Could Verstappen really replace Hamilton at Mercedes?


“Max Verstappen has to make a decision, but there is no team that wouldn’t do a handstand to get him in the car.” The words of Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff following the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix said it all.

Given the continued internal turmoil at Red Bull, Wolff now smells an opportunity. Pending an appeal, the investigation into Christian Horner may be over, but there remains conflict, ensuring there are no guarantees over Verstappen’s future, paving the way for Wolff to strike nine years after an initial chance passed him by.

Verstappen was 17 when he made his official F1 debut with Toro Rosso. Red Bull advisor Helmut Marko wanted him in a car at all costs in 2015 and managed to trump Mercedes and Wolff, who showed an interest at the time but was unable to offer a seat. Red Bull could, and the rest is history.

The Dutch driver endured a sometimes stormy development period with Red Bull before finally ending the hegemony of Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton in 2021, sparking what is now proving to be one of the most dominant periods in Formula 1 history.

Up until recently, Verstappen and Red Bull appeared to be virtually inseparable. The fact the 26-year-old signed a contract through to the end of 2028 underlined his loyalty, but now cracks are starting to appear in the union, and exactly at a time when Wolff has to fill a seat at Mercedes.

Rumblings at Red Bull

Wolff is likely following the saga at Red Bull with a smile. Whilst the impact of what has unfolded over these past few weeks has cast the sport in a bad light, ultimately it could prove beneficial if it shakes up the grid for next season, particularly with Hamilton at Ferrari.

To quickly recap, Horner was acquitted after a complaint was made against him by a female Red Bull employee of inappropriate behaviour, allowing him to stay on as Red Bull boss.

It swiftly emerged that not everyone was happy with the situation, notably, Jos Verstappen who called for Horner to go. Even son Max, when offered numerous opportunities to lend his support to Horner, shied away from doing so. Marko likewise.

With two camps emerging, with Horner seemingly fully supported by Chalerm Yoovidhya, the majority shareholder of Red Bull, it appears two camps have emerged. At present, the loyalty between the Verstappens and Marko is greater than that between the Verstappens and Horner.

It sounds crazy, but for Wolff, it might be good if Horner stays at Red Bull a while longer. The narrative around Horner has yet to be fully concluded, affording Wolff the chance to needle his great rival whenever the opportunity lends itself.

There has never been any love lost between the pair, and with Wolff angling for Verstappen’s services, that will surely only wind up Horner further.

The Marko factor

On reflection, Marko is pivotal to the story. Verstappen does not envision a Red Bull without him, believing the 80-year-old to be one of the architects of the team, alongside, quite naturally, Dietrich Mateschitz, who died in 2022.

Verstappen has since made it very clear, when it was rumoured Red Bull was going to suspend Marko, that ‘if he goes, I’m gone too’.

In the end, Marko avoided such a prospect and Red Bull a considerable degree of hassle (for the time being). One of the problems is that Marko is still not completely satisfied with the situation inside the team. The Austrian was naturally happy to remain in his position, but also stated in Saudi Arabia that “something still needs to be resolved”.

And no matter how you look at it, Marko’s age is also starting to play a role. Let’s suppose for a moment that, for whatever reason, he stops at some stage. Verstappen will then have lost his most vital ally.

If that were to happen, an opportunity would present itself to Wolff, especially if Horner is still the team boss. Of course, it is far from certain Verstappen would express his support for Horner and stay. Hamilton and Mercedes also seemed inseparable, until the Briton’s shock switch to the Scuderia was announced.

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			© XPBimages

© XPBimages

Hamilton’s successor

The most important point is that Wolff has to fill a seat for 2025, and not just any seat. Hamilton is currently in his 12th and final year with the team, winning six drivers’ titles and breaking numerous records en route.

But since the introduction of new aerodynamic regulations at the start of 2022, Mercedes has struggled, and Hamilton’s results have waned. It is now 27 months and 47 grands prix since he last took the chequered flag.

Wolff still needs to bring in a great driver as Hamilton’s replacement, and it is not that simple to fill his shoes.

George Russell may be good, but there are some doubts as to whether he can genuinely take the lead at Mercedes. There needs to be a driver with a certain status as his team-mate. To that end, could potential Hamilton successors such as Carlos Sainz, Alex Albon or Andrea Kimi Antonelli fill the void? Unlikely. Does Fernando Alonso still have it in him at the age of 42? Perhaps not.

With Verstappen, Wolff will know exactly what he is getting, and that the three-time champion – likely four after this season – will only get better over the coming years. The Mercedes team boss knows better than anyone what Verstappen can do and will certainly do his utmost to make it happen.

Although contact between the Verstappens and Wolff broke down after the events of 2021, Toto and Jos have since patched up their differences. Mutual understanding is again apparent, presenting a good basis from which to start.

Will it happen?

Is it realistic at this point that Verstappen will move to Mercedes? Not yet. Marko is still at his post and Verstappen has the best car on the grid at Red Bull.

For a driver, the fastest car is always the most important, as Wolff made clear after the race in Saudi Arabia. Add to that Mercedes’ problems and a switch is far from imminent. But in F1, situations change very quickly. The current picture could be very different in 2026 when new power unit regulations will likely alter the pecking order.

Should Marko leave, voluntarily or otherwise, the chaos at Red Bull would be complete, and a switch would naturally draw closer. There is no doubt Wolff is in the hunt for Verstappen and he will continue to monitor the situation closely.

For now, he will simply have to practice his handstands.



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