After Pierre Gasly, Formula 1 fans are convinced that it will be Valtteri Bottas’ turn next. But why are Mercedes taking their time in doing what most think is obvious?
The answer could be Max Verstappen. We discussed this topic on the Inside Line F1 Podcast – with what team will Verstappen have his record-breaking Formula 1 career with? The Dutch prodigy has made some bold claims in the last few days – that of him being the most complete driver and of his Formula 1 career lasting for 15 years at least. (Read: Why F1 Needs To Be Scared Of Max Verstappen)
While Red Bull Racing have patiently groomed Verstappen into the driver that he is today, will they also be the team with which he goes on to achieve his success in the sport? The Red Bull Racing-Honda project seems extremely exciting, especially given what they’ve achieved in only 12 races in the first year of their partnership, but will this project give Verstappen a car he could dominate with? And if so, how soon could this be? Verstappen is in the form of his life and will be getting increasingly impatient if he’s unable to compete at the front with Lewis Hamilton in the next 9 races, let alone 2020.
Here’s where Mercedes could smell a chance, however bleak. The German team’s championship winning capabilities have been on display since 2014 – and for any driver on the grid, they would be the first team of choice. Could Mercedes lure Verstappen to join them in 2021? If so, the team’s need to groom Esteban Ocon as Hamilton’s successor wouldn’t be necessary. This is also where extending Bottas’ contract by another year could make sense. Let’s remember, Mercedes (and Wolff) have acknowledged Bottas’ increase in form this year, but the re-signing hasn’t been that straightforward – could this be a possible hint? Of course, it could well be that Mercedes are just taking their time and aren’t as trigger happy as Red Bull Racing.
Ocon – The Biggest Loser?
The biggest loser in such a shock signing would be Ocon – for no fault of his own would’ve lost the opportunity to race for Mercedes. This is after losing his seat at Racing Point, again, for no fault of his own. As exciting as it may sound, an Ocon-Verstappen pairing at Mercedes seems out of reach, given the history the duo have shared since before their days in Formula 1. It would be difficult to see Mercedes go through this after enduring the tumultuous Hamilton-Rosberg pairing for several seasons.
However, signing Verstappen wouldn’t be as straightforward either. For starters, Red Bull Racing won’t let him off that easily. They’ve remained invested in him through his mistakes and would like to be the first beneficiaries of his success. And of course, they literally have no other driver in their talent pool who could fill the loss of Verstappen. Let’s remember, they’re still struggling to fill the vacancy created by Daniel Ricciardo from last year. But will Verstappen’s publicly-discussed ‘exit clauses’ come handy in 2020?
If Verstappen isn’t available for the near future, it would be easy to assume that Mercedes will choose Ocon over Bottas – prioritising the team’s succession over all else. Yes, it would be unfortunate for Bottas (and for my Finnish friend, Petteri!), but such is the complexity of running a Formula 1 team operation – you are not only planning for the future from a technical point of view, but also in terms of talent. Bottas’ form in 2019 has been impressive, but he might not be the firebrand team leader that Mercedes could be looking for.
But the Bottas-Ocon decision also has one big variable – Lewis Hamilton. The Briton is far from retiring and is expected to continue for at least another 2 years. In which case, could a season or two be a Hamilton-Verstappen pairing overlap? Let’s hope Mercedes doesn’t force Hamilton out the way Ferrari did to Schumacher.
Yes, Mercedes’ driver decision is a bit of a headache, but the good part is that it isn’t for you and me to figure out. Over to you, Toto.