Red Bull should now grab Carlos Sainz and take on Max Verstappen

Carlos Sainz took his third F1 victory in Melbourne – AP/Asanka Brendon Ratnayake

Carlos Sainz is, besides Max Verstappen, the only driver to have won a race since the beginning of May last year. A control race win in Australia came because he was still wearing bandages from his appendectomy a fortnight ago. Yet Sainz is currently unemployed until 2025 thanks to Lewis Hamilton’s impending move to Ferrari from Mercedes.

The reasons why Sainz was not retained by Ferrari are understandable. When the most successful Formula 1 driver in history comes knocking, you open the door for him. Sainz’s teammate Charles Leclerc has long been Ferrari’s future, is an exceptional talent and had just signed a long-term contract.

With no seat in 2025, Sainz has something to prove. Not against himself or even his current team, but against those who might want to pick him up. Sainz has a good reputation in F1, but not one comparable to that of Alonso, Hamilton and Verstappen. Or maybe even his current teammate. Is that a fair assessment? To some extent, yes. Leclerc has higher peaks and is devastatingly fast over one lap, but the margin between the two overall is small.

In their three-and-a-bit seasons together, they each have three wins. Leclerc has 19 podium finishes to Sainz’s 14 and 720 points in total compared to Sainz’s 650.5. The only area where they are not evenly matched is when it comes to pole positions, as Leclerc leads 14 to five. But so far in 2024, Sainz has been the leading Ferrari driver in the two races he has entered.

There are chances for Sainz in 2025, despite losing his seat, with the grid at its most open in decades. It is probably not the case that he could choose his team, but of the thirteen available drivers on the grid he is the most attractive, alongside compatriot Fernando Alonso.

The simplest option would be for Sainz to fill the gap left by Hamilton at Mercedes. That would be a better result for them than for Sainz. The Silver Arrows would welcome a smart, consistent, race-winning driver who, on current form, would provide a stiff challenge for George Russell. It would also give them time to find a seat elsewhere (perhaps Williams) for Italian teenage wonder Andrea Kimi Antonelli, to help him establish himself in F1 before any promotion takes place.

Yet the appeal of a Mercedes seat is certainly not what it once was, and that is exactly why Hamilton jumped ship in the first place. Three races into 2024 and they look arguably even more lost than ever in the current ground effect era. It is not a bad option for Sainz, but it is a clear downgrade compared to Ferrari.

The most coveted seat anywhere would go to Red Bull, who have won 23 of the last 25 Grands Prix. The path to it is a little trickier than Mercedes’, although Christian Horner said he would be open to it after Sainz’s win in Melbourne. And why not?

There is uncertainty surrounding Red Bull’s 2025 driver line-up. Let’s face the possibility that Max Verstappen will leave them at the end of the year (but if they do, they would be crazy not to sign Sainz) and view Perez as the vulnerable driver. So far, the Mexican is doing well and meets the minimum standards set by Red Bull. Just now.

A distant fifth place in Melbourne – albeit with some caveats due to damage to his car – was reminiscent of Perez’s problems in 2023, when he too often found himself embroiled in midfield battles rather than finishing directly behind his teammate . This will happen a lot more over the next 21 rounds and you would expect his position to be vulnerable, if not already. If Ferrari can challenge Verstappen – sometimes – and exploit Perez’s problems, then the constructors’ title does not seem so certain for Red Bull.

If Red Bull were to dump Perez, would they choose from their driver pool or go outside? Daniel Ricciardo’s form is worryingly similar to the results he achieved when he left McLaren a year earlier. Yuki Tsunoda performed well for RB last year, but he would have to maintain this level for the rest of the season to be able to cheer. Kiwi Liam Lawson has only completed five races and would be a better bet to replace Ricciardo at RB than going straight to the main team. With that in mind, it will be Sainz or Alonso, if he decides to leave Aston Martin. The younger Spaniard would be the pragmatic and best choice. Placing Alonso next to Verstappen would be fascinating but difficult, something Red Bull will want to avoid.

It’s true that Verstappen and Sainz had an intermittently problematic relationship (Helmut Marko described it as ‘toxic’) during their debut season together at Toro Rosso, but that was nine years ago. Both drivers are now seasoned, mature and experienced race winners with 373 races under their belt. It should not be seen as a risk for Red Bull.

Max Verstappen (L) Carlos Sainz (R) - Red Bull must now grab Carlos Sainz – and take on Max VerstappenMax Verstappen (L) Carlos Sainz (R) - Red Bull must now grab Carlos Sainz – and take on Max Verstappen

Carlos Sainz and Max Verstappen (left) both switched to Formula 1 with Toro Rosso in 2015 – Getty Images/Mark Thompson

Competitively speaking, Verstappen would almost certainly come out on top in a season’s time, but Sainz would certainly give him a rougher ride than Perez. With Red Bull’s lead being so huge, this would be exactly what the sport needs. Something akin to Rosberg pushing Hamilton in seasons where Mercedes dominated would be welcome. It can also be the culmination of realistic expectations.

It is not surprising to suggest that Verstappen would welcome the challenge. After all, he described his retirement in Melbourne as ‘exciting’. Does winning easily dull the appeal of F1? Red Bull would also benefit. With the regulatory overhaul in 2026, there is no guarantee that their dominance will continue. With a Sainz/Verstappen setup they are in the best position to make the most of whatever they produce in two years’ time.

Outside of that, there are opportunities elsewhere that are less attractive. Sauber will become the Audi factory outfit in 2026 when the new engine rules come into effect. The German brand is seriously committed to their F1 entry. Aston Martin may also have an opening. While these options aren’t necessarily a huge step backwards, it seems unlikely that they would be race-winning options. His form at Ferrari has shown that this is exactly what he deserves.

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