BARCELONA, SPAIN - JUNE 04: Lando Norris of Great Britain and McLaren and Max Verstappen of the Netherlands and Oracle Red Bull Racing talk prior to the F1 Grand Prix of Spain at Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya on June 04, 2023 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images) // Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool // SI202306040156 // Usage for editorial use only //

Outside Line: Norris to Red Bull? Seriously?

BARCELONA, SPAIN - JUNE 04: Lando Norris of Great Britain and McLaren and Max Verstappen of the Netherlands and Oracle Red Bull Racing talk prior to the F1 Grand Prix of Spain at Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya on June 04, 2023 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images) // Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool // SI202306040156 // Usage for editorial use only //

Red Bull team boss Christian Horner, his team crowned 2023 Formula 1 Constructors’ World Champions in Japan last Sunday, opened up on the drivers at his team now and in the future, and boy does he have some choices to make. Lando Norris?

Respectful rivals on-track and buddies off-track – Max Verstappen and Lando Norris – are around the same age, they also share hobbies and interests beyond F1. The two are emerging as the top drivers of this generation, with long F1 careers ahead of them.

Amid Sergio Perez’s erratic and incident-inducing form after Miami (coupled with his streak of yoyo results, in the wake of a fine start to his season) he has reached the point that his future with Red Bull beyond the 2024 F1 season is now in constant question. Further fueled by his recent shenanigans in Japan!

Top name being bandied about to replace Checo and share a garage with Max is Norris, which Horner acknowledged with a twist in his words: “Lando’s a great driver. He’s a big talent, a big personality and of course, he’s one of those drivers that you keep an eye on. But there are many drivers that you keep an eye on as well. There’s a generation of drivers out there at the moment that have got a huge amount of talent.

“Now, being Max’s team-mate is never going to be easy and some drivers may be up for that challenge, some may not be. But, of course, as well as the drivers we have in-house we keep an eye on all the driver market. As you can imagine, there’s quite a bit of interest from certain sectors about driving a Red Bull car.”

“Max is operating at such a level that his confidence, his commitment, his talent is absolute at the moment and it’s difficult to envisage somebody beating him in the same equipment. But there’s some great talent out there and of course, what we want is the best two drivers we can possibly field.

“So ideally that will come from within the talent pool that we have, and if we don’t believe there’s that capability we will look outside of that as to who’s available,” revealed the RBR boss.

Horner: We’ve never finished one-two in the F1 drivers’ world championship

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Right now Red Bull’s driver in that seat until the end of next year is Perez, and Horner is looking at the positives the Mexican can still extract from a season that started with so much promise but fizzled out relative to his RBR teammate.

With Verstappen set to wrap up the 2023 F1 Drivers’ title in Qatar next weekend, the focus is on the runner-up spot which Perez is in after 16 races, on 223 points chased by Mercedes’s Lewis Hamilton in P2 on 190 points, and Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso on 174 points in P4.

Horner pointed out what is expected of Perez in the final six races of this season: “He has at least a one race weekend [points] ‘buffer’ to Lewis and greater than that to Fernando behind him. We’ve never finished first and second with any of our drivers in the world championship so it would be a big thing for us to achieve.

“It’s something that we’ve never achieved. He came close last year, it would be his best-ever result, and he’s got the best car that he’s ever had to be able to try and achieve that result,” said the Red Bull team boss.

As for weekends like Suzuka for Perez, a veteran of 251 Grand Prix starts, Horner acknowledged: “Japan was frustrating and difficult for him, but he’ll bounce back. I’m sure there are enough races with the six grands prix remaining for him still to achieve some great results between now and the end of the season.”

While many believe Red Bull will honour the contract with Perez, which runs until the end of 2024, there are the more radical views that suggest he should be sent packing. Much like Daniel Ricciardo was sent away by McLaren to make way for Oscar Piastri, who just happens to be living up to the hype that followed him into F1.

