Ranked: The five best ‘wingman’ options to partner unstoppable Max Verstappen

Jamie Woodhouse
Sergio Perez arrives at the circuit. Canada June 2023.

Red Bull driver Sergio Perez arrives on press day in Montreal. Canada June 2023.

The wheels have fallen off for Sergio Perez’s F1 2023 title challenge, and Red Bull may be tempted to make a change as his form plummets.

It all started so well for Perez, the Mexican racer intent on making F1 2023 the year where he finally mounted a title challenge against team-mate Max Verstappen, and as the pair took two wins apiece from the opening four rounds, it seemed like that battle was brewing.

But, having been as close as six points to Verstappen, Perez is now without a Q3 appearance or podium in the last three rounds and a huge 69 points adrift of his team-mate at the top of the standings.

Perez has really showcased the best and worst of his range this season, and Red Bull potentially have a big decision to make on whether they can continue to trust him in that second RB19. If not, there are several other candidates who would fancy stepping up, so let us go in reverse order and rank the quality of options out there for Red Bull.

5. Alex Albon

So Alex Albon may feel like something of a weak shout, after all, he has been there, done that and failed.

He was, though, far less experienced as a Formula 1 driver in that season-and-a-half stint from 2019-20, and since then Albon has gone on to firmly turn his career around by leading the Williams team in impressive fashion.

One of his strongest showings yet arrived at the Canadian GP, where the acing of a brief dry-tyre window in Q2 set him up for a P9 start, which he turned into a P7 finish and vital points for Williams after a defensive masterclass.

That got the attention of Red Bull boss Christian Horner, and as Sky F1’s pit-lane reporter Ted Kravitz pointed out, it was “interesting” that Horner moved to mention that performance from their former driver and reveal that he kept a very close eye on it. Could Albon be on their radar again?

Perhaps, but he ranks bottom of this particular list simply because of his past record of struggling against Verstappen at Red Bull, and as was proven with Pierre Gasly, going away and gaining more F1 experience and delivering stellar performances does not always heal the wounds of the past with Red Bull.

It is hard to see why Albon would be any different, and why he would want to trade in what he has with Williams, a stable home at a team following his lead.

PlanetF1.com recommends

The ones that got away: Red Bull’s lost F1 wins with Verstappen, Vettel, Ricciardo and Albon

Jenson Button casts immediate doubt on Daniel Ricciardo’s ‘fairytale ending’ at Red Bull

4. Nico Hulkenberg

After Hulkenberg qualified P3 at the 2020 70th Anniversary GP, during his Racing Point stand-in appearance, Verstappen claimed that the veteran “should have already been on the grid, and of course I hope that this performance will give him a seat for next year”.

That did not quite happen, but Hulkenberg did return to the F1 grid full-time for 2023 at Haas and is already making his mark.

He would have been on the front row last time out in Canada if it were not for a three-place grid drop incurred for a red flag infringement, and though race days are proving very tricky for Haas in general as the team struggles to turn one-lap pace into any form of decent race performance, Hulkenberg is proving that he can still get the most out of the Formula 1 car he is given.

This of course is a trait that would be very appealing to Red Bull.

Still without an F1 podium, Hulkenberg would surely end that unwanted record-breaking streak in the Red Bull, and be that steady, experienced figure to hoover up the top-three results, and take a victory here and there if Verstappen was not able to.

The question is though, does Hulkenberg really offer a clear upgrade on Perez, who was renowned as a midfield specialist himself? Perhaps not.

3. Daniel Ricciardo

Like Albon, Ricciardo is familiar with the Red Bull machine, but where he differs to the Thai driver is in the fact that he has a good deal of success with the team to hang his hat on, having claimed seven of his eight F1 wins there, while in his first season with Red Bull in 2014 he defeated their reigning four-time World Champion at the time Sebastian Vettel.

Ricciardo is now back in the fold as Red Bull’s third driver after his nightmare McLaren spell was cut short, and has admitted that a return to the Red Bull line-up would be the “fairytale ending” to his F1 career.

Once more it could be argued whether Ricciardo offers a clear upgrade on Perez, but with the Mexican racer very much out of form, and Red Bull having the luxury of being able to compare Ricciardo’s simulator work to Perez’s times, he would surely be a safer option for Red Bull than bringing in the likes of Albon or Hulkenberg.

2. Yuki Tsunoda

Once upon a time Red Bull’s second team was the proving ground for their prospects to audition for a chance in the main team, a philosophy Red Bull have moved away from since Gasly and Albon failed to impress after that step up.

Red Bull do now though have another driver at AlphaTauri who is turning heads, that being Yuki Tsunoda, who now into his third season with the team is driving with greater maturity (even if the radio outbursts have not completely cleared up), while he possesses that blend of experience and the room for further improvement with youth.

If Red Bull did decide it was time for a change, then even though Horner has been cold on the idea that Tsunoda is ready, he really feels like the best and most Red Bull-style option.

1. Sergio Perez

But as for the number one option, how about Perez gets the chance to continue?

He may well be going through tough times right now, but he has shown Red Bull already this season what he is capable of with a clean and confident weekend, they just need to get his head back in the game.

His three-race run of missing the final stage of qualifying involves a Q1 crash in Monaco and missing the crucial dry-tyre window in Canada, while falling short of the top 10 in Spain has meant a trio of races which have been about a recovery mission, rather than starting up front and using the all-conquering pace of the RB19 to full effect.

Perez absolutely needs to snap out of this poor run and must start doing it as of the next available opportunity, that being Red Bull’s home race, the Austrian Grand Prix at the Red Bull Ring, to start silencing the doubters again.

As Perez has shown over the past two-and-a-bit seasons, when in the zone, he is more than capable of giving Red Bull what they need. After all, he was never meant to challenge Verstappen for the title anyway.