What Verstappen’s mega-deal means for Formula One

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The first major Formula One headline of the New Year has been Max Verstappen’s new deal with Red Bull, tying him to the team for the next four seasons. There had been speculation of a seat opening up for Verstappen at Mercedes or Ferrari, but Red Bull have secured their star man, and easily F1’s most sought after and hottest young talent, for the foreseeable future.

Since the midway point of the 2018 season, Verstappen has been the sport’s standout performer, despite Lewis Hamilton’s breath-taking form and domination in terms of race wins. In that time Verstappen has five race wins and a further 12 podiums. He has become one of the most consistent performers, ditching his reputation as a blisteringly fast but erratic and error prone driver. His consistency is so impressive that he finished in the top five in each of last season’s first 12 races.

Alongside his improved form, and Red Bull’s increasing competitiveness with the leading two teams of Mercedes and Ferrari, the guaranteed position as a favoured number one driver at Red Bull may have persuaded Verstappen to stay put. Also, there has been reluctance expressed by Mercedes and Ferrari, as well as their drivers, about a potential Verstappen move. His ruthless and uncompromising driving style has rubbed some people up the wrong way and did lead to problems between him and former Red Bull team-mate Daniel Ricciardo, not to mention the multiple arguments with Sebastian Vettel and battles with Charles Leclerc this year that have raised eyebrows. 

Aside from the Belgian, there have been other rumours surrounding the driver carousel ahead of the start of next season. Most notably, there has been speculation surrounding Lewis Hamilton’s future at Mercedes. With his contract due to expire at the end of 2020, he admitted that he had spoken to Ferrari about what would be a sensational switch, but it’s unlikely anything would be confirmed before mid-way through the season. Vettel’s future at Ferrari is also uncertain, and it is difficult to see where he could fit in if forced out as he isn’t the sort of driver who’d be happy driving in a slow car to finish his career. It is more likely than not that he and Hamilton will both stay put, yet the balance of power firmly lies with his long-time racing rival. 

Ferrari have unsurprisingly secured one seat for the next five years, signing Charles Leclerc after an encouraging first year. He bettered the aforementioned Vettel, his vastly more experienced teammate, in every facet last year and is clearly who Ferrari will be hoping can win their first world title since 2007. Although this is not a surprise, it would probably discourage Hamilton from moving there, as it is unlikely Ferrari would want to publicly announce Leclerc as their number two driver, especially after what happened this season after announcing they would favour Vettel. 

Valtteri Bottas and Daniel Ricciardo will also both find themselves out of contract at the end of the year. Ricciardo endured a very disappointing season in a Renault which dropped progressively further behind the fastest cars, when his team had said they were aiming to start competing for podium finishes. If a seat opened up at Mercedes or Ferrari for him, it’s hard to imagine him saying no. Bottas has once again struggled to match Hamilton’s pace this year, and will face a nervous wait to see if Toto Wolff wants to renew the Finn’s contract in the most sought after seat in F1.

One threat he won’t have to deal with anymore is Esteban Ocon, Mercedes’ reserve driver in 2019, who now has a seat at Renault. The young Frenchman had been touted as Bottas’ replacement when his deal came to an end. The other driver who could be tipped to replace Bottas is George Russell. It is hard to judge his progress this season as he was in the slowest car by far, but he outqualified teammate Robert Kubica 21-0 last season, and Williams to Mercedes is a well-trodden pathway, previously made by the likes of Rosberg and Bottas.

The main casualty from the 2019 season, however, is Nico Hulkenberg. F1’s journeyman, he has driven for five teams since his debut in 2010, has often been talked about as an underrated driver and has consistently outperformed teammates. Nevertheless, after 10 seasons in F1, no podium finishes and being outshone by Daniel Ricciardo at Renault last year, it seems his career might be over. At the age of 32, teams looking for new drivers would probably favour trying to unearth new young talent, especially given the amount of good young drivers like Albon, Leclerc, Verstappen, Russell and Norris.

So, leading into the 2020 season with an almost identical driver line-up, the onus will be on the teams to see who can produce the best car to win the battle for the championship, and also the midfield battle. Can Mercedes continue to outwit Ferrari? Will Ferrari continue to shoot themselves in the foot? Can Red Bull give Max Verstappen a car to mount a serious title challenge? And can McLaren assert further dominance over the midfield and challenge for podiums? We’ll find out in Melbourne on 15th March, provided the FIA goes ahead with the race after Australia’s bushfires. 

Image: Victor Belisle via Flickr and Creative Commons

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