It appears to be the off-season for big driver contract announcements. First Charles Leclerc signs a new five-year deal to stay at Ferrari, then Max Verstappen’s contract is extended for a further four years at Red Bull.
While I explained that Leclerc’s deal was one that ultimately meant very little, today’s news means a lot.
We knew there was potential for the 2021 silly season to be an explosive one, but Leclerc wasn’t expected to move elsewhere so his new contract was almost a formality. It’s the likes of Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and Verstappen who were the real keys, and Hamilton and Verstappen were expected to take a little longer to keep their options open.
Hamilton has already been linked with Ferrari, and would do well to ensure Mercedes believes that is a realistic option. On the day of Hamilton’s 35th birthday, Verstappen has handed him one heck of a birthday present by committing to Red Bull and ensuring the best two young prospects at top teams are tied down elsewhere for a number of years.
That means Hamilton has an even stronger negotiating position, based on the knowledge that Mercedes has fewer options to turn to if the six-time world champion were to move to Ferrari. George Russell and Esteban Ocon are two young prospects, but both are unproven (even if big things are expected when given the right machinery) and certainly not the star name to replace Hamilton that Verstappen would have been. Realistically, only Vettel or Daniel Ricciardo would really create a buzz.
But not only does does Verstappen’s decision help Hamilton, it also says a lot about his faith in Red Bull and Honda.
“I respect the way Red Bull and Honda work together and from all sides everyone is doing what they can to succeed,” Verstappen was quoted as saying as his deal was announced.
Although Verstappen references Honda, that partnership is only confirmed until the end of 2021 at present. There has been uncertainty over whether the Japanese manufacturer will remain in F1 given the outlay so far, even though last season it took its first victories since returning to the sport in 2015.
On one hand, Verstappen committing until the end of 2023 – a date that it is understood has already been spoken about between Red Bull and Honda for a further extension – could well point to a longer-term partnership. But it also says he believes Red Bull will deliver him a championship-winning car, if not this year then in 2021.
Hamilton’s links to Ferrari had provided Verstappen with the perfect opportunity to hedge his bets. Red Bull was never going to replace him, so he could have waited to see how the scenario panned out. I always got the impression the 22-year-old would only make a decision once he knew what was happening at Mercedes, so either he already does or simply sees Red Bull as a better long-term prospect given what he knows internally.
Either way, he has put his faith in Red Bull in a way that suggests the brand is committed to F1, Honda is leaning towards an extended deal and Hamilton is likely to stay put.
The knock-on impact is it closes off the potential for an unlikely merry-go-round of moves that could have led to Hamilton replacing Vettel at Ferrari, Verstappen moving to Mercedes and Vettel heading back to the team with which he won four drivers’ championships from 2010-13.
What happens next will be fascinating. If Hamilton stays put then much of the sting is taken out of the driver market, but there will remain big question marks over Vettel’s future at Maranello. If the Briton moves, would Mercedes consider a swap of the two champions?
Ferrari is likely to wait for Hamilton, and Mercedes was always going to. Verstappen has just ensured that if any of the big three teams is going to lose out during this silly season, it’s not going to be Red Bull.