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Formula 1 Saudi Arabian GP

Why Aston Martin could beat Mercedes in F1 race to sign Verstappen

Will Max Verstappen really walk away from his Red Bull Formula 1 contract – and if he does, will he go to Mercedes or make a surprise move to Aston Martin?

Fernando Alonso, Aston Martin F1 Team, 2nd position, Adrian Newey, Chief Technology Officer, Red Bull Racing, Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing, 1st position, Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes-AMG, 3rd position, celebrate on the podium

Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images

Just a few weeks ago it seemed inconceivable that he would leave the dominant team of the ground effects era and potentially hand a championship-winning car to someone else.

However the Christian Horner saga has turned the F1 world on its head and exposed tensions within the camp.

The full details have yet to emerge, but the picture that is being painted is a simple one. Verstappen doesn’t want to stay if Horner remains in charge as team principal, and he doesn’t want to stay if Red Bull advisor and close supporter Helmut Marko leaves.

It was in March 2022 that Verstappen signed a contract extension that committed him to the team for seven seasons. Both parties decided that the time was right to extend that commitment, and an extra five years was added, fresh of the back of his maiden F1 world title clinched in controversial circumstances at the 2021 Abu Dhabi GP.

Crucially that term included the first three seasons of the new F1 regulations with the new Red Bull Powertrains engine, which at the time was expected to be badged as a Porsche.

It was a commitment of unprecedented length on both sides. It gave the team extra bargaining power when negotiating with partners, who knew that they could sign up for the long term and the superstar of the era would be on board. Among those attracted was Ford, who stepped in to back the engine project when the Porsche deal faltered.

Two years on from signing that deal, and having secured three titles and with a fourth already looking likely, the chances of Verstappen seeing out the remaining four years of the deal appear to be slim.

Horner’s own words are very telling. On race day in Bahrain he was adamant that Verstappen was not going anywhere.

Christian Horner, Red Bull Racing

Christian Horner, Red Bull Racing

Photo by: Erik Junius

“I'm certain that he will,” he said, when asked if Verstappen will see out his contract. “He's got a great team around him. He's got great faith in that team. We've achieved an awful lot together. He's committed to an agreement until 2028.”

Just a week later in Jeddah he still insisted that Verstappen has no reason to leave, but there were signs that the mood had changed.

“You can never say never,” he said. “If a driver doesn't want to be somewhere then they'll go somewhere else, but as a team I can't see any reason why anyone would want to step out of this team.”

Pressed on the subject he added: “It's like anything in life, you can't force somebody to be somewhere just because of a piece of paper. If somebody didn't want to be at this team, then we're not going to force somebody, against their will, to be here. That applies whether it's a machine operator, or a designer, or somebody in one of the support functions.”

There are many forces at work along with the complex Horner/Marko situation. No one knows who will have the best engine in 2026, but it’s obvious that it’s a much tougher challenge for newcomers RBP/Ford and Audi than it is for the incumbent suppliers.

In other words there will be a major reset, and it’s far from a given that Red Bull will be the force it is now, so moving elsewhere is perhaps not such a difficult decision.

In addition there’s a natural cycle in F1 that sees the best drivers make their name and earn their first major successes with the team that nurtured them before leaving the nest and moving to pastures new.

We saw that with Michael Schumacher and Benetton, Fernando Alonso and Renault, Lewis Hamilton and McLaren, plus Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing

Photo by: Shameem Fahath

It may sound like a cliché but all were seeking a new challenge, and the chance to work with different people in a fresh environment and to demonstrate that they could succeed elsewhere.

Including his spell at Toro Rosso, Verstappen is now in his 10th season in the Red Bull camp, and seeing out his full contract would take that total to 14, far longer than the relationships outlined above.

The Verstappen of 2024 is a very different person from the teenager who started out with Toro Rosso in 2015. Even in the two years since making the long-term contractual commitment he’s matured further and settled into a world champion’s figurehead role, not afraid to speak his mind about his dislike of the long schedule, or the showbiz elements that F1 is introducing.

He has also stressed that he has no intention of sticking around for another 10 years, and that he has other interests that he’d like to pursue.

As such, even without the internal tensions at Red Bull and the question marks over the 2026 engine, he would probably now be wondering if he really wants to see out the full term of his deal, and instead go somewhere else to reboot his motivation.

That is exactly what Hamilton has done in leaving Mercedes and signing up for Ferrari. In doing so he’s closed one door for Verstappen, but opened up another.

With Hamilton departing Mercedes, it is the obvious alternative to Red Bull for the Dutchman. Toto Wolff tried hard to get him in 2014, the year he shone in European F3 races that supported DTM events right under the nose of the Stuttgart manufacturer. But Wolff couldn’t offer him an immediate graduation to an F1 race seat for 2015. Red Bull could, and that’s the direction Verstappen took.

A decade later it appears that the time is right for Verstappen to finally move to Mercedes. There’s a logic associated in joining the team that was dominant for so long, and one that would be expected to have a strong 2026 package.

Toto Wolff, Team Principal and CEO, Mercedes-AMG F1 Team, on the pit wall

Toto Wolff, Team Principal and CEO, Mercedes-AMG F1 Team, on the pit wall

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

However, Wolff has a problem. He has George Russell, long seen as the post-Hamilton future of the team, albeit currently only signed up until the end of 2025. And he has Kimi Antonelli waiting in the wings for an early graduation.

Wolff has made it clear that the Italian teenager has the possibility to go straight into a Mercedes race seat in 2025, and while his F2 campaign has got off to a difficult start, there is still plenty of time for him to find winning form.

The team also has an extensive programme of private F1 testing planned after Antonelli turns 18 in August, initially with the 2021 car, before switching to the 2022 model.

