Max Verstappen’s destiny is to win the world championship. But to achieve that, he requires a competitive enough package to do so, having so far only had scraps off the Mercedes table to feed on. Honda’s withdrawal at the end of 2021 is the latest frustrating stumble in his path to the pinnacle of Formula 1, and raises the inevitable question of when the preordained transitions into the unfulfilled.
It would be ridiculous to write off Verstappen’s hopes of winning the title given both his supreme level of ability and the fact he’s only 23. But assuming Honda’s swansong in 2021 – for which it has promised a new engine and a step forwards in performance – does not deliver that title, the question is, what next?
Historically, you’d simply say that a driver of this ability would get their chance soon enough, but opportunities have become increasingly difficult to come by. Verstappen has won just nine races over his five seasons with Red Bull, and has not been furnished with the machinery to win the championship. He has good reason to be worried, given the risk of being stuck in the same cycle for the long-term.
Verstappen will know what Red Bull’s engine plans are for 2022 onwards. The most likely path is a Renault deal, which neither team nor supplier really wants but might be forced into. Tempting in a new manufacturer given the maturity of the regs and the wider global picture is unrealistic, while an in-house Red Bull project based on Honda technology or paying the Japanese manufacturer to continue the project as a private venture along the TAG-Porsche model used by McLaren in the 1980s would be enormously expensive even if Honda was willing.
Contracted to the end of 2023 but with room to manoeuver if Red Bull is not delivering on all of the terms in a deal that is known to offer ways out, Verstappen could soon have options. He’s in demand – Mercedes, Ferrari and every other team would be interested in his services – but right now there isn’t a clear and obvious path to title glory for him. Even if Verstappen were to move to Brackley as the natural successor of a retired Lewis Hamilton, right now it’s impossible to say when that is or whether it will still be the pre-eminent team. After all, there are new car rules coming in 2022.
Time can run away with you in F1. Since the start of 1.6-litre V6 turbo hybrid era in 2014, only two drivers have won world championships – Hamilton and Nico Rosberg. Beyond that, the only drivers who have possibly had the machinery to take the title are Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen at Ferrari. Title winning chances are vanishingly rare, doubly so when teams often favor a clear leader and a support act driver and one operation has a monopoly.
Verstappen need only look at the fate of his old team-mate Daniel Ricciardo. The Australian has been one of the pre-eminent drivers in F1 since stepping up to Red Bull in 2014, but is now 31 with only seven victories to his name. He unquestionably deserves a shot at the championship, and were he a similar driver plying his trade a generation earlier, he surely would have done by now. But having moved to upwardly mobile Renault in the hope it would take him to the front, he’s now looking forward to a sideways shift to McLaren for 2021. He still has a little time on his side, but not as much as he once did, and might never get the title shot that once seemed inevitable.
Ricciardo rose at a particularly bad time for F1. Not only is Mercedes on the brink of sealing an unprecedented seventh consecutive world championship double, but what might be called ‘social mobility’ throughout F1 is at an all-time low. The 2013 commercial agreements ossified the established order in F1 thanks to the disproportionate financial rewards for the biggest teams regardless of results and made it impossible for teams to join that lead pack. But while that regime has defined the landscape for Ricciardo’s best years, it need not be so for Verstappen.
The question is, how quickly the new Concorde Agreement starts to rebalance things so that a midfield operation can at least hope to be winning races? That’s also something Verstappen needs to judge as he picks his path. To add to that, there’s the question of Ferrari’s recovery. It would surely be interested in Verstappen were he available, but how long will the current malaise last? It’s easy to shrug and say ‘it’s Ferrari’, but there are no sure things in F1. If Ferrari is going to recapture the glory years a few years down the line, he needs to be at the heart of it. If it isn’t, he needs to be far away.
This reflects one of the fundamental problems F1 has. There simply are not enough good seats to go round. Realistically, only a Mercedes driver was going to win the title given the performance levels this year, and try as he might, Bottas simply is not as rounded a driver as Hamilton. There’s no disgrace in that: Hamilton is one of the greatest of all time and anyone would struggle to match him, but were Verstappen in that seat, we’d have a fight on our hands. But it would come with a headache for Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff – one he is happy to have avoided.
For now, Red Bull is an acceptable place to be, assuming there isn’t another shock and the long-anticipated Mercedes/Hamilton deal for ’21 doesn’t happen. Verstappen has won a race this year at Silverstone and can realistically hope to pick up another in the remaining events. Next season, what car improvements that are permitted and Honda’s upgrades could allow him to do the same again, and maybe even match or eclipse last year’s best-yet tally of three. This gives Verstappen time to see what the lie of the land is and ensure he’s in the best possible place for 2022 and beyond.
But it’s a short career in sport. Ricciardo’s ‘biological clock’ has been ticking ever louder since he first mentioned it publicly after being denied victory in the 2016 Monaco Grand Prix to a Mercedes pitstop error. That was the second victory in a row that he felt had been denied by factors outside of his control, and the frustration showed.
“I don’t want to say it because it’s arrogant, but I believe a lot in my ability,” Ricciardo told Sky Sports F1 after the race. “And I should be getting more rewarded. I’m 27 very soon, and I don’t even have anything close to a world title, and I believe I should have something like that very soon.”
Imagine how frustrated he is four years later with the next win, let alone a title tilt, not in sight? This is what Verstappen needs to be wary of. While he has the advantage of being even more highly rated than Ricciardo and therefore enjoys ‘must-have’ status for the top teams, he still needs to ensure he’s in the right place at the right time. Is Mercedes the place to be for the long term? It’s hard to say, given the ongoing question marks about that team’s program, and also the fact that every period of dominance eventually comes to an end.
So if it’s not Mercedes, what would the place to be? He knows how good Red Bull can be, but it hasn’t had a title-challenging package since 2013, and if it does become a partner of mutual reluctance with Renault again, how much does that appeal? The Renault engine package has improved plenty since then, but is it good enough? Then there’s the Ferrari conundrum. And how about the wildcards – Aston Martin (Racing Point), McLaren and Renault?
It’s not impossible Verstappen, too, could be in the position Ricciardo was in at 27. Time can catch you unawares, and while Verstappen should by rights win multiple world championships, he cannot afford to take it for granted. After all, who would have thought that Fernando Alonso would not win the title again after 2006 (assuming it doesn’t happen on his return with Renault/Alpine)?
The very best in sport make things happen for themselves, and history tells us that Verstappen will seek to engineer a move if he feels it’s best for his hopes. After all, that’s how he got his early F1 debut at 17 in the first place, by playing off the big teams fighting for his signature against each other and choosing the one that had a junior team to place him at in Toro Rosso. But to do that, he needs to know for sure where he needs to be.
With luck, F1’s moves to become more equitable will ensure more teams can get near the front and have a realistic chance of fighting for the title. It’s not realistic to expect every team to be able to do that, but if there are at least a selection of options that could lead that way, then drivers like Verstappen and Ricciardo will eventually get their shot.
After all, even Hamilton himself has admitted he’d relish the competition of the rising stars – and that includes Charles Leclerc, who has been outstanding in limited machinery this year when he has avoided mistakes. That would bring out the best of the best drivers and ensure the on-track action lives up to memories of the great battles of old.
But what Verstappen can’t afford to do is to be frozen out of title-winning machinery for good. The key question he has to answer is, where is he best off positioning himself? Short of a desperately improbable immediate move to Mercedes – after all, nothing is impossible – the best approach is to wait and see.