Speed, not politics, is what will decide Max Verstappen’s F1 future

Sam Cooper
Max Verstappen

Max Verstappen has been touted for a possible move to Mercedes.

There have been very few times in F1 history where a competitive driver has chosen to walk away from a quick car.

In almost every instance, there has been tension behind the move. Nigel Mansell is the most obvious example. Leaving Williams having won the championship due to disagreements with the team makes him the third most recent champion not to defend his title. The two most recent both left to retire.

Verstappen is still someway off retirement age, even if he does pull the plug early as he has threatened to do, and has been clear about the one thing that has always motivated him – winning.

“I always want to win, in every season,” he said in 2020. “Of course it is special and extra beautiful if it would happen, but my motivation is to win every race.”

The Dutchman has certainly done a lot of winning since then. His 56 victories place him third in the all-time list, behind only Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton. Three world titles look almost certain to become four and for every Verstappen F1 success, there has been a red and yellow bull charging on his front wing.

“We’ve achieved a lot together,” team boss Christian Horner said when it was put to him that his own issues could result in Red Bull losing its star asset. “From the team’s side, from Max’s side, we are determined to build on the success we’ve achieved already.

“Those 55 victories [said before the Saudi Arabian GP] have all come in Red Bull cars, all of the podiums have come in Red Bull Racing cars. We are determined to build on that and hopefully add many more in the future.”

From a purely statistical move, leaving the dominant team for one that is currently P4 does not make a lot of sense and Verstappen himself has hinted that his motivation would be lower should he no longer be at the front.

“I think it’s tougher when you have been in that position, and then you come to a race where it’s not possible anymore,” he said. “Then it’s harder to find your motivation. Then you need to try and look into different places, and how you can keep that motivation going.

“But at the moment when you’re on the top, I think it’s probably easier than when you’re maybe in the middle of the pack.”

So for a man who has already suggested his long-term future is not in F1, a removal from the front of the grid may speed up that end date.

In the end, driver moves often come down to one thing – speed. Hamilton will move to Ferrari, yes, because it has been a long-term dream, but also because he believes Ferrari will have a quicker car than his current employer. Fernando Alonso is making kissy faces at Mercedes just in case they prevail over Aston Martin.

Right now, Mercedes are tied with McLaren in the joint-third best car on the grid with Ferrari a step ahead and Red Bull a step even further. The 2026 engine changes could perhaps be a further resetting of the board but Red Bull will still most likely enter that season with a leftover advantage.

Elite drivers want the best tools to do their job and Verstappen is no different, so the idea of him swapping Red Bull for Mercedes right now seems nonsensical.

At the base of it, both teams are in very different stages of their evolution. Red Bull have built the ultimate winning machine which, as Liam Lawson pointed out, takes no time at all to be in the right window. Meanwhile Mercedes found the W15 shares a problem with its two predecessors in that locating the right window can be like trying to jump onto a moving train.

There is of course a political element behind suggestion Verstappen may be about to swap red and blue for silver, rumours that appeared to originate from Jos Verstappen pictured speaking with Toto Wolff.

The investigation into Horner has been damaging for just about everyone involved and has threatened to tear the dominant world champions apart from the inside.

A matter of who is on whose side was different depending on what day you read the news but the idea of Verstappen moving to their biggest rivals would have been enough to prompt action from the Red Bull higher-ups.

CEO Oliver Mintzlaff was in the paddock in Jeddah, seemingly preventing close Verstappen ally Helmut Marko from walking away, and for now at least, the Red Bull tensions have simmered. But during the same grand prix, Verstappen did nothing to rule out any kind of move in the future.

“The thing is, no one would have seen Lewis moving to Ferrari,” he said. “In my life – and that’s not related to F1 or whatever, that’s just general life – you never know what happens or what comes to you or whatever happens around you or what might influence you, so you can never say 100 percent that that’s how it’s going to be.

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“And I approach my life like that but I also don’t think about it too much. I’m very relaxed, like I said I’m very happy at the team, the performance is there, there’s no reason to leave.”

Verstappen is right that he will not have it better at any other team. Within Red Bull, he is the undisputed star, is paid the most on the grid and has the best car. If he were to move to Mercedes, or indeed any other team, it is unlikely he will have the same luxuries certainly from the off.

The 26-year-old may have issues with Horner and the status of their relationship will only be known by those close to the situation but their working relationship does not appear to be so frayed that Verstappen would willingly walk away from world titles.

Ultimately it comes down to the car. In Jeddah, Verstappen finished 39.936 seconds down the road from George Russell, 47.391 seconds from Hamilton. Politics or not, very few drivers have a chance to achieve what Verstappen could in a car that is streets ahead of the competition.

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