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WILL

MAX JOIN 

MERCEDES IN 2022?

The gossip columns and rumour mill for FORMULA 1 rarely come to a stop and they have been in overdrive this past couple of weeks since the opening races of the 2021 season. Speculation is already rife on the possible driver changes for next season, with some even suggesting Max Verstappen could jump ship from Red Bull and join Mercedes.

A SCENARIO THAT IS LIKELY, ACCORDING TO THE RUMOURS, IS THAT BOTTAS WILL BE RELIEVED OF HIS DUTIES AT MERCEDES

There are a lot of factors to consider that may impact how the changes to next year's driver line-ups will play out over the course of this season. Most likely the biggest factor that could kick start a plethora of driver changes would be whether Lewis Hamilton secures his record breaking eighth driver title and hangs up his gloves to focus on his many side projects. Lewis and Mercedes took their time to agree terms and sign the contract for 2021, which was widely reported to be just a one year deal. Is Lewis ready to retire and walk away from FORMULA 1? It’s certainly possible. More likely, however, is that he will race on for a few more seasons, whether that’s at Mercedes or whether he would consider a return to McLaren or even a brand new team entirely.

 

A scenario that is very likely though, according to the rumours, is that Bottas will be relieved of his duties at Mercedes, leaving space for a new driver for the 2022 season. Valtteri is clearly a very talented driver who can at times look as good as any other on the grid. After all, he has finished on the podium 57 times which is remarkable considering he has driven in a total of 159 Grands Prix to date - an excellent strike rate for the ‘Flying Finn’. 

 

However, Valtteri has had to play second fiddle to the indomitable Hamilton and maybe that pressure of trying to overcome one of the greatest drivers in FORMULA 1  history is starting to negatively impact Valteri’s performances. He has looked out of sorts and occasionally way off the pace in some races. This was especially evident in last year’s Bahrain GP where he lined-up against George Russell who was taking over from the unwell Lewis, and subsequently outperformed by the new guy. And this season at Imola we saw Bottas was floundering down the field and ultimately crashed out while fighting for ninth place. It’s almost certain that Mercedes will be looking to replace Bottas for next season, the perfect time to refresh their driver pairing when the new regulations kick-in.

UNLESS WE DO SEE HAMILTON WALK AWAY AT THE TOP OF HIS GAME... AND IF HE DID MERCEDES WOULD BE QUICK TO SWOOP IN FOR A WORTHY REPLACEMENT

The obvious choice to take Valtteri’s seat is George Russell, who is part of the Mercedes driver program and is managed by Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff. George is a great talent who is waiting in the wings to be unleashed into a top car. His talent was impressively demonstrated during his back to back title wins in the 2017 GP3 championship and 2018 F2 championship, prior to moving to Williams F1 in 2019. The most likely scenario is that Russell will drive alongside Hamilton in the 2022 season. Unless…

 

Unless we do see Hamilton walk away at the top of his game. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that Lewis could retire, and if he did Mercedes would be quick to swoop in for a worthy replacement. And who would be the obvious choice to take up the mantle of leading the Mercedes team? In our opinion it would be Max Verstappen.

 

Let’s be honest, it would be a complete disaster for the Red Bull team if Max was tempted away and signed for any other team, but especially their biggest rivals. The whole Red Bull organisation has seemingly been tailored to suit Max Verstappen, and there’s no doubt that Helmut Marko, Christian Horner and Red Bull have gone all-in on Max Verstappen. They believe he is the fastest driver on the grid and they believe he can deliver them their first driver title since Vettel won in 2014. It’s hard to believe Max Verstappen would change teams at this stage of his career considering how much Red Bull have backed him and how highly they regard him, both as a driver and equally as a commercial proposition. Max is one of the most popular drivers with a huge following: the Orange Army are fanatical and pre-Covid they were turning up in their thousands at each race weekend to support Max. 

WILL MAX VERSTAPPEN BE HAPPY TO WAIT AND SEE HOW THAT ENGINE PERFORMS, OR WILL HE BE LOOKING ELSEWHERE?

Having said that, staying at Red Bull isn’t without risk for Verstappen. Some would say staying at Red Bull would be foolish considering the disadvantage they will be at over the next few seasons.

 

Honda announced a while ago that they planned to leave FORMULA 1 to focus on their drive towards carbon neutrality, and this 2021 season would be their last in the sport. This left Red Bull in a difficult position, having only recently formed the partnership with Honda after a very public falling out with Renault in 2018. The only credible options to Red Bull were to sign contracts for supply of engines with Mercedes or Ferrari. Mercedes were quick to distance themselves from the possibility of a tie-in with Red Bull. Ferrari were as ever very quiet on the topic, with neither team discussing publicly any possibility of forming a partnership. Instead, Red Bull have had to go it alone and develop their own engine, buying the engine technology and IP (intellectual property) from Honda and developing it themselves. Red Bull have already established a new engine division and recruited some big names in the industry, such as Ben Hodgkinson who was previously the head of mechanical engineering at Mercedes’ High Performance Powertrains. Hodgkinson will be Technical Director for the newly formed Red Bull engine division. Whether Red Bull can hit the ground running and maintain their position as a leading team with an engine that will inevitably be a progression of the current Honda engine is difficult to predict. Will Max Verstappen be happy to wait and see how that engine performs, or will he be looking elsewhere?

 

With the new rules and regulations set to be introduced for the 2022 season, it is not a given that Mercedes will continue to lead the pack. New regulations are always a great opportunity to not only level the development playing field, but it can allow a lesser team to leapfrog their competitors by finding a competitive edge that other teams hadn’t thought of or focused on during their research and development. We have seen this many times in FORMULA 1. Williams have done it, McLaren and Red Bull have done it, but probably the most surprising and dramatic example of this happening in recent years was when the newly formed Brawn F1 team catapulted themselves to a championship win from out of nowhere. History may repeat itself.

 

It is a difficult conundrum for Max Verstappen to think about over the coming months, especially if driver contracts are proposed to him from other teams - such as Mercedes. If Max was to hedge his bets and leave Red Bull, signing to a new team for the 2022 season would be the perfect time. Max will not want to be stuck at Red Bull whilst they are fighting to develop a competitive engine that they inherited from Honda. The next few years for Max are arguably the most important for his career and I am sure he is considering all options.

 

Wouldn’t it be exciting to see Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen line-up in equal cars at the front of the grid in 2022? We certainly think so.