There has been plenty of speculation over the last couple of months regarding the second seat at Red Bull for 2021.
Most of those rumours have been centered around whether Pierre Gasly and Alex Albon should retain their current positions or be switched around for a second time.
However, Helmut Marko has recently said that Nico Hulkenburg and Sergio Perez are potential options for 2021 if Albon does not perform to the level expected of him through the rest of the season.
Pair that with Paul di Resta recently expressing doubts about Gasly’s return to the lead team due to team politics, and Nico and Checo could just be the front-runners for next year’s seat.
If you look at it from Red Bull’s perspective, Nico Hulkenburg is the obvious choice.
What Are Red Bull Looking For?
Alex Albon’s poor qualifying pace has been his main sticking point this season – and it’s something Red Bull have mentioned in the media a few times – so any potential replacement must be able to at least do a better job on Saturdays than the Thai driver.
Red Bull have consistently had the second fastest car this season, and they expect their drivers to be qualifying near the top of the timesheets.
Albon has only been able to crack the top five at about half of this season’s races and has, on a couple of occasions, not been able to make it out of Q2.
Conversely, Hulkenburg was able to secure P3 in qualifying during his second substitution weekend at Silverstone after outperforming full-time Racing Point driver Lance Stroll and achieving P4 in both the first and third practice sessions of the weekend.
As for Sergio Perez, it is important to point out that he currently holds the record above Romain Grosjean for the most races without a pole position, and P4 is the highest he’s ever qualified.
The second, but arguably more important consideration in a driver for Red Bull, is brand representation and getting TV time and other types of media coverage.
Team principal Christian Horner has said previously that excitement is key to the team which ultimately is in Formula One to sell the Red Bull energy drink brand.
Albon and Gasly in particular have not generally produced what Red Bull would consider to be exciting racing, certainly not when compared to team-mate Max Verstappen or even some of the midfield contenders.
Hulkenburg presents a new angle for the team which is losing its record-chasing driver storyline this year.
Verstappen cannot become the youngest World Champion after this season and while Red Bull by no means will be abandoning Verstappen because of this, Nico Hulkenburg could potentially bring the most interesting storyline of all the current prospects.
Positioned correctly, Red Bull can potentially show that they were the team that was able to lead Nico’s comeback and helped him get his first podium.
At the very least, Hulkenburg can be relied on for consistent points in a competitive car and he will almost certainly do a better job at being a rear-gunner than Albon.
While Sergio Perez is also an appealing candidate, he’s likely to end up at a team which can benefit more from his sponsorship dollars, such as Haas or Williams.
What Would This Mean For Red Bull’s Post-2021 Driver Line-Up?
Hulkenburg spending 2021 with the team would allow Red Bull junior driver Yuki Tsunoda another year to foster his talents in Formula Two, whereas it’s likely he would be promoted to Scuderia AlphaTauri to replace Daniil Kvyat if Albon is retained.
Although Yuki has been primarily backed by exiting engine manufacturer Honda, he currently stands P3 in the F2 standings and will undoubtedly be given a shot in Formula One at some point, regardless of Honda’s withdrawal from the sport.
This would be the correct timeline for a team heavily focused on Max Verstappen currently, as Tsunoda could move up in 2022 and grow with the team before Max’s contract expires after 2023.
Meanwhile, Albon and Gasly would be the prime candidates for an AlphaTauri team that is working towards getting closer to Red Bull Racing as opposed to simply serving as its junior team.
As for Helmut Marko’s fate through all this, it may be time to reconsider who heads up Red Bull’s driver development programme.
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