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Formula 1

Mercedes' Sainz rejection is fair. Red Bull's will hurt it

by Valentin Khorounzhiy
5 min read

Red Bull has now announced that Sergio Perez will remain part of its Formula 1 line-up - for 2025, at least, and potentially 2026 as he's signed a two-year agreement.

In this piece first published after news of a Perez deal being a formality was first picked up by The Race, Valentin Khorounzhiy argues Red Bull's desire to 'save itself the headache' and overlook Carlos Sainz may well end up costing it.

Fresh off his fourth F1 podium in seven attempts in 2024, Carlos Sainz will have to face up to the reality that, just as his current team will not have him, neither will the other two teams towards that end of the grid that had theoretical vacancies.

He will have to make his fortune - in more ways than one - with either Audi/Sauber or, bewilderingly, Williams.

I already wrote about my generally lukewarm outlook on Ferrari's decision to discard Sainz in favour of Lewis Hamilton, and nothing that has happened since has done much to change it. 

But Ferrari's surplus-to-requirements decision could've created an opportunity for Red Bull or Mercedes - and, as it stands, neither is taking it. Red Bull is set to head into 2025 with another deal for Sergio Perez, while Mercedes is enamoured with Formula 2's Kimi Antonelli as a clear priority over Sainz.

One of these teams is being unreasonable - and it's not the one expected to promote an 18-year-old.

Kimi Antonelli, F2

Sainz would score Mercedes a lot more points than Antonelli in 2025, that much seems certain based on both F1 rookie history in general and the specific experience levels of these two.

But Mercedes is seeming taking the view that Antonelli, 12 years Sainz's junior and a potential talent supernova, will bring it more titles. It is, at the very least, an understandable set of priorities for a team whose points tally doesn't really matter right now and might not matter so much in 2025, either.

No such grandiose long-term thinking is present in Red Bull's impending decision.

The biggest argument for keeping Perez is as an exercise in continuity - but, in a way, that's also the biggest reason why Red Bull shouldn't do it.

Perez was the perfect fit for Red Bull 2022 and Red Bull 2023 but those teams are not Red Bull 2024, as much as perhaps his extension is designed to convey the opposite impression.

Red Bull is more vulnerable on track. It is losing its design talisman off-track. The brave but uncertain future of a bespoke homemade engine approaches fast. So does the threat of a Max Verstappen breakaway seemingly unconstrained by any actual contractual timeframes.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull, F1

Verstappen is unlikely to leave Red Bull for 2025, but it has been widely reported that he has in his possession the mechanism to leave when he sees fit. That he will see out the 2027-28 portion of his current contract is far from a foregone conclusion. Yet, arguably, Red Bull's Perez extension treats it like it is.

Verstappen put Red Bull on his back at Imola and, to a lesser extent, Monaco. Perez wasn't in his league on either occasion - but rather than those weekends being some sort of downturn, the past three years suggest they were simply regular data points in the normal range of Perez's deficit to Verstappen.

Red Bull's talk - via Christian Horner and Helmut Marko - about how much Perez had raised his game earlier this year was unconvincing then and seems unconvincing now. He was and is the same Red Bull driver he always was.

In a dominant Red Bull, that was fine. Horner and Marko have never shied away from the fact they had little interest in seeing Perez challenge Verstappen even occasionally. Better that he doesn't, when Verstappen's performance is so consistent and the built-in edge is so massive.

But while Verstappen remains consistent, Perez always being a step behind serves to lower Red Bull's performance floor. There is precious little overlap in their performance levels - which isn't the case for the line-ups at any of Red Bull's rivals.

Oscar Piastri, McLaren, F1

In Monaco, Oscar Piastri - second-best to Lando Norris to start the season - stole a march on Norris and carried the torch for McLaren. And Sainz, while having a pretty rough weekend, recovered to run in decently close support to Ferrari team-mate Charles Leclerc - something Perez wasn't quick enough to provide Verstappen at Imola.

Sainz's time at McLaren, time at Ferrari and time at Toro Rosso as Verstappen's team-mate suggests there would be weekends where he would be the lead Red Bull. Maybe they would be rare, and certainly you'd back Verstappen to prevail over the season. But is Red Bull really in a position to just 'save itself the headache' of maximising its driver line-up?

Is it appeasing Verstappen? Maybe, but Verstappen/Perez haven't always been the picture of intra-team harmony - and in the aftermath of Monaco Jos Verstappen fired a shot in the direction of Perez's performance, suggesting that at least some parts of Verstappen's camp are actually not that convinced about him being Max's ideal longer-term team-mate.

And what if Verstappen does leave for 2026? If it happens with Sainz as his team-mate, Red Bull would at least have performance insurance, knowing that whatever happens on the driver market it will have a driver who will keep it in the mix. It cannot have that certainty with Perez right now. 

Sergio Perez, Red Bull, F1

None of that is to disparage Perez's wonderful F1 career and obvious place in F1 history, nor does it serve to suggest he wouldn't be a stellar signing for a team further down the grid.

But Marko himself had acknowledged earlier this year that Perez's age - he is 34 - was weighing on him as far as long-term thinking is concerned. And there's certainly a hint of evidence over the past 12 months or so that Perez might no longer be in his F1 peak, or at least a strong case that Red Bull shouldn't expect to coax out a much better level out of him.

Somehow, it has decided it can afford not to care.

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