The Red Bull junior driver conveyor belt has produced some excellent talent over the years, with Sebastian Vettel the original star pupil of Dr. Helmut Marko.
After Vettel along came Daniel Ricciardo, then Max Verstappen was the shiny new thing, with Pierre Gasly, Yuki Tsuonda (both AlphaTauri) and Alex Albon (on loan to Williams) the latest graduates currently in F1.
However, the well into which Red Bull can dip to find the next in the line has started to run a little dry, with the team opting to shop for an outsider in late 2020 by signing Sergio Perez in place of the below par Albon.
The senior team will not re-promote Gasly after his poor half-season in 2019, and who consequently finds himself in something of a holding pattern, waiting for the cards to fall somewhere near the Faenza exit door.
There are doubts too about Tsuonda and his consistency, although he has improved in 2022 compared to a peaky debut campaign last year.
But after Tsunonda, there is no single, standout candidate to be the next Red Bull junior F1 driver – just a posse of very good drivers fighting for that chance.
That position was filled by Estonian Juri Vips – who took over Perez’s car in first practice in Spain – but his comments on an online stream ended that idea.
Therefore, there’s an opening to be the next Red Bull junior to graduate into F1 – but who are the main contenders for it from F2 and F3?
The next Red Bull junior online
The main contender who has slipped into Vips’ shoes is current F2 and test and reserve driver Liam Lawson.
Hailing from New Zealand, Lawson has taken an unconventional route up through the ranks, including a stint in F2, and the DTM in 2021 – where he has finished a controversial second in the standings.
Leading the championship by a healthy 19 points going in the final race, rival Kevin van der Linde seemed to forget that racing cars have brakes at Turn 1, ploughing into Lawson’s machine, which suffered substantial damage.
He was pipped by just three points as Lucas Auer benefitted from some Mercedes team orders to snatch the title at the last.
After that disappointment, Lawson switched from Hitech to Carlin in F2 and has had a more consistent second season, featuring Sprint Race wins in Saudi Arabia and France to go with a clutch of other podiums.
However, the 20-year-old is only eighth in the standings after the Hungary weekend in what is not the strongest field F2 has produced compared to recent years.
What is a certainty though, is that Lawson will be the next Red Bull junior to drive an F1 car.
AlphaTauri boss Franz Tost has confirmed that he will be in the AT03 during first practice for the Belgian Grand Prix – fulfilling one of the slots the team has to hand over to a rookie driver.
©Getty Images/Red Bull Contentpool
The Indian, Norwegian and Japanese in contention
In the current F2 standings, the highest placed Red Bull junior is Jehan Daruvala, a 23-year-old born in Mumbai.
He is fifth after a consistent, if not spectacular campaign thus far – with five second places and a third thrown in.
Despite leading the way for Red Bull juniors outside F1, it is unlikely Daruvala’s name will be added to the cast featuring the likes of Vettel, Verstappen and Ricciardo.
He is now into his third year of F2, a category where those destined for F1 spend a maximum of two seasons – but in the case of George Russell, Lando Norris and Charles Leclerc, only one was needed.
Despite testing privately for McLaren, a career in tin-tops and sportscars seems to be the route he will go down once his F2 journey comes to an end.
Dennis Hauger (pictured below) is the reigning FIA F3 champion – winning a title always being a good tick in the book of Dr Marko.
Still only 19, Oslo native Hauger has been something of a second season specialist during his time on the F1 support bill.
A debut F3 campaign in 2020 with the under-performing Hitech squad banked only one podium, before a switch to junior powerhouse Prema for ’21.
The title was delivered with four wins, with his setting into F2 also bringing a couple of victories, but a lot of inconsistency. He’s scored points only eleven (fourth in the Austrian Feature Race) since claiming the Feature victory in Azerbaijan.
The latest Japanese export to Europe in motorsport is Ayumo Iwasa – who has a great reputation to follow seeing as Tsuonda was the last.
Iwasa stepped up to F2 after joining the Red Bull books in 2021 and a solid season in F3, again with Hitech.
The 2020 French F4 champion has hauled four F2 podiums this year, including a maiden win in the France Feature Race and banked pole position for it in Hungary.
Iwasa is quick, but seemingly a little too rough around the edges to be considered at the moment for a Red Bull-backed F1 drive. Another season in F2 in 2023 would prove beneficial.
©Getty Images/Red Bull Contentpool
The left-field Red Bull F1 junior option
Despite all the popularity F1 has in the United States at the moment, the one thing it does not have is an American driver.
Not since Alexander Rossi in a dreadfully slow Manor in 2015 has an American raced in F1, with Scott Speed back in 2006 the last time one took on a full campaign – to start with anyway.
Having an American driver would do wonders for the championship, but it has to be the right one, in the right car.
As good a driver Logan Sergeant is, American fans will not like to see their driver trundling around fighting for the odd point if he gets the Williams drive – or if Colton Herta ever makes it to F1, in a midfield, peaky McLaren.
Red Bull can offer their American-backed driver a highly competitive seat – if they decide to dispense with Perez, or indeed, Verstappen (however unlikely that may be).
Jak Crawford hails from NASCAR country in Charlotte, North Carolina, with the 17-year-old gaining Red Bull backing in early 2020.
Again switching from Hitech to Prema for his second F3 season, Crawford picked up a maiden win at the Red Bull Ring (of all places) earlier this year.
Of all the Red Bull juniors on the verge of F1, Crawford is certainly the most interesting and left-field candidate, mainly because of his nationality and the exposure rewards it could present Red Bull if he makes it to F1.
That won’t be for a while yet though, with a year or two of F2 needed as only Danill Kvyat has made the jump straight from what was then GP3 to F1 in 2013/14, with Red Bull, of course…
© Van Amersfoort Racing
Dr Marko’s favorite for an F1 drive
And then we have Isack Hadjar – a 17-year-old French driver who Marko already believes is destined for F1.
Still in his first year of Red Bull backing, Hadjar is currently leading the F3 standings with three wins, including a series debut in the Bahrain Sprint. He is 24 points clear of Crawford in the standings – the American in fourth.
Given his form, Hadjar’s promotion to F2 for 2023 is almost guaranteed for the Hitech driver.
Marko has also discussed the possibility that if Hadjar does well in F2 next season, his promotion to F1 could come as soon as 2024, with the AlphaTauri squad.
If that were to happen, Gasly would have either finally found the exit door or Marko would have decided that three years was enough for Tsuonda and that he wasn’t good enough, meaning it’s time to try the next driver.