Max Verstappen to Mercedes? The arguments for and against shock Red Bull exit

Thomas Maher
Max Verstappen, Red Bull, 2024 Chinese Grand Prix.

Max Verstappen is a target for Mercedes, but might the Dutch driver actually consider a switch?

Max Verstappen is under contract with Red Bull until F1 2028 but is being openly courted by Mercedes for their vacant cockpit.

The Dutch driver still has years to go before his contract with Red Bull comes to an end, but Toto Wolff has been pulling at the loose threads that have appeared in recent months.

Max Verstappen: Join Mercedes or stay at Red Bull?

Verstappen is under lock and key until the end of the F1 2028 season but has made it clear that his continued loyalty to Milton Keynes remains dependent on the involvement of Helmut Marko as team consultant and advisor.

The exact machinations of Verstappen’s contract aren’t known but, usually, there are all sorts of get-out clauses and conditional breaks that could allow for an earlier split if one or both parties wanted to.

For instance, the huge change in regulations in F1 2026 – together with Red Bull’s attempts to fly solo on the engine front as Red Bull Powertrains replace Honda – mean Verstappen almost certainly has escape clauses built in for after that season. recommends

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But the recent turmoil that has enveloped Red Bull has triggered plenty of speculation about Verstappen’s future and has led to Toto Wolff making it clear he’d welcome the Dutch driver with open arms to step into the cockpit left vacant by Lewis Hamilton.

Of course, some publications have suggested serious negotiations are already underway between the two parties, although Christian Horner said there is ” no ambiguity as to where Max Verstappen will be next year.”

Speaking after the Chinese Grand Prix, Mercedes’ Toto Wolff suggested that “factors” other than having the “quickest car” could play a role in Verstappen leaving Red Bull.

“There are so many factors that play a role for a driver joining,” Wolff said.

“Clearly when you look at it from the most rational point of view, you can say: ‘That’s the quickest car in the hands of the quickest driver.’

“But I don’t think this is the only reason you stay where you are.

“I think, for simple minds, that might be the only reason why you stay in a car and that’s it, but maybe there are more depths for some people that consider other factors too. I think that Max has that.

“In that respect, are we able to convince him? I don’t think it’s a matter of convincing.

“I think that Max knows motor racing better than anyone, he will take decisions that he feels are good for him.

“I think a few factors play a role, but he’s the one that is going to trigger some more domino stones to fall in afterward. Everybody is waiting for what he’s going to do.”

As for when – if at all – Verstappen could move from Red Bull to Mercedes, Wolff revealed he wasn’t at that “point” of discussions with the reigning World Champion.

“You have conversations with many drivers exploring new opportunities so that isn’t surprising,” said the Austrian.

“As for Max, we’re not at the point where we would have discussed years or stuff.”

But for now, he admits: “If I was Max I would stay at Red Bull in 2025, but I’m not Max. It’s the quickest car but there are still other factors.”

Upon being told of Wolff’s comments, Horner said: “Have you spoken to Max about this? Because if you speak to Max – and certainly it’s not about pieces of paper at the end of the day, we know that he has a contract to the end of 2028 – it’s about how he feels in the team and the relationship he has in the team and the way he’s performing.

“I don’t think Toto’s problems are his drivers; I think he’s probably got other elements that he needs to be focusing on rather than focusing on drivers that are unavailable.

“We’ve moved today ahead of the amount of races that Mercedes have won in the modern era.

“The team is in form, why on earth would you want to leave this team?

“Mercedes are the third team behind their customers [McLaren and Aston Martin] at the moment, so I would think [Wolff’s] time would be better spent perhaps focusing on the team rather than the driver market.”

Speaking to the media ahead of the Chinese Grand Prix, Verstappen himself was asked about his future and about the doubts over whether he’d stay with Red Bull until the end of his current contract at the conclusion of 2028.

“After 2021, I signed a long deal with the team,” he said. “The only thing that I always said from the beginning is we want to have a quiet, peaceful environment.

“I do think lately we’ve been talking about the car so I’m happy about that already. We’re talking about the performance of the car. That’s also how it should be.

“As long as I’m happy with the team, there’s never been a reason to leave.”

Speaking after the 2023 season, Jos Verstappen told the intention is for Max to try seeing out his entire F1 career with Red Bull.

“That’s the plan, I think,” Jos said at the time.

“To start with Red Bull and finish with Red Bull. That’s what we like. We’re very loyal people.

“They gave us the chance and, as long as they have a good car and with Helmut there – he’s always been a supporter of us. Max has shown that he’s a supporter of Helmut, Red Bull, and people like that. So it would be nice.”

The arguments for staying with Red Bull Racing

While some corners of F1 media are speculating that Verstappen is set to receive a hugely lucrative offer to join Mercedes, there are plenty of reasons why the Dutch driver should very carefully consider his future with Red Bull.

After all, Red Bull has proven itself willing to revolve entirely around him as their lead driver and pay him very handsomely for filling that role.

Verstappen is believed to be on a base salary of $55 million annually before any performance or achievement-related bonuses are factored in – these could be as high as a further $20-$25 million.

