Christian Horner has insisted that Sergio Perez’s Red Bull seat is safe. But is there reason to believe that there will be a new Formula 1 driver in that seat?
Sergio Perez entered his third season with Red Bull hoping to challenge teammate and two-time reigning Formula 1 world champion Max Verstappen, and a strong start to the season made it seem like it was at least possible.
Perez won two of the season’s first four races — three of the first five if you count the Baku sprint race — and was the betting favorite to win the season’s fifth Grand Prix on the streets of Miami, which would have guaranteed him the championship lead for the first time in his career.
But since Verstappen became the betting underdog in Miami, things haven’t gone well for Perez. Verstappen rallied from a ninth place starting position to win in Miami, and he has gone on to win five more races — plus a sprint race — since. He has scored 162 of a maximum 164 points during that stretch.
During that same stretch, Perez has just two podium finishes and has fallen to 99 points — effectively four race wins — behind his teammate in the driver standings.
Sportsbook have already removed the Formula 1 world championship odds and replaced them with a “championship without Max Verstappen” category.
And we’re not even halfway into the season.
Given the strength of the RB19, Perez’s lack of performance lately has some questioning whether or not he will be replaced in the near future — or at the very least, after the 2023 season.
Perez signed a contract to continue driving for the Milton Keynes-based team through the 2024 season last year, and Red Bull have given every indication that they plan to honor that contract. Team principal Christian Horner has stated on multiple occasions that the team have no plans to make a change.
Can we take these comments at face value?
Red Bull do have more than twice as many points through 10 rounds as second place constructor Mercedes, so it’s not like they need to make an imminent change to salvage the championship.
They are riding an 11-race winning streak going back to last season and have a chance to become the first team in Formula 1 history to win 12 races in a row in Hungary.
But the fact that Perez has now missed Q3 and thus started in the lower half of the field in five consecutive races, and in what is a rocket ship of a race car, has only further intensified these rumors.
And while Horner can probably be trusted, you can’t blame some for wondering if there isn’t more to the story, given Red Bull’s history.
Daniil Kvyat was dropped just four races into the 2016 season for Toro Rosso’s Verstappen. Kvyat was demoted to the Red Bull sister team for the rest of the 2016 season and then dropped entirely before the 2017 season ended, with Pierre Gasly called upon to replace him.
In 2019, Gasly moved to Red Bull to replace the Renault-bound Daniel Ricciardo. But he was replaced just past the halfway point of the season by Toro Rosso’s Alex Albon, despite the fact that Red Bull advisor Helmut Marko had assured everyone that his seat was safe. Gasly was demoted back to Toro Rosso.
While a different type of scenario, AlphaTauri (formerly Toro Rosso) also confirmed with “100%” certainty that Gasly would be competing for them in 2023. They ended up allowing him to leave and join Alpine (formerly Renault), signing rookie Nyck de Vries as his replacement.
There had been additional rumors throughout the 2023 season that it may not be long before de Vries ended up being replaced at AlphaTauri amid his stretch of lackluster results. Sure enough, Red Bull third driver Ricciardo was recently named his replacement.
Toro Rosso’s history also includes other mid-season replacements. Just 10 races into the 2006 season, Scott Speed was replaced by Sebastian Vettel, and nine races into the 2009 season, Sebastien Bourdais was replaced by Jaime Alguersuari.
Bottom line, mid-season driver replacements are not a foreign concept in Formula 1. They are certainly not a foreign concept for Red Bull.
However, in Perez’s case, he has more than a year left on his deal, and it’s not as if AlphaTauri’s other driver, Yuki Tsunoda, has proven himself capable of taking his place.
Ricciardo’s move to AlphaTauri could make things interesting, as it’s clear that he is angling for that Red Bull seat to make a shock return to the team in 2025. But barring some kind of out-of-this world performance from him at what is currently Formula 1’s slowest team, there is no clear replacement for Red Bull to turn to if they want to cut Perez early.
While Perez’s cold streak cannot be ignored, part of it speaks to two things: (1) the fact that quite a few other teams have at least begun to close the gap to Red Bull, and (2) the fact that Verstappen is simply on another level.
Let’s also not forget that just a few months ago, there was baseless speculation that Verstappen wanted Perez to be replaced, when in reality, Verstappen never saw his teammate as a true title threat over the course of an entire season.
Winning a race here and there is doable, but beating the 25-year-old Dutchman over the course of a full 22-race calendar is an entirely different proposition.
So it’s hard not to believe that any further speculation about Red Bull altering their driver lineup amid arguably the best season a Formula 1 team has ever had is just that — baseless.
Nevertheless, performance clauses do exist, so if Perez can’t turn things around in the near future, don’t be surprised if this discussion continues.