Doubts within Red Bull about Nyck de Vries’ suitability for the AlphaTauri Formula 1 team are now becoming public, which inevitably increases the pressure on the full-season rookie.
If De Vries’ biggest advocate for his 2023 AlphaTauri seat was Helmut Marko, and now Marko seems to agree that Christian Horner was right to question De Vries in the first place, it is not a good sign for De Vries’ prospects.
Sometimes, a driver in such a situation has the pressure relieved because there is no direct competition for their seat. They are safe because their team lacks obvious alternatives.
That luxury does not exist for De Vries, as Red Bull would appear to have plenty of legitimate candidates to pursue – especially if Yuki Tsunoda continues to perform at a level that deserves a new deal, and only one seat has to be filled for 2024.
Outside of its main driver line-up, Red Bull has another multiple grand prix winner on its books, who is currently ensconced in the senior team, is familiar with the RB19 on the simulator, is poised to get relevant 2023 car track time, and is hungry for a return to the grid next year with something to prove.
But would Red Bull want to pick him and would he want to take this backwards step?
Let’s deal with the former first. It depends what Red Bull wants for the sister team.
If it’s the most qualified driver, then Daniel Ricciardo is the right pick. If it’s the best asset, then ditto, because his marketability is absurd and he remains logic-defyingly in-demand for someone who is not even racing in F1 at the moment. If it’s experience and a team leader, then it’s Ricciardo, and likewise if it’s to evaluate someone for a potential 2025 Red Bull Racing seat then it’s probably Ricciardo again.
But if it’s youth, then Ricciardo doesn’t tick the box. If it’s someone for AlphaTauri to build around for the next few years, he’s probably not the right fit either. And if it’s about the fastest, most versatile option who will do the best job…well, it’s not guaranteed that it’s Ricciardo.
But assuming there is no damning evidence from the Red Bull simulator, or whatever tyre tests Ricciardo conducts this year, that he is a completely lost cause post-McLaren, Ricciardo will have to be in contention. Then the question is whether he is up for it.
If Ricciardo’s truly determined to get back onto the grid in 2024 he will swallow his pride and do what needs to be done – lower his demands, settle for a smaller team, and fight back to the front.
Time is still on his side if you benchmark him against F1’s most enduring modern drivers. But he might not be interested in the slightest in going back to where it all began (well, sort of – the HRT team’s definitely not an option anymore!) and letting his career come full circle.
He wants to fight at the front and eventually win again. He can’t do that with AlphaTauri. He might one day with Red Bull. And that could sway it, if he sees it as a viable route.
Liam Lawson/Ayumu Iwasa
Not so long ago, a potential vacancy at Red Bull’s second team would definitely be filled by a junior. Now it seems less certain, although there are two clear candidates.
And it would be extremely convenient for Red Bull to pick either Liam Lawson or Ayumu Iwasa to re-establish the junior programme as one of relevance, a problem exhibited by a mass of Red Bull-backed talents in F2 in recent years going nowhere with its F1 teams.
Yuki Tsunoda came onto the scene as a Honda protege and Alex Albon was once a junior but had long since been dropped by the time Red Bull drafted him back in for Toro Rosso. Red Bull hasn’t really identified one of its own talents early for a long time and its scattergun recruitment has come at a price.
Its pathway needs credibility again, and these are the only two real candidates who could achieve that.
Lawson is the logical choice, and peaking at a good time. While a more convincing second year in Formula 2 would have probably propelled Lawson into F1 already, he is doing a superb job in Super Formula having been shuffled out to Japan.
That series is really competitive but Lawson has two wins in five races, hasn’t finished lower than fifth so far, and is firmly in title contention. It’s already mightily impressive, regardless of whether he goes on to seal the championship.
Lawson feels like the kind of driver that Red Bull doesn’t want to drop, and has some use for, and sees something in – but isn’t blown away by. There’s a little bit of Pierre Gasly about his situation. That’s why a title in Japan might be necessary to crowbar an F1 chance open.
He probably needs to win it, to really win Red Bull over. Though Lawson seems to have done a good job in his limited Red Bull and AlphaTauri F1 appearances, he let some doubt creep in with low-key first seasons in F3 and F2, and good but not great sophomore campaigns.
Arguably he’s been at his best when he’s made a slightly unconventional move – he should have won the DTM in 2021, for example, having outperformed Alex Albon in that series, and now he’s starring in Japan.
Iwasa’s chances may depend on whether Lawson fails to convince Red Bull of his own credentials.
The young Japanese driver, another Honda protege, is doing a good job in his second F2 season after impressing as a rookie last year but this is, again, not the most convincing grid and Iwasa has relied a bit too much on reversed-grid results.
And if Tsunoda continues to keep Honda’s financial support of his seat, it would seem unlikely that a second Japanese driver would be backed as well – unless Red Bull picked either of them purely on merit, and Honda only had to fund one.
If Red Bull is not interested in the IndyCar title favourite, who looks on course to win the championship for a second time, then it has learned nothing from its apparent De Vries misstep and is not looking seriously enough at its options.
Palou is driving superbly in IndyCar, having established himself as a real star of the series following a peculiar junior single-seater career that might best be described as ‘constantly making the best of a tricky situation’.
Whatever chance Palou got, he took it, and invariably did a good job. It impressed people who paid attention even if it never materialised in a stunningly good CV – 3rd in Japan’s Super Formula series, 7th in European F3 and 10th in GP3 being his headline championship results in the most high-profile categories he competed in pre-IndyCar.
But he has always demonstrated speed, versatility and determination in spades. Now he is thriving in IndyCar and by all accounts performing well in the private F1 tests he is completing with McLaren.
Palou has been in a contractual dilemma with current IndyCar employer Chip Ganassi and McLaren, with the intention of joining the latter next season. His F1 testing work (and reserve driver role) has been permitted in the interim. Soon Palou has to make a big career decision – unless Red Bull intervenes and makes it simpler.
Because in all likelihood, Palou would swap his IndyCar success for a real shot at F1. He has indicated he wants to make teams take him seriously and will hear them out. Palou probably won’t take just anything but getting into the Red Bull stable at his age – he is 26 – would be a massive opportunity.
Red Bull would be foolish not to get its hands on a talent like this. Especially given how keen it was to facilitate an IndyCar move a year ago when that driver was Colton Herta.
He didn’t have a superlicence and couldn’t get one. Palou does, he’s a better driver, and has been racking up F1 experience.
If he was American, Palou may even have an AlphaTauri offer already.