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Formula 1

Why Audi's crossing swords with Red Bull in F1 driver market games

by Scott Mitchell-Malm
6 min read

Audi's now properly part of Formula 1's silly season after its first driver announcement - and taking recent comments at face value, the driver it wants for its other seat is waiting to see if a Red Bull move is possible instead.

Carlos Sainz is known to be Audi's top target even though it has confirmed Nico Hulkenberg first.

And if you believe Red Bull motorsport advisor Helmut Marko, Sainz has a big-money offer on the table from Audi to join Sauber in 2025 then spearhead its Audi transformation in 2026.

That would mean the outgoing Ferrari driver taking a big step back to a struggling team in the short-term, before Sauber morphs into its new identity for the start of a new era of car rules in 2026, armed with Audi’s first ever F1 engine.

Sainz has also been on Red Bull’s radar for a while now as he is being replaced by Lewis Hamilton at Ferrari in 2025, and Marko recently claimed talks have already started between the two parties.

“But he has a lucrative offer from Audi,” said Marko, who claimed Red Bull cannot – or will not? – match it.

That seemed to trigger a pretty cold response from Sauber’s lead F1 representative Alessandro Alunni Bravi during the recent Chinese Grand Prix weekend.

Alunni Bravi, typically very calm and straightforward, seemed unusually animated over what he called “a lot of speculation and comments” around the team.

And after Red Bull team boss Christian Horner appeared to indirectly shut down his own colleague Marko’s comments by saying “we have no idea if and what Audi have offered Carlos” and “it would be improper to disclose what offers are made”, Alunni Bravi picked up on the same thread.

“As mentioned by Christian, and I fully agree with what he said, it's not appropriate to discuss or to disclose what could be the discussion in place,” he said.

“No one really knows what other teams are offering to the drivers, and are discussing with the drivers.

“And sometimes we don't want to be part of a game that is done by others.”

It is as dismissive a comment as you are likely to hear from Alunni Bravi, who while being a highly respected figure in F1 and a key behind-the-scenes player for a long time, is not an attention-grabbing (or seeking!) team leader. 

He is in his role to be a figurehead/spokesperson during Sauber’s transitional years. And it seems, probably for the first time in that position, he has been at least irked by external behaviour.

That might be Marko, but Horner likes to dangle a line too. Even when he was insisting there is no knowledge of a Sainz/Audi offer, Horner still pointed out Sainz is “a key driver that's on the open market” and claimed “Audi would be foolish not to consider a driver of his quality”.

But given Alunni Bravi also strongly implied there would be no drivers signed imminently, and a few days later Hulkenberg was announced - are Sauber and Audi already getting into the swing of things and playing some games themselves?


A key part of this, obviously, is why Red Bull’s even engaging in a conversation about a driver Audi might be trying to sign anyway. 

The line-ups for the two Red Bull F1 teams have been the subject of constant speculation this season. As the incumbent Red Bull Racing driver, Sergio Perez has made a strong case for being retained for a fifth season after an impressive start to 2024. 

And yet both Horner and Marko have made a point of stating Sainz is in the picture.

Red Bull prioritising getting Sainz on board would make a lot of sense if this was the middle of 2023 when Perez was completely out of form and wasting the second Red Bull more often than not.

That’s not the case in 2024. Perez has not been particularly outstanding, and arguably not even any better than his peaks have always been at Red Bull, but has been more assured, more convincing, and Marko says this is clearly his best season for the team yet.

Marko even called him “certainly the best option for 2025”, if these performances continue.  

So why is Sainz even in the picture? And why, when Perez said he expected to have his future sorted and announced soon, did Horner turn around and clarify that Red Bull’s in no hurry and would fix things later in the year?

Well, the simple answer is that as well as it only being logical to consider Sainz while he is available given he is a seriously good driver, Red Bull is – to borrow Alunni Bravi’s phrasing - probably playing some games as well.

Floating the idea that Sainz has a mega offer from Audi immediately frames that as ‘he’s choosing between chasing a competitive seat with us or cashing in with them’.

But it may also be a ploy to string Perez along and keep him on it, too.

Last year, Perez faded quite quickly after his bright start, seemingly getting caught up in the idea of fighting Verstappen for the title. 

Horner and Marko keep making little jokes about Perez doing so well because he’s out of contract and those comments seem at least semi-serious. 

Maybe Red Bull thinks it made a mistake tying Perez down to not just a new contract early in 2022 but a two-year one at that, and this time it’s happy to hold out to keep Perez’s motivation in check and make sure his focus doesn’t stray either.


One unavoidable conclusion from the 2025 driver market speculation so far is that Audi is now a feature, so much so that it is at least vaguely crossing swords with an established powerhouse.

And now there is a firmed-up 2025 Sauber driver move, clearly influenced by Audi, there is no denying that the German manufacturer is entrenched in the silly season narrative. 

Alunni Bravi had already admitted that “we are happy that it seems that we can play a role, a different role, in the driver market for the future thanks to Audi’s announcement and all the investment that will be done in order to improve our team”.

“That is good news for our team,” he said. “Finally, we are attractive and we are not spectators, we are a player in the market.”

That is certainly true. It cannot command the interest of absolute A-list drivers because of Sauber’s own poor track record and the fact Audi itself is exciting but unproven. That is why it is not really fighting Red Bull for Sainz - it will just likely pick him up if Red Bull says no. 

But it is easily the most attractive proposition in the back half of the grid and that puts Audi in position to chase an interesting group of drivers. It has already taken advantage of that position to grab Hulkenberg. The question is what it does next. 

Alunni Bravi talked about having “open eyes” in the driver market. While this will not be stated by team chiefs, Sauber is keen to refresh its driver line-up completely, and with Hulkenberg confirmed and Sainz the top target, that means while it’s not impossible incumbents Valtteri Bottas and Zhou Guanyu could stay on, it’s extremely unlikely.

Among Audi’s other targets is Esteban Ocon, while Alex Albon isn’t out of the question should Williams either let him go or he is bought out. 

In China, Alunni Bravi indicated a decision was still some way off as the priority needed to be giving its current drivers a more competitive car to prove themselves, so “it’s not the time for us to take any decision”.

But the Hulkenberg news means either something rapidly changed or that was not the whole truth. 

Either way, it shows Audi's part of the driver market fun and games whether by accident or design.

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