With Audi’s F1 project gathering pace, we have picked out five drivers the German marque should be considering for their first year in Formula 1 in 2026.
This week, Audi’s F1 project was formally presented to the world for the first time, with the manufacturer heading along to the Auto Shanghai show to reveal their F1 show car with its initial launch livery.
Audi CEO Markus Duesmann gave a press conference, revealing motorsport to be an “integral part of Audi’s DNA”, while Oliver Hoffmann, member of the board for technical development, said the project has “really taken off in recent months” as initial work on the power unit has begun – Audi will begin working on a full hybrid drivetrain on their test bench before the end of 2023.
On top of that, the Neuburg facility continues to expand, with the build-up of personnel up to 260 – this includes snaffling F1 personnel from other teams – with the final figure expected to be over 300 by the end of the hiring period which Audi expects to conclude this year.
However, the biggest question mark of all is just who are the drivers going to be, once Audi start getting involved in the running of the Sauber outfit? PlanetF1.com has identified some targets that Audi are most likely to engage with once their attentions turn to filling the cockpits…
Having found refuge at Alfa Romeo Sauber with a long-term deal after being dropped by Mercedes, Bottas is eyeing up a seat with Audi and has said that he feels he has “many more years to come and I will stick around as long as I enjoy it and as long as I can still perform and have something to give to the sport.
“I can see that going for many, many years. I think it’s exciting that there’s a new manufacturer coming into F1 but 2026 is still quite far away. We’ll see – you can ask me in one or two years!”
But the Finn’s age does count against him at this point. At 33 years old, Bottas will turn 37 during Audi’s first season. While he will have recent relevant experience of racing with Sauber, Audi have made it clear that the youth market is very much a priority for them once they’ve entered the sport.
“We are convinced that our Formula 1 commitment will strengthen Audi’s sporting focus,” Duesmann said.
“The racing series is continuously increasing its global reach, especially among young target groups and in our most important sales market: China.”
For that reason, as well as the fact Bottas is not exactly trouncing his far younger and less experienced teammate, it’s Zhou Guanyu that might be more appealing for Audi by the time contract talks begin. In Bottas’ case, it’s more a question of whether he can hang on long enough to try racing for Audi, rather than the German marque seeking him out specifically…
The Spaniard has been linked with the Audi seat, and the possibility does make sense. Sainz has previously worked with Sauber CEO Andreas Seidl, from when both were with McLaren, with Seidl rating the Spaniard highly.
While Sainz has struggled to outright live with Charles Leclerc’s speed during their time together at Ferrari, leading to some silly mistakes in 2022, the 28-year-old has steadied the ship and, unlike Leclerc, is far more willing to argue with Ferrari’s decision-making process.
Such a headstrong attitude, as well as his father’s prior involvement with the Volkswagen Audi Group through his rallying with VW, could open doors for Sainz to be a key target for Audi.
Added to that is Sainz’s current contract with Ferrari comes to a close at the end of 2024, allowing him the chance to switch to Sauber for 2025 and acclimatise to life with the team before the rebrand to Audi.
For now, Sainz is just a rumour, with German publication Blick saying: “Ferrari driver Carlos Sainz, probably without great chances of winning the title next to Leclerc, is said to be at the top of the list for Sauber CEO Seidl.”
With Audi highlighting the importance of the youth market for them, Sainz will turn 32 during their first season and will be, arguably, at the prime age for an F1 driver – young enough to have all the speed and daring, with plenty of experience and maturity to go with it.
The McLaren driver is on a long-term deal with the Woking squad, but this comes, rather conveniently, to a close at the conclusion of the 2025 season.
Norris, like Sainz, has already worked with Andreas Seidl and, even after his long-term contract ends, Norris will only be 26 years old – not turning 27 until close to the end of Audi’s maiden season. Despite his youth, Norris will also boast plenty of experience by the time Audi could come knocking – 2025 will be his seventh full-time season in F1.
Norris has proven himself to be one of F1’s superstars in waiting in recent years and, given McLaren’s sporadic form, the British driver could be tempted by a factory drive with a manufacturer like Audi if McLaren can’t get their act together quickly over the coming season or two.
After all, McLaren are now a very well-known quantity for Norris and, while he continues to show patience and loyalty to the squad, Norris could seek to emulate Lewis Hamilton’s even riskier switch to a German manufacturer after years of frustration with Woking…
Mick Schumacher would, presumably, be quite an easy signing for Audi to make, should they want him, given his current lack of race seat. While Schumacher is signed up with Mercedes as a reserve driver, the chances of him actually finding a race seat in the short-term future are quite slim, unless Lewis Hamilton was to suddenly retire from the sport.
Even Aston Martin, the team with traditionally close ties to Mercedes, aren’t likely to call upon Schumacher any time soon, given their backing Formula 2 Champion Felipe Drugovich.
“F1 Power Made in Germany” is set to be Audi’s motto for their F1 entry, meaning Schumacher’s nationality is a distinct advantage for him if Audi do feel like being nationalistic in their choices.
As a reasonably free agent, there are no particular hurdles for Audi to jump through in order to secure Schumacher, although Duesmann has said there’s yet to be any formal conversations with him.
“We are currently talking to many decision-makers, drivers, and team managers,” he told Der Spiegel.
“There have been no concrete discussions with Mick Schumacher regarding a commitment. Of course, German drivers interest us as much as they interest the top of the parent company, but that is not a requirement for us.”
There’s nothing at all to link Charles Leclerc and Audi at this point, but the Monegasque should be a target of the German manufacturer.
Leclerc may be loyal to the point of being martyr-like in his defence of the Scuderia and, as a product of the Ferrari Driver Academy, there have been few signs of discontent on the part of Ferrari – and nor should there be, given Leclerc’s near-impeccable performances and willingness to protect their inadequacies.
But the upward momentum is simply not there for Maranello, and Leclerc is having to grin and bear it as his direct contemporary, Max Verstappen, dominates F1 with no sign of a turnaround for Leclerc’s fortunes.
While on a long-term deal with Ferrari, Leclerc is a free agent for 2025 right now – who is to say that Leclerc might not be tempted by a fresh start with a factory drive for Audi, returning to the team with whom he made his F1 debut back in 2018?