All season I’ve been closely following Alex Albon at Red Bull, and I’ve seen the flashes of potential and performance that Red Bull has often talked up. I’ve been an advocate of patience because there were plenty of signs to suggest that when it all came together Albon would be the driver Red Bull needs him to be.
Unfortunately there are only a few weeks left of the season and Albon’s not once put together a complete weekend. Sooner rather than later that untapped potential just becomes unfulfilled potential. And that’s not good enough at Red Bull.
Team boss Christian Horner effectively gave him an ultimatum before Portugal: buck up here and Imola to guarantee your seat. Albon’s response was probably his worst race of the season.
Much as I hate to say it, I think Albon’s time at Red Bull is about to end. Even a more appropriate performance at Imola this weekend feels like it will come too late to save him.
Hopefully he rallies in some way because there’s a good driver in there but whether it’s the pressure of driving for Red Bull, the recalcitrance of the RB16 or the mental blow of being battered by Max Verstappen every week, that driver’s been muted this season.
It looks like Nico Hulkenberg is best-placed for that drive in 2021 as Red Bull has confirmed it will seek an outside driver to replace Albon should it decide to go for someone new. Good for Nico: yes, he’s had the odd opportunity to grab a surprise podium in the midfield and blundered. But he has always deserved slightly more than he’s been given and this could be the chance to prove that.
Then, if he doesn’t, the sympathy will end. We can always ask ‘what if he’d been picked up by a bigger team earlier on in his career?’ but at the very least he’d get the opportunity while still very much capable of showing his ability. His Racing Point super-sub appearances this year prove that.
But it seems weird that Red Bull’s so committed to looking outside when a driver at its second team is doing such a mega job. In Portugal, yet again Pierre Gasly was a star in the midfield. Actually…midfield doesn’t do him justice given he finished fifth on merit.
Red Bull’s attitude towards Pierre makes no sense on paper until you consider the purpose of its two F1 teams have changed.
Clearly, Red Bull doesn’t think Gasly is Red Bull Racing material. Which looks silly given how brilliantly he’s driving at the moment. But there’s an inherent doubt within Red Bull’s hierarchy that Gasly would just slump again if promoted from AlphaTauri.
And given AlphaTauri wants to be an upper-midfield team in its own right, Red Bull sees it as in its interest to keep Gasly there. The logic makes sense – don’t put him in Red Bull Racing if you expect 2019 to repeat itself, don’t release him if you think he’s a mega asset for the second team.
But I think that does him a disservice. AlphaTauri may well be able to establish itself as a consistent top-10 force but it is unlikely to be a contender for podiums and wins even after 2022.
That’s the calibre of driver Gasly looks like right now. He deserves an opportunity in a team that matches his own stature.
The lingering uncertainty over who will partner Verstappen next season means there’s still life in the driver market. It was interesting to hear George Russell claim that speculation over his Williams future – or maybe Nicholas Latifi’s seat – has been fuelled by Sergio Perez’s camp. The theory is that Perez’s management wants to make it sound like Perez is a serious Williams candidate to try to force Red Bull to make a decision on its driver line-up, as Perez is on the shortlist alongside Hulkenberg.
However, I can’t think of anything less likely to force Red Bull’s hand than the prospect of Perez being on the brink of signing for Williams. All the while Red Bull remains a potential destination, Perez is surely not going to finalise a Williams deal (if he even has the prospect). Especially if Hulkenberg truly is Red Bull’s favoured option, as appears to be the case.
Russell and Mercedes seem pretty confident he’ll be at Williams again next year. As I understand it the Perez camp has approached Williams and held some initial talks so there is truth to the suggestion he is being considered. It will probably come down to whether Williams think the cost of dropping either Russell or Latifi is worth the finances/performance that come with hiring Perez (and having him around for a few years instead of potentially losing Russell after 2021).
It’s all fun and games and it’ll be interesting to see how it plays out. The other vacancies on the grid seem pretty set: Gasly/Yuki Tsunoda at AlphaTauri (assuming Tsunoda gets a superlicence), Nikita Mazepin/Mick Schumacher at Haas and, so it seems, Kimi Raikkonen and Antonio Giovinazzi together again at Alfa Romeo.