is only so much time that will be given to a driver who is struggling to adapt, but the intrigue around the situation is that Gasly, Norris and Perez all have a considerable amount of experience in the pinnacle of motorsport.
Perez, who has been in F1 since 2011, now finds himself as one of the more experienced heads on the grid, but the requisite for driving at Red Bull is simply performance.
Should he be unable to perform, I believe that Gasly will be the obvious choice to replace him at Red Bull, but Norris is certainly not a driver to be overlooked following his impressive opening three seasons in Formula 1.