Ricciardo of course was saved by the team that gave him his first F1 break, and much like the parable of the prodigal son has found room in the team’s ‘Little House’ aka AlphaTauri, but has his eye very much on a return to the ‘Big Palace’ aka Red Bull and Perez’s seat, should the fellow veteran continue to stumble along.

Why look at Norris to partner Max? What drivers do Red Bull have available now?

F1i Pic of the Day: Ricciardo and Tsunoda make a splash in Miami

Beyond that, in terms of a big driver in a Norris or even Ricciardo mould, they have nothing in the pipeline. After being made to look very ordinary by the average Pierre Gasly, some admire Yuki Tsunoda for raising his game this season.

But has he really? Against an out-of-his-depth-rookie Nyck de Vries? Yes. Against a rusty comeback veteran Ricciardo? Not really yet. Against a no-race rookie Liam Lawson? Yuki should be mincing him…

Apart from De Vries, Tsunoda has not ‘owned’ the other two he shared a garage with, at least not as one would expect a prodigy to do. But Ricciardo was not undone Norris-style by Yuki. And notably (alarmingly?) Lawson – now a mere four races into his F1 career, has been on par, if not faster than the Japanese driver.

Therein lies the rub. Increasingly it appears to me that Tsunoda is where he is because of some Honda connection with Red Bull. As in Lawson, they have a driver who had a stellar junior career and was plug-and-play from the moment he sat in the AlphaTauri. That’s rare for a rookie, let alone one that’s been thrust into the deep end as he was, at Zandvoort on the eve of the race.

While it would be cavalier to consider Lawson for the Red Bull seat alongside Max, ditto for any driver they put into that second car.

After all, Perez is a very, very, very good F1 driver, certainly not a great in a Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso kind of the way. But the 33-year-old Mexican has been far more solid than his predecessors in a Red Bull car. He had the measure of Max in Jeddah and Baku this year, but I venture that was his maximum. Trying too hard to go beyond that, closer to the level where his teammate plays, is what has undone him.

On the other hand, in the other RB19, Verstappen just got better and better and better from Miami onwards, leaving Perez in his wake and scratching his head wondering where the 25-year-old finds the pace to raise the bar every race weekend. And there is the answer, the age difference. Checo has plateaued. Max is still upwardly mobile.

Is being Verstappen’s teammate a ‘poisoned chalice’ for drivers?

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So with four drivers hovering over Perez’s cockpit, Red Bull appears to have choices. But how will they measure up to Max. They won’t! They will all be destroyed, which might force RBR to source outside the Bullpen where the outstanding bloke is Norris.

Can any driver go to Max’s house and take over? I don’t think so, if the template of modern F1 domination is putting all eggs in one driver’s basket, and the other reverts to wingman status.

Ferrari’s best days were when all focus was on Michael Schumacher. Renault won two F1 Titles when Fernando Alonso was the point man. Sebastian Vettel was RBRs first real one-man show, sure Mark Webber was there but it was the German’s team. Ditto Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes. Apart from the Nico Rosberg blip, the Briton was and still is the Main Man there.

Now the Verstappen era is upon us, fate chose Perez to do the chasing. Is he lost? Yes. Is he doing a bad job? No. Because for the first time in the team’s history, Red Bull drivers may finish 1-2 in the 2023 F1 Drivers’ World Championship standings. So what’s the problem?

Bringing in Norris begs the question: Do they (or any title-winning team for that matter) need two Bulls fighting for the same cherry?

What Norris needs is this McLaren project evolving from the best of the rest behind RBR, as they are now – and if not this year, next year, in their ideal world – they should be contesting for regular race wins, battling Max for the Title. Why move?

But if McLaren return to F1 wannabe status and this resurgence a flash in the pan, when Norris’ contract runs out, at the end of 2025, LN’s management team should be targeting: Ferrari, Mercedes and of course Audi, places where he can be the Main Man with an F1 team built around him. A Team Lando Norris in the way Red Bull is Team Max Verstappen.

Anything less for Norris would be second best, including sharing a garage with his buddy Max, where we will see how fast ‘Mate’ becomes ‘hate’ of the Racing Driver kind.