Red Bull Racing principal Christian Horner has a huge decision to make before the 2021 Formula 1 season kicks off in Melbourne for the Australian Grand Prix in March.
Max Verstappen, who sits third in the driver standings with 170 points so far this season, has signed a three-year contract to remain at Red Bull through 2023. However, Alexander Albon, who is ninth in the driver standings at 70 points, has not re-signed with the team after this season, leaving his future with the team in doubt.
With most seats having been filled for the 2021 grid, the second seat at Red Bull is the biggest position up for grabs as the 2020 season approaches its conclusion. They would prefer to retain Albon but he has to show results these final few races. If he does not, there are two drivers who have been linked to possibly replacing Albon in 2021: Sergio Perez and Nico Hulkenberg.
Before I discuss why Perez should take the second seat in 2021, I will first discuss why Albon should not been retained.
Verstappen is one of the best drivers in F1 with nine career wins and 40 podiums at only 23 years of age. He has four DNFs this season but finished in the top three in nine of the 10 races he finished. He has 170 points this season, 100 ahead of his teammate, Albon. Only 2020 world champion Lewis Hamilton has a larger lead over his teammate, Valtteri Bottas, at 110 points for Mercedes.
Albon took over for Pierre Gasly at Red Bull starting in the 2019 Belgian Grand Prix and had a decent run of form in the nine races he ran at Red Bull, finishing in the top six in eight of them. However, he failed to reach the podium in those races and headed in 2020 looking to build off the momentum and reach the podium.
In 2020, he accomplished this as he finished third in the Tuscan Grand Prix. The problem is that he has struggled outside of his podium. He has an average start of 7.4 but has an average finish of 9.1. The difference between his average start and finish is -1.7, which is the fourth-worst in Formula 1 and the third-worst among top-10 drivers. Also, while his average start is the fifth-highest, his average finish ranks him ninth below both McLaren drivers, Daniel Ricciardo, Charles Leclerc and Perez. While Verstappen has four DNFs, making his difference the worst, Albon only has two.
Verstappen has finished on the podium in eight of the nine races he finished while Albon has finished outside the top 10 in three races he finished. Also, Albon has picked up an average finish of 12.2 in the five races since his podium, with one of those races being a DNF (Eifel Grand Prix). Red Bull sits second in the Constructor’s standings with 240 points but sits 264 points behind Mercedes, in part, due to Albon’s struggles. Albon sits ninth in the driver standings at 70 points with three races left.
It is clear Albon is not getting it done at Red Bull this season. Perez is the best option to replace Albon at Red Bull but first, let us address the other option: Hulkenberg.
Hulkenberg raced for Renault in 2019 and had an average start and finish of 11.4 while placing 14th in the driver standings. Without a full-time ride in 2020, he became the standby driver for Racing Point. This ended up working out for him as he filled in for Perez in both races at Silverstone and for Lance Stroll in the Eifel Grand Prix. While his car could not start at the British Grand Prix, he was able to run the other two races, finishing seventh and eighth. While he has had several good results this season in a substitute role, he struggled in his last season as a full-time driver and should not be given a seat at the second-best racing team in 2020. Instead, it should be Sergio Perez.
Perez missed two races this season due to a positive COVID-19 test the week of the British GP. He has returned and currently ranks as the highest driver in the standings outside of the dominant three of Hamilton, Bottas and Verstappen. He has 100 points this season despite driving the fewest races of the starting grid and due to his efforts, Racing Point sits third in the Constructor’s standings with 154 points, five above McLaren and 18 above Renault. However, Perez has lost his ride for next season as, despite signing a contract for the season for Racing Point through 2020, Perez was replaced by Sebastian Vettel for the 2021 season for re-branded Aston Martin.
If Perez is not picked up by Red Bull for next season, he will be without a ride for 2021 as most other top seats are filled and AlphaTauri’s second seat will be decided between retaining Daniil Kvyat or promoting F2 driver Yuki Tsunoda for the spot alongside Gasly. This season and, especially the last five races, Perez has more than proven he deserves it.
Besides being fourth in the driver standings, Perez also has the fourth-highest average start at 6.8 and actually has a higher average finish than Verstappen at 6.0, ranking him only behind the two Mercedes drivers in average finishes. When looking at the difference between the average start and average finish, it is 0.8, which ranks sixth in F1 but among top-10 drivers, he ranks first. For perspective, the average difference among all 20 full-time drivers is 0.04.
Also, Perez has been on a fantastic run of form in his last five races with an average finish of 4.6, which only Hamilton has a better average finish during that stretch. What is even more impressive which dating back to 2019, Perez has finished in the top 10 in each of the last 21 races he has finished starting with the 2019 Belgian Grand Prix and in 21 of the last 22 races (car had an oil leak in the 2019 Singapore Grand Prix, causing a DNF). Perez’s podium and second-place finish in this past weekend’s Turkish Grand Prix, where Verstappen and Leclerc made mistakes trying to pass him, only solidifies his worthiness of the Red Bull seat.
This has been a challenging season for Perez with him battling COVID-19 and losing his seat on a team that he thought he would race for until the end of 2022. Through it all, he has put together his best season in his career. Red Bull needs to provide Verstappen with a teammate who will elevate his game and provide another driver to challenge the dominance of Mercedes. Perez is clearly the best option and if Red Bull does not give Perez the seat he has earned, it would eliminate an elite driver from the 2021 starting grid and show that to get seats in F1, performance may not be the most important factor.