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Slim pickings at Red Bull

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John Sertori new author
Roar Rookie
29th October, 2020
4

Silly season is a funny time in F1 – no pun intended – and 2020 has seen three rounds but it’s not over yet.

The recent announcement of calling time on Romain Grosjean’s F1 career and possibly Kevin Magnussen’s as well sparked round three and now we are mid throes of a proper rumour mill grinding. Alfa Romeo are yet to formally confirm their line-up (though it’s imminent) and now Williams are in the mix on the back of rumours that the Sergio Perez camp has been talking up his chances with the new owners of the team.

Or so George Russell says. Russell says he’s confident he’ll be on the grid next year as he has a contract and backing from Mercedes.

And then there’s Red Bull. Like Michael Corleone, just when they thought they were out they get pulled back in. But it’s their own making. With a young driver pool that is usually the envy of the F1 Paddock, it’s gotten quite shallow and if not for their association with Honda, it’s fair to say they’d have no options from within to fill the seats that they would like to get better results from.

Danil Kvyat is on the outer after a number of years without the required consistency and seems resigned to that fact given his recent remarks. Yuki Tsunoda is doing a fine job in F2 with three poles, two wins, three podiums and sits third in the F2 Drivers Championship and is certainly making the right noises to be given a chance.

This would grease the wheels for the engine IP that Christian Horner would dearly love to get his hands on to avoid the alternative of an unwanted return to Renault power. Tsunoda at 20 could do with maybe one more year treading the pedals in F2, but Red Bull doesn’t have the luxury of time after the shock announcement of Honda’s withdrawal and underperforming drivers.

With a lack of homegrown options at Red Bull and an engine deal to secure Tsunoda would seem certain at Alpha Tauri next year. Outside of the Japanese driver, it’s slim pickings for Red Bull from within.

Despite this, Red Bull have been lucky with the timing of their issue. Had it not been for Ferrari’s spectacular fall from speed during the 2020 offseason, Red Bull would be in the midst of a battle for second in the Constructors Championship and probably losing it.

Would Helmut Marko have been as patient and held his tongue had they been in a proper team scrap? It’d be tedious to say that Red Bull have kept Mercedes honest this year and the fact is that they’ve been more of a distraction to the focus of Valterri Bottas’ attempt to topple Lewis Hamilton – which is the Mount Everest of tasks at the best of times – as Lewis trundles away with title number seven (and most other F1 records along the way).

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Lewis Hamilton

(Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

That Red Bull have had no serious threat behind them for third has left Max Verstappen free to attack and not have to concern himself looking over his shoulder. He hasn’t needed the help of a teammate to run interference on a pesky Ferrari or two – not that he had one there to oblige – and Red Bull needs to address that. Quickly.

This time last year Alexander Albon was enjoying a meteoric rise. He’d been plucked from a seat in Formula E to join (then) Toro Rosso and then summoned to the top digs at Red Bull after Pierre Gasly hadn’t been able to take the opportunity given him. Being Verstappen’s’ teammate is no easy thing.

Some would even say that the honey badger Danny Ric bailed on that fight as well. Verstappen is tough, uncompromising and fast. His directness is typically Dutch. He’s very much a chip off the old block – Jos Verstappen was a man who didn’t pull any punches and his fans sporting “Jos the Boss” banners reminded all of his tenacity and willingness for the battle, as if it wasn’t already on show through his driving.

Albon showed great speed and consistency in the last part of the season when he was put alongside Verstappen and had it not been for Lewis’ clumsiness in Brazil, would have got his first podium. A gem had been surprisingly but welcomingly uncovered and was polishing up nicely.

But that was last year.

The lustre has gone and he’s struggled to get to grips with how best to wrestle the RB16 and its nervous rear end for consistent results this year. No doubt he’s been given more time than Gasly due to the gap behind Red Bull in the Constructors Championship.

With Gasly confirmed at Alpha Tauri and the driver academy coffers looking pretty bare, Red Bull are looking outside their own corral for a solution that will work alongside Verstappen. Luckily there are a couple of old bulls lurking about in the paddock who could fill that job.

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With his role as a super-sub, Nico Hulkenberg’s stocks haven’t risen this sharply since his unexpected pole position in Brazil in 2010, though even that ended with a year on the sidelines as Pastor Maldonado was preferred at Williams due to the sponsorship he brought to the team.

Hulkenberg has been a brilliant fill-in at Racing Point and there wasn’t anyone who didn’t want him to get the podium that has eluded him for 179 races at Silverstone this year.

The other option is Checo Perez, who probably doesn’t have as much crowd support but has more than a handful of podiums and brings more than a handful of sponsors as well. That he doesn’t have a seat in F1 when he not only has the credentials but also the backing is astounding – even by F1 standards.

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The circumstances of the deal are just what both sides are looking for. Checo has been waiting patiently for a tilt in a car that’s a challenger (or nearer than he’s ever been before) and pit himself against the best in the sport. The sponsorship he brings swallow tails nicely into Red Bulls current engine dilemma.

He’s a good qualifier and tenacious racer though his more abrasive and uncompromising approach – even when it comes to battling teammates – will have been noted. Think Ricciardo versus Verstappen in Baku 2018 but on a more regular basis. Perez’s battles with Esteban Ocon at that very circuit as well as down the hill to Eau Rouge point indicate a driver who won’t give an inch until he’s forced to.

This probably counts against him, as while any team wants both of their drivers to push each other on the track, pushing each other off it is not such an inviting scenario.

One final curveball which is highly likely to miss the plate altogether but conjures images of a great intra-team battle both on and off the track is Kevin Magnussen. Not a shrinking violet by any standards, Mag would put up a good and entertaining fight even though Verstappen would still get the better of him.

Despite being dropped by Haas, Magnussen still has business in F1. But in the end, Red Bull want someone who won’t butt heads or wheels but will bring the car home with big points in it. Without the same amount of experience and level headed-ness of Hulkenberg or the portfolio of support of Perez, it’s rather left field.

So where does Red Bull go? The smart money is on Nico Hulkenberg – a safe, quick and experienced pair of hands unlikely to be fazed by the intimidating nature of the Red Bull garage with a comfortably dominant Verstappen. He’s been through more in his career than anything Max could throw at him and experience has toughened his skin.

Bring on the super sub.