Formula 1

What does Red Bull do if neither Ricciardo or Perez impresses?

by Ben Anderson
4 min read

Red Bull's decision on who should partner Max Verstappen for the 2025 Formula 1 season is being framed as a head-to-head fight between current incumbent Sergio Perez and the last team-mate to beat Verstappen over a season, Daniel Ricciardo.

But what happens if neither of them perform well enough to stake an unquestionable claim to the seat?

Stake

As it stands, Perez remains in the best position because he has at least one more year inside the team to prove to Red Bull he is the right driver for the job.

Red Bull certainly doesn’t have any junior drivers absolutely battering Christian Horner’s door down, so the advantage is firmly with Perez if he can sort himself out - then Ricciardo if Perez can’t.

But Yuki Tsunoda has looked a shade quicker than Ricciardo so far and, although Tsunoda seems to be the un-fancied internal candidate, would be the obvious choice of the options Red Bull has within its own control.

Promoting Tsunoda would also create the necessary vacancy to further blood impressive reserve driver Liam Lawson as a future insurance policy, while leaving Ricciardo in situ would continue to bolster his current team with valuable experience in a tightly-packed midfield group.

But Red Bull’s desire to satisfy Honda will be on the wane as Honda, which funds Tsunoda's seat, gears up to return to building engines for 2026 - with Aston Martin this time - so Tsunoda is going to need to prove himself on his own merits rather than rely on Honda patronage.

Unless he’s clearly and consistently faster than Ricciardo in 2024, Tsunoda probably doesn’t get the nod in a marginal comparison.

And so if Perez fails to improve, Ricciardo fails to impress and Tsunoda fails to convince Red Bull he is clearly a cut above Ricciardo, then Red Bull is going to need to promote Lawson from his reserve role - which seems highly unlikely - or dip into the driver market.

As things stand, that most likely means trying to lure one of Carlos Sainz, Fernando Alonso or Alex Albon, all of whom (as things stand) will be out of contract at the end of 2024.

Given how well he dovetails with Charles Leclerc at Ferrari, Sainz would probably be the best choice from those three - but potentially the hardest to snare, unless Ferrari’s apparent reluctance to offer him certainty beyond 2025 becomes a deal breaker for the Sainz camp.

Alonso was less than enamoured with late-2023 rumours linking him to Perez’s seat, but Alonso is not yet guaranteed to remain with Aston Martin through 2025.

Given his awkward history with McLaren-Honda, it’s difficult to see Honda be entirely thrilled by the prospect of Alonso remaining with the team beyond that season, when his 45th birthday will be approaching.

At this point maybe Tsunoda comes firmly onto Aston’s radar, so one last hurrah for Alonso with F1’s current best team, and against its best driver, doesn’t sound totally far fetched - if he and Red Bull both decide they want to do a deal.

Albon is probably Red Bull’s most realistic external option. He can drive a car ‘on the nose’ in a similar way to Verstappen, has clearly matured greatly since being demoted from Red Bull at the end of 2020 then released to Williams, and feels he’s ready to step back into one of F1’s big teams again.

Red Bull currently looks like Albon’s best route for making that leap, but even if the opportunity were to arise Albon - who is out of contract at the end of this year - would then need to ask himself whether it’s worth trading his ‘big fish in a smaller pond’ status with Williams to become a Max Verstappen support act (again).

It would be fair enough for any of these three external candidates to consider that a retrograde step not worth taking - save maybe for Alonso if he simply has no other option and fancies one last proper crack before he retires.

Obvious upgrades on Perez, such as Lewis Hamilton, George Russell, Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri are all tied down to the end of 2025 - or 2026 in Piastri’s case - and Leclerc looks set to sign a lucrative new contract with Ferrari that would place him even further out of reach than Piastri.

Red Bull would probably not consider other available choices from F1’s midfield - Pierre Gasly, Esteban Ocon, Valtteri Bottas, or Nico Hulkenberg are probably the top remaining picks right now - a guaranteed upgrade on Perez or Ricciardo, even on current form.

That’s why Red Bull really needs Perez to seriously up his game in 2024, and/or Ricciardo to showcase that 2023 Mexico magic on a consistent-enough basis to force the issue in his favour.

If neither of those things happens then Messrs Horner and Helmut Marko will no doubt be filling their 2024 calendars with plenty of tricky F1 driver agent meetings.

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