Oliver Bearman’s impressive debut with Ferrari in Jeddah could not have been better timed. Not only will he be the perfect benchmark for Prema team-mate Antonelli as the 2024 F2 season unfolds, he’s shown the world that a teenager can jump into the car of a leading team and perform.

He’s given Wolff the ammunition to help convince whoever he needs to convince at Mercedes that Antonelli could do the same from the start of 2025, in effect using the last season with the current rules as a learning year before 2026 affords Mercedes the opportunity to once again have a pacesetting package.

Given that Russell/Antonelli would be an impressive line-up, it’s not hard to see that Wolff has a problem in finding a place for Verstappen. Of course he wants the most successful driver of the past few seasons, a driver who – using Sergio Perez as a litmus test – clearly makes a difference. But how to fit him in?

Sending Antonelli to Williams for a year or two is the obvious option, but despite his personal involvement in grooming the Italian at Mercedes, team boss James Vowles has made it clear that he can’t guarantee a seat. He has his own young drivers coming through and the wider long-term interests of the Grove team and its owners to consider.

For Verstappen there is one simple alternative to waiting for the driver logjam at Mercedes to be resolved.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing, Fernando Alonso, Aston Martin F1 Team, Lando Norris, McLaren F1 Team,

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing, Fernando Alonso, Aston Martin F1 Team, Lando Norris, McLaren F1 Team,

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

A move to Aston Martin would be a lot more straightforward, assuming that Alonso leaves and frees up a seat.

That remains a possibility, given the Spaniard has indicated that first he has to decide whether or not he wants to continue into 2025, and he’ll then look at what choices he has.

Alonso is on the list of potential candidates at Mercedes, and like with Verstappen, there is the logjam issue.

The subtle difference is that while there is no way the Dutchman would go to the Brackley team with just a single year guaranteed, with perhaps an option for a second, Alonso may well see that as just what he wants right now.

“Obviously I don't have any contract at the moment,” he said, when asked on Wednesday in Jeddah about being on Wolff’s shortlist. “So it's better to be on those lists than on the other series list, or being on the retirement list! But I will make the decision to commit for the future in the next few weeks, or few races. First of all, I need to speak with myself, I need to make a decision. If I personally want to commit for the future. Obviously, I need to sacrifice everything else in life to be 100% ready for F1. And that will be the decision.”

Just a couple of days later he added an intriguing note on the timeline: “It's fair for me to not delay the thing too much for the team and for the options that they need to keep open.”

The number one option for Aston is Verstappen. Lawrence Stroll will do whatever it takes, financially or otherwise, to get him on board, as was the case when he convinced world champions Sebastian Vettel and Alonso to join the project.

Verstappen would be the final piece in the puzzle on top of everything else that Stroll has put in place since taking over the ailing Force India team in the summer of 2018. He’s the man who could turn the green car into a regular winner, with his presence also reducing the overall potential of Red Bull.

Lawrence Stroll, Owner, Aston Martin F1 Team

Lawrence Stroll, Owner, Aston Martin F1 Team

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

So why would Aston make sense for Verstappen? Firstly assuming that Alonso leaves, the situation is much clearer than it is at Mercedes. There’s a seat available for as long as he wants it, with no pressure on the team’s side to promote a protégé. And the position of Lance Stroll as his team-mate is equally firm. Verstappen will know what he’s getting into.

The key consideration is to have the most competitive package that he can get, and Aston has upward momentum that points towards it being a very attractive place to be in 2026.

Crucially it will become the Honda works outfit, with all the advantages that come with that role. No longer will it be a Mercedes customer, relying on gearboxes and suspension parts supplied by Brackley.

No one understands and respects Honda more than Verstappen, and given the inside line that he has, he is probably confident that the Japanese manufacturer is on target to continue its current form into the new era.

He will also be well aware of the efforts that Stroll Sr has made over the past few years. Aston has a brand-new facility with a wind tunnel on the way, and a strong technical team that includes key people he knows well from Red Bull, notably Dan Fallows.

The fact that Stroll continues to add to that pool of talent – with Bob Bell recently announced in an executive director role – is an indication of just how serious he is.

Verstappen (and indeed his father Jos) will also appreciate the simple decision-making process at Aston. It’s Stroll’s team, and he makes the big calls, informed by right-hand man Martin Whitmarsh and team principal Mike Krack.

There are no layers of intrigue and politics, and no corporate board hovering somewhere above the race team. And he wouldn’t be a pawn in a game of one-upmanship involving Wolff and Red Bull.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB20

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB20

Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images

It's perhaps not a deal-breaker, but at Mercedes he would be obliged to commit to a lot of marketing and sponsor days, whereas at Aston, Stroll would make sure that he’d have to do the bare minimum outside race weekends.

With 24 events on the schedule having some free time is important for every driver on the grid, and especially for someone like Verstappen, who has been working flat out since he was a kid in karting.

In the end any top driver wants to have the best car, and the very best drivers have the confidence to believe that they can make a difference – enough to take a car that’s on the cusp of being a race winner to being a title contender.

Whether it be to Mercedes or Aston, and for 2025 or 2026, it’s apparent that we have to be prepared for some big Verstappen news, possibly as early as in the next few weeks.

Verstappen himself continues to send mixed messages, still insisting that he’s happy where he is, while dropping hints that anything is possible.

“The thing is, I think no one would have ever realised or seen that Lewis would move to Ferrari,” he said in Jeddah. “And in my life, and that's not related to F1 or whatever, it'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%, that's how it's going to be. And I approach my life like that. But I also don't think about it too much. I'm very relaxed.”

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