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Why Audi and Verstappen have complicated Formula 1’s driver market decisions

Formula 1’s driver market was always going to be an explosive one in 2024, with so many contracts up for grabs at the end of the year.

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While we have had some important decisions made already – like Lewis Hamilton to Ferrari and Fernando Alonso re-committing to Aston Martin – there remains a great deal still to be sorted.

What is perhaps most fascinating though is that not everyone is running to the same timing agenda, and that has left things hugely complicated for both drivers and teams as they try to plot their best path forward.

On the one hand, teams like Mercedes and Red Bull are pretty relaxed with how things are playing out as they look ready to bide their time and wait to see what their best options are for 2025.

At Red Bull, Sergio Perez is doing enough to justify him being retained once again, but we have seen strong starts to a campaign not follow through to the remainder of the year.

That is why the team has repeatedly said that it wants to wait a while – potentially until the summer – to choose what it does with who lines up alongside Max Verstappen.

Mercedes is also playing a watching brief on things as it plots who best to slot in as George Russell’s team-mate in 2025 as replacement for Hamilton.

The early favourite is Andrea Kimi Antonelli, whose F1 testing programme has been expanded as the German manufacturer intends to do everything it can to get him up to speed with grand prix machinery.

Andrea Kimi Antonelli drives Mercedes W12

Andrea Kimi Antonelli drives Mercedes W12

But equally there remains that slim shot of Verstappen potentially being available if the Dutchman and his entourage decide the situation at Red Bull is not playing out as they would like.

Insiders suggest that Verstappen is totally set on staying at Red Bull for now, but equally if there was a 0.01% chance of him being free, Mercedes would be foolish to let that slip through its grasp at the very time it had a seat available.

It is why it does not want to commit to anyone else now, even if others are putting pressure on getting quick decisions.

But Mercedes also knows that if Verstappen does not move, and the conclusion later this year is that Antonelli could do with either another year in F2 or being farmed out to another grand prix team, then it needs a Plan B option.

It is why it is scouting around and seeing who is available to get a clear picture of where things stack up, although it feels in no rush to do anything.

But the attraction for drivers in there potentially being a Red Bull or Mercedes seat up for grabs in the summer if they wait is tempered by the fact that not all teams are willing to hold fire that long.

And central to what appears to be conflicting demands over how the dominoes will fall in the driver market is the fact that Audi (and its current Sauber team) wants decisions very soon on the offers it has already made.

Carlos Sainz, Scuderia Ferrari, arrives at the track

Carlos Sainz, Scuderia Ferrari, arrives at the track

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Carlos Sainz and Nico Hulkenberg are understood to both be on the German manufacturer’s radar, but sources suggest that Audi has made clear that if decisions are not made by May then it will not rule out looking elsewhere.

Sauber team representative Alessandro Alunni Bravi hinted in China last weekend about Audi being on the front foot with its decisions.

“We are happy that it seems that we can play, a role, a different role in the driver market for the future, thanks to the Audi announcement and all the investments that will be done in order to improve our team," he said.

"I think that, if it is good news for our team, it is that finally we are attractive. And we are not the spectators. We are a player in the market."

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It is unclear why Audi wants to be aggressive with its timing, although it could be related to the timings of board meetings of its parent company. However it leaves a driver like Sainz is a particularly difficult spot.

Does he commit to an attractive offer at Audi right now, or does he wait for a Red Bull or Mercedes seat that may or may not be available and risk losing it all?

There are some high-stakes decisions to be made in the next few weeks and drivers well know that, as F1 edges towards its 2026 rules reset, what they do now could well decide if they are fighting for wins and championships, or are left as also rans, over the next few years.

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