Verstappen has found himself at a team that aligns closely with his competitive edge, with failures to deliver swiftly addressed and rectified – Red Bull is not a team known for being content to finish second.

To that end, he and Red Bull reached a state of operational sharpness in 2023 that hasn’t ever been seen before in F1 – the Dutch driver won all but three races, with Red Bull only defeated once.

Over the first five races of 2024, Verstappen has dominated aside from his mechanical failure in Australia.

Verstappen is also well-known for his desire to maintain a relatively low profile away from the racetrack, with Red Bull happy to allow him to strike a balance between his marketing commitments and racing that have not resulted in the Dutch driver complaining about being overworked.

Most pertinent for Verstappen is the fact that, since 2008, Red Bull has won at least one race in every season – aside from 2015.

This consistency hasn’t been matched by any other team and it’s worth noting that Red Bull’s more barren years between 2014 and ’18 were largely defined by their uncompetitive Renault engines – the car remained competitive when engine power was less important.

Over the last two big chassis regulation changes, 2009 and 2022, Red Bull hit the ground running with immediately competitive offerings and this stands them in good stead for the new regulations coming out in 2026.

A large part of this success can be attributed to Adrian Newey’s genius (“the man who can see air”, according to Horner) but even Newey produced duds during his spell at McLaren prior to Red Bull – indicating the contributions of the other prominent engineers like Paul Monaghan, Pierre Wache, Enrico Balbo, and Ben Waterhouse are just as necessary to help pull everything together.

As long as Verstappen continues to perform at or close to the level he has over the past decade, there’s no reason to doubt Red Bull’s focus will remain solely on him.

Also, given the extent of their current technical advantage under the current regulations, it allows Milton Keynes to increase its focus on 2026 the instant the regulations allow.

The arguments for leaving for Mercedes

As many reasons as there are for staying with Red Bull, there are also quite a few reasons why Verstappen might be seduced by a switch to Mercedes – something that appeared unthinkable during the fraught 2021 season.

The most obvious one is that Verstappen may be concerned about the potential competitiveness of Red Bull when the regulations change. While the chassis changes may not be as big a concern, the power unit regulation changes are significant.

Without Honda, Red Bull will become a power unit manufacturer in its own right for the first time and, as Horner has pointed out, they do lack the grounding and knowledge rivals like Ferrari (and Mercedes) have.

While staffed with engineers who know exactly what they’re doing, there’s absolutely no guarantee they’ll get it right the first time and allow Red Bull to remain close to the front – regardless of how amazing the chassis is.

Mercedes does have a big advantage in this area and, as proven in 2014 when their power unit was peerless, can absolutely nail challenging hybrid technology right from the get-go.

There’s also the fact that success in F1 is cyclical – no matter how dominant a team is, that dominance will eventually end.

Red Bull is currently on its third successive year of dominance, its fourth year of title challenge, and all looks good up until the end of 2025. But can Red Bull really keep it up without a blip in the face of such huge technological changes once ’26 rolls around?

There might also be the temptation of wanting to prove himself in a new environment. While Red Bull has given Verstappen absolutely everything he’s needed to enter F1, become a race winner, and win multiple titles, doing it at a completely different team with different personnel and a different power unit would further cement Verstappen’s legacy as one of the sport’s all-time greats.

After all, how many times have we heard the boring phrase, “He only wins due to his Adrian Newey rocketship” – or a variation thereof – over the past few years? There’s one Verstappen would presumably like to disappear – easily done by winning in an Allison (or anyone else’s) creation.

In terms of finances, let’s not pretend that Mercedes wouldn’t open their chequebooks extremely wide for him.

The finances already exist given they were paying huge sums for Hamilton already, and the financial might of Daimler, INEOS, and Toto Wolff would be well able to pay whatever demands the Verstappen camp may have – driver salaries are not (yet) influenced by the budget cap.

Tying himself to an automotive giant like Mercedes would likely mean an increase in marketing duties, but could lead to a very lucrative post-F1 career if full retirement isn’t that far off as Verstappen himself has hinted at on numerous occasions – similar to what Fernando Alonso appears to be pursuing with Aston Martin with his new deal.

However, while Red Bull bends over backward for Verstappen in regards to his teammates – Mercedes already has the driver it regards as its heir apparent for Hamilton in George Russell.

Bringing in Verstappen wouldn’t necessarily allow Russell any time to try flourishing in that position and might also result in missing out on Andrea Kimi Antonelli – a driver regarded as having the potential to be the next Verstappen.

Either way, at this point in time, Verstappen is contracted to race for Red Bull for the foreseeable and hasn’t confirmed in any way that he is looking for a way out or that he’s in negotiations with any other team.

But if he is pondering the possibilities, there’s no move he can make that guarantees success. The spanner in the works that is the rulebook change for 2026 means that every team is a question mark.

And unless Verstappen is particularly downbeat on the RBPT power units or keeping Newey around long enough to help oversee the new car design, is it a case of the better the devil you know?

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