A two-year deal extends Sergio Perez through the end of the 2024 season with Red Bull Racing. What does this mean for Albon and Gasly?
Fresh off the heels of his victory at the 2022 Monaco Grand Prix, Sergio Perez has announced that he has signed a two-year extension on his Red Bull contract, taking him through the 2024 season.
It seems as though Red Bull has finally found its driver to sit beside Max Verstappen after attempts with Red Bull Academy alumni and Alpha Tarui drivers Pierre Gasly and Alex Albon didn’t live up to expectations.
After a slow start adapting to the car for the 2021 season, Checo was able to take victory in Baku when Max had a tire failure resulting in his DNF, and managed to step up when it mattered to help Max Verstappen win the 2021 drivers championship. Including his now-infamous defense of Lewis Hamilton that earned him the nickname the “Mexican Minister of Defense” in Abu Dabi.
With a fantastic start to the 2022 season, claiming a victory, three P2’s, and two P4’s through the first seven races of the season, he now sits in P3 in the Drivers Championship. A serious contender in that battle, only six points separate him from Ferrari's Charles Leclerc and 15 points from teammate Max Verstappen. After his impressive start to the season, many thought it was only a matter of time before a contract announcement was made. A two-year deal further cements their belief in the Mexican driver and will allow him to focus on maximizing his performance without a contract negotiation looming overhead.
What does this mean for former Red Bull drivers Pierre Gasly and Alex Albon? Pierre who returned to his seat at Alpha Tarui in 2019, and Alex who retained his Red Bull ties despite being given a seat at Williams for the 2022 season.
After his stint at Red Bull was cut short mid-season for performance in 2019, Gasly has been vocal about his desire to return to Red Bull’s A-Team. His contract expires with Red Bull's sister team Alpha Tauri in 2023, and Helmut Marko has said that they fear losing him should they not give him the seat. However, the return to Red Bull seems unlikely at this stage with rumors of a falling out between the driver and team. Will we see him jump to another team? He is certainly talented enough to do so, and if the A-Team doesn’t appear to be on his radar in the near term, he may have to if he wants to compete at the front of the grid.
As a French driver, Alpine is an obvious choice. However, Esteban Ocon is on a long-term contract, Fernando Alonso doesn’t appear to be going anywhere anytime soon, and they have a promising young star in Oscar Pisatri to find a seat for.
While there are a number of potential options for him, and the belief is that many teams would jump at any opportunity to grab his talent, the most interesting to me involves Mercedes. While there has been only wild speculation surrounding Lewis Hamilton thus far, if he were to retire at the end of the season or next, it could open the door for driver contract musical chairs. Gasly could go to Mercades directly and would be a formidable add to line up beside George Russell. It would be a stroke of brilliance for Toto Wolf to grab a disgruntled and talented driver from Red Bull's stable and have him compete against them at the front of the grid. However, another musical chair style option could also be on the table.
Esteban Ocon has extremely close ties to the Brackley-based Mercedes F1 team. He was previously a reserve and testing driver for the 2020 season following his departure from Force India and, most importantly, he is managed by Toto Wolff, the Mercedes Team Principal. Should Lewis retire could we see Ocon get out of his three-year contract at Alpine and make the move to Mercedes? Toto is fiercely loyal to the drivers under his management and his performance against Alonso thus far this season proves that he is a highly capable driver. He could make a fantastic "#2" to George Russell. While Alpine might not have a lot of desire to lose their driver, the fact that they could grab another highly talented Frenchman might make it easier to stomach.
It's really no secret that Red Bull has a love affair with Alex Albon. Despite bringing in Sergio Perez to replace him, they kept him on as a reserve and development driver, and openly advocated for his seat at Williams. It's believed that unlike how Gasly's demotion went down, the relationship between Red Bull and Albon remains quite strong. They firmly believe that he is a talent deserving of an F1 seat and although they were forced to loosen their grip on him as a part of the Williams deal, they didn't let him go completely.
With Checo's multi-year deal being announced, the window looks like it may be closing for Alex to return to Red Bull anytime soon. He is currently contracted through 2023 with Williams, and he is so far proving that despite having a below-average car, he can still make things happen and has absolutely crushed his teammate Nikolas Latifi through seven races this season.
If Albon wants to stay with Williams until Checo's contract is up in 2024, they would be silly not to retain him. Rumors are swirling that this will be Latifi's last season in Formula 1 which should open a seat for the team next year. Nyck de Vries did an FP1 test for them in Spain, and the Mercedes-backed Formula E Champion is rumored to be in contention for that seat. Their top two prospects in their driver's academy are Jamie Chadwick and Logan Sargeant. Chadwick has won two W-Series Championships in a row and is pretty clearly in the front for a third. Sargent is currently in 9th place in Formula 2. Should they give either of them an opportunity in Formula 1 (my hopes are for Chadwick), a seasoned driver like Albon would be great to have alongside an up-and-coming rookie.
Waiting it out Checo's contract through 2024 at Williams seems to be the most likely move for Albon. While it remains possible that Red Bull will continue on with Checo beyond 2024, Albon would likely be the prime contender for that seat should they decide to go another direction or Checo retires. Not to mention that he could drop his Red Bull affiliation altogether and stick with Williams long-term should that not happen. While some have suggested a return to Alpha Tauri for Albon, that seems far-fetched considering Red Bull's deep roster of academy drivers. Historically, Red Bull has only reached into its own coffers of drivers to fill the seats at the "A-Team", a trend that is appealing to young drivers hoping to make their mark in Formula 1. Checo represents a departure from that policy and the belief is that Red Bull will be hesitant to move Alex back to the Red Bull's "proving grounds" at Alpha Tauri as it would reduce the number of seats available to place their juniors in.
Only time will tell where Alex and Pierre end up, and both are contracted beyond the 2022 season. But, as we see every year, the driver contract silly season can bring surprises that nobody saw coming. If Lewis were to retire, all bets are off on what could happen next.