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Formula 1

Why Red Bull must consider Perez and Hulkenberg

by Scott Mitchell-Malm
4 min read

Alex Albon should have a firm grip on the second Red Bull seat for the 2021 Formula 1 season.

As the current incumbent it is his to lose, and Red Bull has made it quite clear that the man he replaced – current AlphaTauri driver Pierre Gasly – has no immediate future after being demoted to the sister team.

With no internal threat to his position, Albon should be able to lock down his position. But he hasn’t, as Red Bull is still yet to commit. And there are at least two very serious options outside Red Bull’s driver pool that have made excellent recent cases for their consideration.

Red Bull team principal Christian Horner has said more than once that it is his responsibility, and the team’s, to be aware of the available options. Sergio Perez and Nico Hulkenberg have been named by him and Helmut Marko, Red Bull’s motorsport advisor, as candidates that fit the mould.

It is quite incredible that both Perez and Hulkenberg are on the market for 2021. Hulkenberg is still a free agent after being dropped by Renault for this season, so his F1 exploits have been limited to a trio of super-sub appearances for Racing Point. Two of those outings came in place of Perez, who has been excellent yet again but will be forced out of the team at the end of the year to make room for Sebastian Vettel.

Neither driver has been afforded the career opportunity their respective talents deserve. Perez joined McLaren in 2013 at the start of a multi-year decline the team is only now getting itself out of. He was replaced after just one season. Hulkenberg’s biggest chance came when he was chosen to spearhead Renault’s works team, but his three-year spell came to an end last season as Renault opted to sign Esteban Ocon instead.

Perez and Hulkenberg are extremely capable F1 drivers. They are as good as any other in F1’s midfield, they are dependable, and they have different qualities that would complement what Max Verstappen gives Red Bull as the lead driver.

Hulkenberg is the better Saturday performer, even if Marko doesn’t think he’d join Albon in failing to be within three tenths of Verstappen. There, indirectly, Marko reveals the level Albon must get to. But if three tenths is the target vs Verstappen then Hulkenberg is more likely to achieve that than either Perez or Albon. He was shaded by Daniel Ricciardo at Renault, and in turn Ricciardo was shaded by Verstappen. So three tenths seems perfectly achievable.

As he has proven this year, being thrown in to replace Perez and most recently Lance Stroll at Racing Point, Hulkenberg’s not lost any sharpness. He remains a very quick and solid option, with two points finishes in two starts (a mechanical issue prevented him from racing in the British Grand Prix).

Sunday performances have occasionally let Hulkenberg down, especially when rare podium chances have emerged. But these opportunities would be less scarce at Red Bull so he could be relied upon to play a strong supporting act to Verstappen, as the odds would be more in his favour.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship 70th Anniversary Grand Prix Qualifying Day Silverstone, England

Perez would perhaps carry more of a qualifying deficit – maybe even to the point he is not much of a Saturday upgrade on Albon – but is arguably the most underrated racing driver in F1. His ability to extract the maximum from the car and the tyres is extraordinary, and while Perez is not the most attention-grabbing driver he is incredibly effective. Stringing together a weekend, something Albon is still yet to do this season, is Perez’s strongest asset.

He’s finished in the points in every race he’s started this season, and is fifth in the drivers’ championship despite missing two grands prix. Without those absences, and a couple of circumstance-driven low scores, he’d be a comfortable fourth.
Perez is also only 30-years-old, so should be striding purposefully into the peak of his career.

He has been robbed of an opportunity he deserved at what will be the works Aston Martin team next season. While one cannot argue the appeal of Vettel from an experience/pedigree/business point of view, in pure sporting terms Perez deserves one of those Aston seats.

Both Perez and Hulkenberg would be extremely motivated by the opportunity, they have the experience and composure to handle the pressure that comes with it, and they would be unlikely to disturb the number one/number two dynamic because neither is quite on Verstappen’s level. In fact, Verstappen and Hulkenberg would be a fine pairing on-track and off it as they have a good relationship.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Eifel Grand Prix Qualifying Day Nurbugring, Germany

Seeing Perez or Hulkenberg afforded the chance to race for a top team would be excellent, even though it would come at the expense of another endearing story – Albon’s. If Albon is able to get a handle on his situation and establish himself as a serious number-two option for Red Bull then extending his spell at the team will be no worse than hiring Perez or Hulkenberg.

From a sporting and personal perspective, Albon’s place can be justified. And he remains in control of that destiny. But if the season ends with present form still the status quo, then Albon will not deserve that seat. Harsh as it sounds, that’s the reality of F1.

He will not be safe just because there’s no leading threat within Red Bull’s existing driver pool. It seems Red Bull hopes to make a decision by the Turkish Grand Prix in mid-November – potentially giving Albon two, maybe three races to save his seat.

And Red Bull knows it has two excellent alternatives worthy of consideration in the meantime.

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