Mercedes have been stung on multiple fronts by Max Verstappen committing his long-term future to Red Bull on Thursday. The Dutchman went toe-to-toe with Silver Arrows star Lewis Hamilton last season, and with age no longer on the Brit’s side, Mercedes may soon be sent back to the drawing board. Verstappen’s loyalty to Red Bull was rewarded with a world title in 2021, their first since Sebastian Vettel in 2013.
This off-season, Red Bull have evidently put things in place to repay the Dutchman’s faith, handing him a bumper new contract worth a whopping £40million-a-year. That puts him in the same pay bracket as Hamilton, and it is set to run until 2028 when the once prodigious talent will be in his thirties. One does not need to look forensically into the situation to work out why this is good news for
Red Bull, but it could also have the double effect of striking fear into bitter rivals Mercedes. The prospect of replacing Hamilton was brought into sharp focus recently, when his prolonged silence after being controversially defeated in Abu Dhabi was interpreted by many as a retirement hint. Although his comeback for 2022 was confirmed weeks ago, the prospect of retirement will once again arise at the end of the season, when the
Stevenage-born star will be approaching his 38th birthday. Verstappen is still expected to be flying high for Red Bull at that point, and with plenty of years left in the tank too. Mercedes therefore need to recruit a special talent to offset Hamilton’s departure and remain competitive with Red Bull and their fierce 24-year-old, which raises the simple question – who could they get?
Lando Norris and Charles Leclerc, two of the sport’s top young talents, are both tied down until 2025 with McLaren and Ferrari respectively. Stealing Verstappen from under Red Bull’s noses is off the cards due to his contract situation and the bad blood that boiled over between the rival camps last season. Alpine’s Esteban Ocon may be one of the only viable options.
The Frenchman still has strong ties with Mercedes and earned praise from Silver Arrows team boss Toto Wolff for his recent progress. Last season, he notched an unlikely race win in Hungary, although questions would surely be posed as to whether he is the man to replace a driver of Hamilton’s calibre. Otherwise, Mercedes will have to rely on finding a rising star by the time
Hamilton calls it a day, or putting all their faith in the recently-promoted George Russell. Last week, the youngster notched the second-fastest time on the final day of testing in Barcelona, although it remains to be seen how he will fare over the course of a full season in a competitive car. All told, Verstappen’s new contract may have hammered home to Mercedes that they could soon find themselves in an uncomfortable position.