Hondas most recent departure from F1 has some interesting implications, and not just for Red Bull and Alpha Tauri. Lewis Hamilton, Sergio Perez, and Max Verstappen suddenly become the main protagonists in a saga set to add extra chilli to an already spicy 2020 season. Lets look at how.
It is no secret that Mercedes have long had their eye on Max Verstappen, only missing out on his services in 2015 because Red Bull Racing had space in its stable to offer him a full race seat. This once in a generation talent is the heir apparent to an ageing Lewis Hamilton who, until recently, was tipped to sign another three-year deal with the benchmark race team. But could this deal be kicked into the long grass?
Verstappen is signed to Red Bull until 2023. But all teams, and all drivers, have get-out clauses in their contracts (see Sergio Perez 2020, and Kimi Raikonnen 2009). Added to the fact that if a driver doesn’t want to race for you any more, there’s not much you can do about it (see Nico Rosberg 2016, and Sebastian Vettel 2007).
For Red Bull, 2020 and 2021 were supposed to be building years, as they geared up for their title push in 2022, spearheaded by Verstappen and powered by Honda. But how committed is Honda going to be when they know that at the end of the year they’re off? It might be an unfair question, but its certainly one that Max Verstappen will be asking. He’ll also be acutely aware that he’s not a fresh-faced 17 year old anymore, and if he wants to surpass Lewis Hamilton he needs to get on with it. So if you were Max, would you be checking your contract for the bit that says “if we don’t have a works engine deal, I can go where I like”? And who would you be picking up the phone to?
Toto Wolff heads up the best team ever, with (arguably) the best driver ever. But Lewis Hamilton is also a driver who turns 37 in 2022, and charges a Kings Ransom for his services. So if you knew you could secure a driver 12 years younger than Lewis, with potentially the same skill and speed, would you pass up such an opportunity? Maybe not.
Christian Horner might argue until he’s blue-in-the-face that “our drivers are under contract until 2023” but he knows the deal, and he knows he’ll be shot if he doesn’t cover all bases. If Max goes, then that leaves him with Alex Albon, Danil Kvyat, and recent race-winner Pierre Gasly. All three have driven for the senior team, with varying degrees of success. If Max goes, who do you promote to Red Bull, and who do you bring in to Alpha Tauri? Antonio Felix da Costa has been mentioned, but Red Bull doesn’t have a great history of bringing in previously discarded talent (see Brendan Hartley). If you want a regular point-scorer, and someone that can be relied upon to get the most out of the car, without intermittently sticking it in the wall, then you need to look outside your current line-up. Enter Sergio Perez! Perez is an ex-Ferrari Junior, ex-McLaren driver, and 8-time podium finisher. He also brings a huge amount of experience, and an even bigger amount of sponsorship from long-term backer (and Telmex CEO) Carlos Slim.
Surely this would go against the Red Bull philosophy of only promoting from within? Well, not really. Sebastian Vettel wasn’t a Red Bull junior, he was a BMW junior. Similar story for Max Verstappen, who had no connection with RBR until they hired him. In fact, up until Monza a few weeks ago, the Red Bull driver academy has only produced one race-winner, Daniel Ricciardo.
So there you have it, Perez to Red Bull for 2021, a 1 year extension for Lewis, and Verstappen to Mercedes in 2022.
p.s. in the highly unlikely scenario that I’m right, you heard it here first!