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The History of Red Bull's Second Driver Situation post-2018

Brandon Horne

Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo celebrates after winning the 2018 Monaco Grand Prix.

In late 2018, Formula 1 began what is collectively known as the “silly season,” in which drivers switch teams and sign new contracts for upcoming seasons. For this particular silly season, there was a significant development that was unresolved. At Red Bull Racing, Daniel Ricciardo was out of a contract and was looking to sign a new one for the coming seasons. Throughout his time with Red Bull, Ricciardo was an excellent driver, finishing both the 2014 and 2016 seasons in third place in the Drivers Championship. However, none of his Red Bull cars were quick enough to ever put him in real championship contention, and he often was plagued by horrific reliability issues with the team’s Renault supplied engine. This Renault engine was absolutely terrible, frequently blowing itself to smithereens mid-race, forcing Ricciardo into a shocking 18 Did-not-finishes (DNFs) in his four years with the team from 2014 to 2018. 

From mid-2016 onwards, Ricciardo was paired with the formidable young talent, Max Verstappen, who quickly became level with Ricciardo in terms of pace. As Verstappen’s immense potential was realized, Red Bull seemingly began favoring him, as if preparing for a future where he was their top driver instead of Ricciardo. In response to this treatment, as well as his team’s unreliable car, Ricciardo made a shocking decision: he dumped Red Bull Racing for one of their closest rivals, the Renault F1 Team. This move made little sense, as Ricciardo was effectively moving from a top tier team (although not championship contenders at the time) at Red Bull, who were third place in the Constructors Championship, to Renault, who were below Red Bull in fourth. In response to Ricciardo’s departure, Red Bull chose to bring up a junior, Pierre Gasly, from their sister team, Toro Rosso, thus beginning the saga that leaves us with Sergio Perez in the second Red Bull car today.

As any current fan of Formula 1 knows, Verstappen is currently at the peak of his dominant prowess. He is a three time world champion, winning in 2021, 2022, and 2023. Unfortunately, ever since Ricciardo’s departure in 2018, Red Bull have struggled to find an effective second driver to pair with Verstappen. As previously mentioned, after Ricciardo left, Red Bull moved Gasly into the second car. However, Gasly proved to be inexperienced and crumbled under the pressure, culminating in being lapped by his teammate Verstappen at the 2019 Hungarian Grand Prix. When paired with his frequent crashes, this slow pace proved to be the last straw, and Red Bull made the decision to demote Gasly back down to Toro Rosso for the remainder of the season. In his place, they brought up another promising junior, Alexander Albon. While Albon proved to be significantly faster at adapting than Gasly, he too frequently made mistakes, crashing and breaking many a rear wing. Neither Albon nor Gasly were close to Verstappen in the standings in 2019. Despite this, Red Bull stuck with Albon for the 2020 season. Sadly, Albon was not able to perform at the level Red Bull were expecting, finishing the season in seventh place, 105 points behind Verstappen in third. As a result, the Bulls chose to drop Albon, and resume the search for a long-term replacement at their second driver. For 2021, their lineup was to consist of Verstappen and former Racing Point driver Sergio Perez.

Red Bull’s fortune would change in 2021, as they produced a significantly more competitive car than the previous year. Perez would have a decent year, despite often being forced to play the team game and help Verstappen by swapping places. His biggest heroics would take place at the season finale in Abu Dhabi, where his defense on Lewis Hamilton would ultimately put Verstappen in the place to overtake Hamilton on the last lap to claim the Drivers Championship. This was an incredibly controversial race, as the race director made the odd decision to allow lapped cars to pass the safety car after the crash of Nicholas Latifi, something that never occurred under typical safety car procedures. Had this decision not been made, it’s almost certain Hamilton would have remained in first and won the championship, but Verstappen ended up pulling through. Digressing on this situation, Red Bull were pleased with Perez, and kept him for 2022. In 2022, Perez had another decent season, finishing the season in third, behind Verstappen, who won, and Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc in second. This led him to signing a two year contract extension, valid until the end of 2024. 

Complicating matters, Perez’s recent string of results has called his future position at Red Bull into question. Despite a great start to the year with two wins, Perez has had a bit of a miserable year. He is currently in, by far, the most dominant car in Formula 1 history, which has won all but one race the entire season. In spite of this, he has only managed to claim two wins, behind his teammate Verstappen, who has (to-date) won 17 races this season. Somehow, Perez is still in second in the Drivers Championship, but most people, including myself, have chalked this up to be due to his car, rather than his merit as a driver. He has frequently found himself miles behind Verstappen in terms of pace, often knocked out before the final stage of qualifying and finding himself starting many races outside the top ten. 

Adding to this, the recent resurgence of former Red Bull driver Ricciardo has significantly complicated Perez’s future in the sport. After leaving for Renault for 2019-2020, Ricciardo moved to McLaren for 2021-2022 but endured a car that did not suit his driving style. This left him a shell of his former self, his self-confidence shattered after two humiliating seasons of losing to his teammate Lando Norris. He signed with Red Bull as a reserve driver for 2023, prepared to spend the season on the sidelines. However, due to the poor performance of Alpha Tauri — previously known as Toro Rosso — driver Nyck de Vries, Ricciardo was called back into action. Red Bull, specifically Helmut Marko, head of driver development, chose to drop de Vries and brought Ricciardo back from his hiatus to race at the junior team. This is because Red Bull owns two teams, Red Bull Racing, and Scuderia Alpha Tauri, and can thus swap drivers between teams at will. 

After breaking his hand midway through these duties, Ricciardo has returned with a vengeance, out qualifying Perez at the Mexican Grand Prix. He did this in the Alpha Tauri, the eighth best car this season, while Perez is in the aforementioned best car, the Red Bull. This shock result has further called Perez’s recent missteps into question and leaves Red Bull with a decision to make: whether to keep Perez for 2024 or to go back to the old and bring Ricciardo back.


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