Audi F1 team: Five realistic driver targets for Sauber’s 2026 rebirth

Oliver Harden
Audi F1's Showcar, April 2023.

Audi's F1 showcar ahead of the manufacturer's 2026 entry in collaboration with Sauber.

Audi’s F1 2026 entry is starting to feel real now.

Confirmation of Sauber’s new name for the 2024/25 seasons on Friday kickstarted the team’s preparations to welcome the German manufacturer in time for F1’s next major rules reset in 2026.

Many drivers have been linked with a move to the Swiss-based team in 2026 – potentially even in 2025, a year in advance of Audi’s arrival – but who should really be on their shortlist? Here are the five most realistic targets ranked…

5: Liam Lawson

When Haas became the last new team to arrive on the F1 grid in 2016, Guenther Steiner made a point of targeting drivers who had grown tired of their current situation and were open to trying something different.

With Audi requiring time to build Sauber into a serious force, they will likely be shopping in the same market ahead of 2026 – which brings us to Lawson.

Red Bull’s handling of Lawson, shuffling him off to Super Formula for 2023, has obvious parallels with their hesitance to promote Pierre Gasly in 2016/17 – not quite trusting in his talent enough to hand him an F1 seat at the earliest possible opportunity.

Lawson extinguished many of those doubts in his stunning five-race AlphaTauri cameo in the injured Daniel Ricciardo’s absence after the 2023 summer break, yet still it wasn’t enough to force his way into Red Bull’s thinking for 2024.

He should secure a full-time seat with Red Bull’s junior outfit over the course of the next 12 months – but with those rumours of a move for Lando Norris refusing to go away, what if he finds his pathway to the main team blocked?

Enter Audi.

The fact that Red Bull allowed Gasly to join Alpine – just months after announcing he would remain at AlphaTauri for 2023 – suggests there may be a deal to be done with a manufacturer they do not yet consider to be a direct threat if there is no room for Lawson at the Red Bull Racing inn.

Lawson made such a great impression in 2023 that Audi would be foolish to not at least ask the question.

4: Nico Hulkenberg

Too old? Quite possibly.

Hulkenberg will be 38 at the start of the 2026 season, but some of his qualifying results in 2023 – second in the wet in Canada, fourth in the (dry) sprint shootout in Austria – hinted at a very rare, Fernando Alonso-esque evergreen quality.

And these performances, remember, came after three years away from F1 following his departure from Renault at the end of 2019.

That experience with Renault’s factory team – plus his previous 12-month stint racing for Sauber in 2013 – could make him a very appealing option for Audi in terms of knowing what and what not to do as a new manufacturer in F1.

Hulkenberg, the only German driver on the grid right now, has already been mentioned as a potential Audi candidate and, revealingly, found it increasingly difficult to conceal his frustrations with Haas as the 2023 campaign deepened.

“At this rate, you just can’t compete in F1,” he commented on Haas’s lack of in-season development as it dawned on him that there is a clear limit to his ambitions at his current team.

He would surely relish the chance to make an impact – and, let’s face it, earn one last payday – if Audi came calling, potentially even as soon as 2025 to oversee the transition from Sauber.

Hulkenberg may not be the one to lead Audi to ultimate F1 glory – or even that elusive podium – but in terms of establishing the foundations for the future, Audi could do far worse.

3: Esteban Ocon

When Ocon’s current contract expires at the end of 2024, he will have spent five full seasons at Team Enstone as a Renault/Alpine driver.

The right time for a change, perhaps?

A season like Alpine’s 2023, dominated by boardroom politicking and managerial churn, risks being hugely damaging to a team’s hopes of not only attracting drivers but retaining the ones they already have.

Few would blame Ocon and his team-mate (more on him shortly…) for casting glances towards the exit door at Enstone. recommends

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And that’s before you even mention Alpine’s stagnation on track – 280 points away from fifth place yet 92 ahead of seventh in the 2023 Constructors’ standings.

With little hope of the team emerging as a leading force at this stage, there is every chance that his 2021 Hungarian Grand Prix victory will be as good as it ever gets for Ocon at Alpine.

So as he enters his late 20s, why not try something new?

2: Pierre Gasly

For Ocon, read Gasly. With two clear differences.

The first?

As evenly matched as the Alpine drivers were in 2023 with a podium apiece, there were definite signs towards the end of the season that Gasly was slowly starting to establish a slight yet consistent advantage over Ocon.

It was all the more impressive given Ocon’s greater experience in the team and points to Gasly having the higher ceiling of the two.

The second?

It is difficult to find a driver on the current grid with a lower profile than Ocon, with Gasly better suited to representing a brand of Audi’s stature (these things do matter, especially to F1 newcomers).

With the contracts of both drivers expiring at the same time, on the balance of probability Alpine will likely lose one and keep the other at the end of 2024.

Gasly is far more likely to be in demand and would make for a dependable, classy, fast Audi F1 driver.

1: Alex Albon

Some would have you believe that Albon will be at the centre of the driver market in 2024, with even some of the front-runners – including Red Bull and Ferrari – taking note of his performances for Williams.

He has successfully repaired his reputation since returning to a permanent seat in 2022 yet still you suspect the memories of his previous stint at Red Bull in 2019/20 – when Max Verstappen took the light from his eyes – will count against him when it comes to earning another chance with a top team.

Add to that the great unanswered question of his Williams career: how much is it him and how much is it the car?

Exactly how good is Albon when even Nyck de Vries shone in the Williams in his Monza 2022 cameo, when even Logan Sargeant started sixth – just two tenths behind the team leader – in Las Vegas in late 2023?

Deep reservations remain, yet it is undeniable that Albon is deserving of a better opportunity than Williams can currently provide him.

A switch to Audi would represent a smart, sensible upgrade for both team and driver, securing Audi one of the outstanding drivers of recent years and giving Albon the opportunity to build something substantial with the might of a manufacturer behind him.

He should be Audi’s number-one choice at this stage.

The outsiders assessed

Carlos Sainz

Would’ve been the ideal signing, but recent reports suggest a Ferrari contract extension is on the way. No need to gamble on Audi when Sainz enjoyed some of the greatest days of his career in 2023.

Sebastian Vettel

Was already a faded force at the end of his Ferrari days, never mind when he finally brought the curtain down on his career with Aston Martin at the end of 2022.

It’s hard to imagine an F1 comeback would be anything other than a mistake and risk tarnishing his legacy.

Yet given that he seemed to spend most of 2023 driving historic F1 cars on sustainable fuel, seemingly unable to leave the sport behind, he would probably jump at the chance if offered a return…

Valtteri Bottas

Says he is keen to stick around to see Audi arrive, but his gradual decline since leaving Mercedes may deny him that opportunity. Still capable of performing in the right (low-grip) conditions, but Audi need something more inspiring.

Zhou Guanyu

How keen are Audi to crack the Chinese market? There appears to be no good reason beyond that to retain Zhou beyond 2024.

Mick Schumacher

A famous name and a German passport – what’s not to like? Er, the fact Michael’s boy is now on the outside looking in, having been dumped by Haas after an error-prone 2022.

Racing in the WEC with Alpine in 2024, he is unlikely to find a way back to F1 from here.

Theo Pourchaire

A natural contender given his status as a Sauber junior, but with just one victory all year his title-winning F2 campaign in 2023 was arguably the weakest of his three seasons in F1’s feeder series. Audi should be setting their sights higher.

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