Who would lead Red Bull’s F1 team if Verstappen leaves?

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Max Verstappen leaving the Red Bull Formula 1 team at any point was a simply unthinkable prospect a couple of months ago.

And while it’s still fairly unlikely, it’s now far from impossible given team boss Christian Horner’s appeared to call Verstappen’s bluff after Verstappen said a potential Helmut Marko exit would complicate his future at the team.

If there’s even a slither of a chance of Verstappen leaving, you can bet Red Bull is quietly thinking of a contingency plan. But which drivers would be a part of that?

Replacing a driver of Verstappen’s quality like-for-like is near impossible but we’ve assessed the best alternatives:

Fernando Alonso

As Alonso’s keen to remind the watching world, he’s the only F1 world champion who is a free agent at the end of this year.

He’s made it clear he wants to make up his mind on whether he’ll continue racing beyond this season within the next few weeks, with a competitive car key to him continuing to ‘sacrifice’ everything that’s needed to 100% commit to an F1 project.

A Red Bull would fit that bill and Alonso would surely sign any kind of contract to drive one, even if it was a one-year deal while Red Bull worked out what to do longer-term. Just like he’d snap up a potential one-year stint (with designs on proving he deserves longer, of course) to replace Lewis Hamilton if Mercedes decided Andrea Kimi Antonelli wasn’t ready yet.

Alonso was never a serious contender for the second Red Bull seat given he’s probably overqualified for it and would potentially act as a destabiliser to team leader Verstappen.

But without Verstappen? Alonso would be a dependable title threat who would jump at the chance to finally be back in a race-winning car.

He’s not the best longer-term option – even if he’s pondered whether he could keep racing until he’s 50 – but there would surely be few better drivers to plug into a winning machine than Alonso. – Josh Suttill

Carlos Sainz

Among the impending free agents with ‘might win you a championship’ capability, Carlos Sainz is a clear second to Alonso on the list. There is no real argument that he is a better title bet than Alonso, but also no real argument that he isn’t a better title bet than anyone else.

Yes, Red Bull has already let Sainz go in the past, but it knows from his rookie year at Toro Rosso that he can probably do a discount-priced Verstappen impression. If the next Red Bull is anywhere near as good as the RB19 or the RB20, that’s plenty.

There is a truly large body of evidence from recent F1 seasons that suggests that Sainz would not be putting himself in grid positions that make maximising Sundays impossible. This is the big hang-up about Verstappen’s current team-mate Sergio Perez, but Sainz has been a decent match for Charles Leclerc – arguably F1’s current best qualifier – in his three years at Ferrari so far, and you’d bet on the race pace-prioritising Red Bull design to take care of the rest.

But while Alonso is still the more obvious draw, the bigger name with a bigger pedigree, Sainz offers something Alonso does not: flexibility into the future. It’s not like Red Bull has cast-iron certainty over either of the places in its driver line-up right now, and Sainz more than anyone else would allow it to basically lock down one of the seats until something like 2028 if it so desired. – Valentin Khorounzhiy

Sergio Perez and Daniel Ricciardo

Perez is clearly not at Verstappen’s level right now, and there’s very little reason to think he will be, but remove Verstappen from last year’s standings and what Perez delivered – in a mediocre season – would still be good enough to bring the title home for Red Bull.

His qualifying form is a liability but it has not cost him a single point in 2024 so far. It took him no time at all in both Bahrain and Jeddah to recover the second place he should’ve qualified in.

As long as he gets the car to where it needs to be within the 90-minute race runtime, it’ll always pay the same amount of points – and he’s proven he can generally be relied upon to do that. And he’ll probably have an easier time executing those races without the spectre of Verstappen being dangled out front, as somebody Perez badly needs to rush his race progress to at least try to challenge.

The Ricciardo argument is shakier, but ultimately more or less the same. Red Bull generally knows who he is and what he does and, though there must be huge questions over his one-lap pace at this point, if the RB21 is dominant again he will probably get it where it needs to be more often than not.

Not a particularly inspiring argument, but racing teams – whether backmarkers or dominators – do sometimes take the path of least resistance. An in-house Ricciardo-Perez line-up would be just that. – VK

Alex Albon

Based on current F1 stock, Albon is probably Red Bull’s third-best option if a Verstappen-shaped vacancy became available for 2025. But that says a lot about the level Alonso and Sainz are operating at considering the peaks Albon hit in 2023 and the consistency he was operating with in general.

Albon is of course an ex-Red Bull driver and despite the troubles he encountered up against Verstappen he remains, as we’re regularly told, fondly admired by those he worked with. He is also undoubtedly a more rounded driver for that experience and what he’s been able to do at Williams since his move there for 2022.

So, what counts against him? Well, those aforementioned peaks might be harder to spot in 2024. That’s in part due to the gap from the monopoly the top five teams seem to have at the sharp end so far, the competitiveness of that rear pack that Williams is in, and the team’s attempts to make its third ground effect car more of an all-rounder, with smaller swings from peak to trough from circuit to circuit.

That’s unlikely to matter to Red Bull’s selection committee, who’ll be able to see what’s really going on and know how well Albon is getting on. What might be more of a stumbling block is his Williams contract, which runs until the end of 2025. Any move to bring Albon in would require some hard-bargaining from Red Bull and inevitably compensation, but forcing a driver to honour a contract isn’t always best practice and Williams team principal James Vowles says Williams must prove it “deserves someone of the calibre of Alex”.

Albon feels he is ready to fight for podiums and wins. He might need to have more to prove still than the free agents ahead of him on this list, but there’s no question that he’s far better prepared for the Red Bull experience than he was towards the beginning of his F1 career. – Jack Cozens

A wildcard?

Ferrari’s 2025 line-up of Hamilton and Leclerc would both be high up Red Bull’s dream list of replacements but neither is a realistic option.

The same can be said of Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri, as McLaren appears to have them contracted until at least the end of 2026. Mercedes has George Russell locked in until the end of 2025 and he’s surely focused on leading that team post-Hamilton.

It would take something seriously seismic for any of those to end up at Red Bull anytime soon.

Perhaps the only other attractive free agent on the grid would be Nico Hulkenberg, given his one-lap heroics with Haas over the last couple of years. But he’d surely be more of a replacement for Perez than Verstappen.

That would also apply to ex-Red Bull driver Pierre Gasly and any left-field roll of the dice like putting Liam Lawson straight in at the senior team, promoting Yuki Tsunoda when he’s seemingly not considered an option, or making an offer to lure Ferrari protege Ollie Bearman or Mercedes prospect Antonelli away. – JS

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