Perez in, Albon out in final F1 driver shuffle

Thailand’s Alex Albon has been sidelined by Red Bull Racing in favour of Racing Point refugee Sergio Perez for the 2021 Formula One season.

Albon, after just two seasons in the premier class, will be kept on as test and reserve driver.

Red Bull Racing principal Christian Horner said the Thai would remain part of his squad’s preparation for major regulation changes in 2022.

This article originally appeared in The Phuket News.

“Having taken our time to evaluate all the relevant data and performances we have decided that Sergio is the right driver to partner Max [Verstappen] for 2021,” he said. “Alex remains an important part of our team as test and reserve driver with a key focus on 2022 development, and we would like to thank him for his hard work and contribution.”

Albon’s fall came as rapidly as his rise.

Having abandoned his F1 dreams in 2018, an unexpected vacancy brought him to Red Bull junior team Toro Rosso in 2019, where he turned in an impressive six months.

He then earnt sudden promotion to Red Bull Racing that August to replace the wilting Pierre Gasly, where he continued his run of solid results.

But he struggled to build on his rookie campaign in 2020. The Red Bull Racing car was unstable to drive near the limit, and while the experienced Verstappen was able to thrash the RB16 into compliance, Albon couldn’t do the same.

It meant Red Bull Racing was in effect fielding one car against Mercedes’s two, leaving it strategically hamstrung.

On average around half a second behind Verstappen in qualifying, Albon returned just two podiums and 105 points compared to Verstappen’s 11 rostrums and 214 points, including two victories.

With aspirations for a title tilt in 2020, Albon’s position in the race team had become untenable, and with several Red Bull-backed juniors set to pressure for F1 drives, his reserve driver role is unlikely to keep him in the frame for a full-time return.

But Albon’s loss is Perez’s gain.

Perez was at risk of being locked out of the sport when Racing Point made the late decision to rip up his contract to hire four-time champion and ex-Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel, in whom it saw greater value for its 2021 relaunch as Aston Martin.

Ironically Vettel has endured his worst season in Formula One while Perez has had his best. Despite missing two races with COVID, he finished fourth on the championship table behind only the Mercedes drivers and Verstappen and sensationally took a maiden victory at the Sakhir Grand Prix.

In doing so he dominated teammate Lance Stroll, who ended 11th in the standings. The Canadian is son of team owner Lawrence Stroll.

On this season alone he warranted a seat, and Red Bull Racing’s unusual decision to sign from outside its driver roster gives him the chance to fulfil his potential in race-winning machinery.

“The opportunity to race for a championship-contending team is something I have waited for since I arrived in Formula One,” Perez said. “The team has the same winning mentality as me and I am here to perform well and help the team fight for another title.”

There is a risk the one-year deal becomes a poisoned chalice. Few expect the Mexican to match Verstappen on pure pace, and after a career as an established midfield overachiever, a lacklustre season alongside the Dutchman could damage his reputation.

But a strong and consistent year in the notoriously unforgiving Red Bull Racing car — even if just behind Verstappen, which is all the team really wants of him — will be enough to keep him in the conversation for 2022, giving him the chance to compete in what is hoped will be a more competitive era for Formula One.