Max Verstappen: F1 world champion’s Red Bull future is in question ahead of Australian Grand Prix

Is there really a chance Max Verstappen could leave Red Bull before the end of his long-term contract? Assessing who has said what so far; watch the Australian GP live on Sky Sports F1 with the first Sunday race of the new season live at 4am

Max Verstappen heads into this weekend’s Australian Grand Prix aiming to equal his own record of 10 consecutive Formula 1 race wins. The most astonishing fact about that is Red Bull’s triple world champion only set the original milestone 11 races and six months ago.

Currently enjoying an unprecedented level of dominance over the sport, and armed with a car that remains easily the class of the field at the start of the new 2024 season, discussion around Verstappen’s future right now appears counterintuitive.

But with continued off-track turbulence at the world champions following the conclusion of the investigation into Christian Horner, which resulted in the grievance against the team principal being dismissed, speculation has been rife as to whether Verstappen will actually see out a deal that ostensibly runs to the end of 2028

First there were the explosive comments made about Horner by Max’s father, Jos, at the Bahrain GP before speculation at the Saudi Arabian GP around the future at the team of Helmut Marko, the motorsport advisor who the Verstappens have long been close to.

So what’s the state of play around the world champion’s future as F1 heads to round three in M

First there were the explosive comments made about Horner by Max’s father, Jos, at the Bahrain GP before speculation at the Saudi Arabian GP around the future at the team of Helmut Marko, the motorsport advisor who the Verstappens have long been close to.

So what’s the state of play around the world champion’s future as F1 heads to round three in Melbourne?

What has Max Verstappen said about his future?

Most of the noise around the world champion’s future has been generated by others rather than the driver himself, who has trod a careful line publicly over recent weeks while insisting he is focused on delivering continued strong on-track performance with the team (which he certainly is, as evidenced by dominant consecutive wins at the start of the new campaign).

The 26-year-old Verstappen, whose career has been backed by Red Bull for almost a decade, said on the opening day of the Saudi Arabian GP when quizzed about his future: “I also know what they have done for me in my career, so the intention is of course absolutely to stay with this team because I really enjoy it and I’m also really happy within the team

As long as we perform there is no reason also to leave.”

But then came qualifying day in Jeddah and what was widely interpreted to be an effective ultimatum from the world champion after Marko had said in interviews that he could be on the verge of either a suspension or voluntary exit from his long-held role.

“My loyalty in general to Red Bull, but also to him, after all for what he has done for me goes very far,” said Verstappen of the veteran Austrian.

“I’ve always said, especially after Dietrich [Mateschitz]’s passing, with everyone in the team, that I find it really important that we keep the key team together because that’s how we have performed really well and that’s how we will perform really well in the future. They know that.

“For me, Helmut is a very key factor in that and he has to stay for me, for sure.”

Then asked directly by Sky Sports F1 if Marko had to stay for him to also continue, Verstappen replied: “I’ve always said that to the team, they know that.”

Marko’s subsequent meeting on race day with Red Bull CEO Oliver Mintzlaff, which both parties said went well, appeared to at least temporarily end doubts around the Austrian’s immediate future, a development Verstappen naturally welcomed.

Fresh from yet another dominant victory in the race, the world champion then ended the Jeddah weekend underlining the need for “peace” inside the team.

What has Christian Horner said?

Red Bull’s team principal has said his relationship with his star driver is “absolutely fine” and that “we don’t see any issues with Max”.

But from starting the weekend in Jeddah by stating that he was “certain” his star driver would be staying put for the duration of his contract, Horner ended it with comments that were noticeably more ambiguous as the questions from the media rained in on Verstappen and Marko after the race.

Quizzed about the driver’s future, Horner said: “You can never say never. 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 anybody would want to step out of this team. I think he’s got great support around him and he’s doing a wonderful job with a great car.”

Then asked how he would handle the situation if Verstappen did want to leave before 2028, Horner said: “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 doesn’t mean that is, or will be, the case, of course, but Horner’s post-race remarks were very much not as definitive as being “certain” about something not happening.

Could Verstappen really go elsewhere?

So what would any unexpectedly early possibility of the reigning triple world champion being available do for the driver market?

Well, Mercedes boss Toto Wolff put it as simply as this: “There is no team up and down the grid that wouldn’t do handstands to have him in the car.”

With a seat open for 2025 following Lewis Hamilton’s shock switch to Ferrari, Mercedes have inevitably been most-strongly linked to the world champion.

Wolff admitted in Jeddah he “would love” to secure the world champion for the vacant seat next to George Russell, although did concede that Mercedes first “need to sort out our car” having not made the start to the season they’ve wanted for the third year running.

It certainly isn’t the first time Mercedes have been heavily linked to Verstappen. In fact there’s a decade-long back story to this which dates back to 2014 when the Verstappens chose Red Bull rather than Mercedes when the 16-year-old Max, already a karting prodigy, was making waves in his first season of single-seater car racing in European F3.

While Red Bull could not only sign the youngster to their famed junior driver programme they could absolutely underline their faith in him by offering him a seat at Toro Rosso (now RB), their other F1 team, for the following year and make him F1’s youngest-ever driver at 17.

Wolff and Mercedes, while keenly interested in the rising star, had no such luxury of a junior team and anyway already had Hamilton and Nico Rosberg signed up and dominating the sport at the time.

Outside of Mercedes, what we definitely know is Ferrari are out of the equation for Verstappen’s services after following up the extension of Charles Leclerc’s contract in January with the stunning capture of Hamilton in February.

McLaren have their two drivers under long-term deals, although the situation at highly-ambitious Aston Martin is potentially more fluid with current star turn Fernando Alonso, 42 – who could himself be a target for Mercedes or a Verstappen-less Red Bull – first saying he needs to decide whether he wants to continue in F1 over the coming races.

Horner himself said: “I’m sure every team in the paddock would love to have Max, but as Toto also said, the best drivers, always want to be in the best cars.”

And there’s the potential catch. While Verstappen is the big favourite for a fourth consecutive world title this season, and will likely start 2025 as the man to beat too if nothing changes, an interlinked question in all this is whether Red Bull will still have the fastest car for 2026 when the sport’s engine regulations are being overhauled and the world champions are developing their own new engine for the first time, in partnership with Ford.

Not that it is news to Verstappen or his representatives, of course.

“That’s why we signed so long, to be here,” Verstappen said in Saudi. “And, of course, it’s about the performance of the car, and of course from 2026 onwards anyway that is a bit of a question mark with new regulations, but I knew that when I signed my contract.”

Then there’s the biggest unanswered question of all: does Verstappen even has a way of extricating himself from his deal before 2028 should he want to? As would be expected, Red Bull have not commented on media reports concerning the rumoured presence of a Marko-linked escape clause in Verstappen’s deal.

After the first break in the new season after back-to-back rounds in the Middle East, the F1 paddock will reconvene on Thursday in Melbourne when Verstappen’s future is again set to be a key topic of discussion on media day.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.