What Audi’s major decision means for its first F1 line-up

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Audi’s change of plan in buying 100% of Sauber for its 2026 Formula 1 entry has added some certainty to the project and how it will work – with one glaring unknown remaining.

While the major pieces are now being put in place for Audi, the driver line-up seems far from settled.

It would be a big surprise if the current Sauber pairing of Valtteri Bottas and Zhou Guanyu is retained for 2025, let alone beyond that.

Bottas has talked enthusiastically about trying to be part of the Audi project having moved from the very front of the grid from Mercedes to join Sauber in 2022.

As for Zhou, he’s a popular, hard-working part of the team with great application, and Audi greatly values the Chinese market. But in his third season of F1 there is no real sign of him becoming more than just a solid midfield operator.

Neither is to blame for the team’s underwhelming 2023 and limp start to 2024, but Audi wants experience, speed and marketability for its works team and Bottas and Zhou don’t tick all of those boxes.

The driver market is in a state of flux at the moment, making some choice free agents available who would be a good fit for the Audi works team. But the competition for their services will be fierce.

The race winners that are out of contract for 2025 and/or 2026 are Sergio Perez, Carlos Sainz, Fernando Alonso, Pierre Gasly, Esteban Ocon, Daniel Ricciardo and Bottas. For podium finishers add Alex Albon and Lance Stroll to the list.

Most of them will be shopping around but with different levels of availability.

If Alonso wants to keep racing, for example, he will be holding out for something more proven – like a Mercedes drive or the Red Bull seat should that team’s ongoing troubles create a sudden opening.

But if neither path opens up then even staying with his current Aston Martin team would probably be more appealing than rolling the dice on Sauber and Audi.

At the other end of the spectrum, a perennial midfielder like Nico Hulkenberg would be less averse to committing to a sideways move back to Sauber – a team he drove for in 2013 – next year if it came with a guaranteed Audi contract for 2026 (and ideally longer).

Hulkenberg is on Audi’s radar, as Sauber and Audi F1 team CEO Andreas Seidl is a fan and already courted him for 2024.

Ferrari exile Sainz is another of Seidl’s preferred targets. He’s been on the radar for a year or so and is a more realistic option now that he knows for sure he’s out of Ferrari at the end of 2024.

There will be other teams interested in a proven grand prix winner, though, so it may depend on whether Sainz covets an Audi seat enough – otherwise, Audi will be relying on him being low enough on rivals’ shopping lists to still be available.

The same goes for Albon and Ocon, who have proven themselves capable of achieving at a good level but are currently stuck in underachieving teams – and would each be a better long-term bet than Hulkenberg.

But again, the vacancies for 2025 and/or 2026 include drives at Red Bull, Mercedes and Aston Martin.

So, while Sauber’s current drivers aren’t A-listers, Audi isn’t at the front of the queue to get those who are – not while Sauber is as underwhelming as it is right now, as that undermines a lot of the promise and excitement of it becoming a works team.

But Audi’s enhanced commitment can help address that.

Firstly, it has symbolic value, in that it shows how seriously it is taking the project. That should banish any uncertainties that may have arisen in drivers’ minds about how secure a move it would be.

The competitiveness of the team in the short-term is one thing but what faith should a driver have that this can be rectified amid swirling rumours Audi wants to can the whole thing? Especially when there are other teams on-track that have equally ambitious outlooks and clearer signs of progress – such as Aston Martin, or even Williams.

Actions speak louder than words and now Audi’s proved it is willing to step things up. That has to be reassuring if you’re Sainz, for example, and scoping out the options.

Secondly, Audi is looking to accelerate its preparations for 2026. That should mean more investment, more recruitment, more improvements off-track and on it.

If so, and it results in clear signs of the team finally emerging from Sauber’s long, midfield malaise, that will be a great advert for 2026 and beyond. It removes the concern of Audi wasting this opportunity to get ready in advance and should mean tangible changes that prospective drivers can actually see, and buy into.

Audi taking over the final 25% of Sauber doesn’t suddenly make this team option #1 for all free agents for 2025 and 2026. But it might bump it far enough up the list that it’s not relying on a lot of other variables to land good quality targets. And it should make it a more appealing option to realistic targets, whether Audi’s aiming for more experience (a Bottas, Hulkenberg, Perez type) or a hungry and quick option who is mid-career (Sainz, Albon, Gasly or Ocon).

Something like a Sainz/Albon combination might well be as good as Audi can hope for in the medium or long-term. It would be a fast and dependable combination, stronger than what Sauber has now, and more future-proof too.

And it does seem more attainable in a world where Audi is all-in with its team, owns 100% of it, and is making improvements right now. That didn’t apply a few months ago, when landing even one driver of that calibre seemed difficult.

As fun as it was to ponder who Audi could chase, it was never going to conjure up something like Mercedes’ line-up for its revived works team in 2010 (Michael Schumacher and Nico Rosberg). Audi’s starting from way too low a base compared to Mercedes’ takeover of the title-winning Brawn set-up.

Simply being the Audi works team guaranteed nothing because of Sauber’s current form and recent history. That must change to send the right message, and let the team make the right sales pitch.

A full Audi takeover and the prospect of accelerated progress is absolutely critical to that.

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