Could Red Bull civil war really force Verstappen to Mercedes?

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When February arrived this year, no one beyond an elite inner circle of people at Ferrari and Mercedes was aware one of the most surprising moves in Formula 1 history was set to be announced.

Lewis Hamilton’s decision to join the Scuderia next season after what will be 12 years as a works driver with Mercedes, and an 18-year association in F1 overall with the German manufacturer, was a bolt from the blue, the realisation of “a childhood dream” as he put it.

One month on, Hamilton’s move may yet be trumped if Jos Verstappen does not get his way and sees Christian Horner removed from his £8million-per-year position as team principal of Red Bull Racing, one he is defiantly clinging onto in the face of a storm that has rarely engulfed F1 so fervently.

If there was ever any doubt about the war being waged inside Red Bull at present, then Max’s father, who today [Monday] celebrates his 52nd birthday, made his position clear with explosive comments that blew apart the prior suggestions of team unity and harmony.

Verstappen stated that with Horner in situ, there was “tension” within the team, that it was “in danger of being torn apart”, and would ultimately “explode” if allowed to continue.

The former F1 driver even went so far as to suggest that Horner was “playing the victim when he is the one causing the problems”.

It was the latest act of a pantomime played out last week on the desert stage of the Bahrain International Circuit where Max ground his rivals into the sand with a consummate drive to a grand chelem victory that suggested a fourth drivers’ championship, and more records, are on the cards throughout the longest season in F1 history with 24 grands prix.

The 26-year-old is a driver at the peak of his powers, displaying the mercurial talents with which he was blessed, but unable to convert through the formative years of his Red Bull career until finally being afforded the Adrian Newey-inspired equipment with which to do so.

Surely, he would never in a million years walk away from the exalted position he occupies at present, but that appears to be the potential doomsday scenario to which Jos Verstappen has inferred about Horner – it is either him or us!

Red Bull theatre

Horner has so far escaped the threat of legal recourse – an appeal remains a possibility – after a grievance was filed against him by a female Red Bull employee that sparked an investigation into ‘inappropriate behaviour’.

The 100-page report into the matter drawn up by a KC, one of the foremost legal positions in the UK, exonerated the 50-year-old, with Red Bull’s parent company citing the investigation had been “fair, rigorous, and impartial”.

The 89-word statement has cut no ice with many in the paddock, notably fellow team bosses Toto Wolff and Zak Brown, who have both demanded transparency in an era when F1 has preached about the need for greater inclusivity and diversity in the sport.

Horner then managed to ride a tsunami that followed just 24 hours later with the release of an anonymous email – to F1, the FIA, Liberty Media, and numerous F1 journalists – containing files of alleged Whatsapp conversations between himself and the woman concerned, along with a handful of images.

If there was any intent on behalf of the sender to shame Horner, and force him to resign, it failed. Instead, Horner dug his heels in, underpinned by the show that unfolded on race day when he took a back exit out of the paddock before returning front and centre holding hands with his wife Geri. Pure theatre!

The fact F1, the FIA and Liberty Media were included in the email blitz, though, brought them directly into play. Yet despite demands for the full report to be made available that would allow them to pass judgment, it remains unforthcoming, leaving their hands tied at present.

It is now known, however, that FIA president Mohammed Ben Sulayem suggested to Max Verstappen to publicly support Horner, after failing to do so on several occasions prior when offered the opportunity.

The recommendation was made in a noisy environment and with Ben Sulayem covering his mouth with his hand. Yet still, his words made it into the public domain, with Jos the likely architect after it had been mentioned to him by his son.

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© XPBimages

Nuclear option

So with the legal route and shaming tactic failing to obtain the desired result, we now have Jos’ seemingly nuclear option and the underlying threat of pulling Max out of Red Bull.

For the team’s array of high-profile partners – Oracle, Ford, Visa, Tag Heuer, AT&T, Heineken and the like – this would undoubtedly be non-negotiable. Max Verstappen is a poster boy for their organisations, a golden ticket that helps offset the multimillion dollars they spend in sponsorship.

As incendiary political statements go, you have to believe Jos knew exactly what he was saying, and the reaction there would likely be, when he made his remarks. As one source put it to me, Verstappen is “obsessed with getting Horner out”.

To add grist to the mill, Verstappen was spotted in conversation with Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff during the Bahrain GP weekend, and RacingNews365 understands they also had dinner together one night.

The two men may have had their differences of opinion in the past but as allies, when you consider there is no love lost between Wolff and Horner, they could make a formidable pairing.

Naturally, beyond Red Bull, and with Hamilton and Charles Leclerc team-mates at Ferrari for at least two years from 2025, Mercedes represents the most attractive option for Max to move on.

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© XPBimages

The forgotten factor

Whilst there would appear to be the most natural obstacle of another four years remaining on his contract, get-out clauses – as with Hamilton and Mercedes – are understood to exist, beyond the performance-related ones as have previously been mentioned by Helmut Marko.

It is Marko who may hold the key as it has been indicated to RacingNews365 that were he to leave, a clause would also allow Max to follow suit.

So Verstappen to Mercedes? As Wolff cheekily remarked after Saturday’s race in Bahrain: “Everything is possible”, and he should know after being blindsided by Hamilton and his move to Ferrari.

As for Jos Verstappen, as he blows out the candles on whatever birthday cake is presented to him today, we all know what he is wishing for.

For Horner, there is a degree of solace going into this week’s Saudi GP, and that is Jos is absent as he is attending a rally event in Belgium. The saga, however, will continue to rumble on.

The bottom line, though, is that there is a woman at the heart of all of this who has been very much forgotten, and who is still coming to terms with her legal failure.

F1 and the FIA would do well to remind themselves of that fact as they look on at the power struggle dividing Red Bull.

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