Red Bull have a problem. They need to pick a driver to partner Max Verstappen in 2021. At last week’s Sakhir Grand Prix, the solution was presented. Red Bull should sign George Russell.
Since Daniel Ricciardo left the team at the end of 2018, Red Bull have been struggling to put together a satisfactory driver line-up. Pierre Gasly was promoted from Toro Rosso to partner Max Verstappen in 2019, but Gasly didn’t even make it through the season, being replaced partway through by Alex Albon. Unfortunately Albon has also struggled to match Verstappen, leading to speculation that Albon might not be retained by Red Bull in 2021.
There are a few drivers in the running for Albon’s Red Bull seat in 2021. Of course, Albon himself might remain at the team. But if he doesn’t, there are a few alternatives. Pierre Gasly, who was demoted to Toro Rosso (now Alpha Tauri) during 2019, has shown his class by first appearing on the podium in 2019 and then winning the Italian Grand Prix in 2020. Red Bull however don’t seem too keen to promote Gasly again. Outside of the Red Bull stable, Sergio Perez (last weekend’s Sakhir Grand Prix winner) and Nico Hulkenberg (out of a full-time drive in 2020 but who has performed very well as a Covid-19 substitute) are strong options for the 2nd Red Bull seat.
But perhaps the most attractive option for Red Bull should be Williams driver George Russell. For most of the last two seasons, Russell has been the driver in the slowest car who has comprehensively outperformed his team-mates. In 2019, that team-mate was Robert Kubica, who was once regarded as a future F1 world champion. But Russell’s stock rose pretty spectacularly last weekend when he subbed in for the ill Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes for the Sakhir Grand Prix.
Russell jumped into the championship-winning Mercedes and was immediately faster than Valtteri Bottas in the sister car, at least for the first two practice sesssions. Bottas hit back in third practice and then again in qualifying, though Russell was just a couple hundredths of a second back in 2nd on the grid. In the race, it was Russell who looked the more likely winner until Mercedes bungled the pitstop strategy and then a puncture finally stopped Russell’s victory charge for good.
Although Russell didn’t win his only race (so far) for Mercedes, he performed at a level that was worthy of Hamilton himself. Such was the quality of Russell’s Mercedes debut that it was met on social media by much speculation that he would replace Valtteri Bottas at Mercedes for 2021. That doesn’t seem particularly likely, however. The partnership of Hamilton and Bottas has yielded four consecutive Constructor’s Championships for Mercedes. Why would Mercedes want to mess with a winning formula?
What is clear is that Russell is worthy of a drive in a front-running F1 team. Mercedes haven’t yet finalised a contract with Hamilton for 2021, but it seems like a matter of time. Ferrari have decided on Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz. The only top team with a drive available is Red Bull. So now they have a choice to make. Perhaps they want a number two for Verstappen, in which case they should consider sticking with Albon. But if they want a driver who can challenge Verstapen, the obvious choice is now George Russell. He is young, adaptable and blindingly quick. And you can bet your life he’d make himself available if Red Bull came knocking.
It would be a real tragedy if Russell spent 2021 at the back of the field where he has been for 2019 and most of 2020. With no disrespect to Williams, who have been one of the greatest teams in F1 history, their recent form in F1 has been uninspiring to say the least and 2021 doesn’t look likely to be much better. Russell needs to make the most of whatever options he may have for 2021, and Red Bull may well be the best of them.