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Where Will Max Verstappen Drive in 2021?

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F1 Grand Prix of Japan - Qualifying
Photo: Honda

Max Verstappen is one of the most coveted drivers in Formula One at the moment and his current contract with Red Bull Racing runs out at the end of next year. Will he stay with the team that brought him into F1? Will he try to land a drive with Mercedes or Ferrari? It’s one of the sport’s current hot topics, and while Max Verstappen says he believes he can become world champion with Red Bull and its engine partner Honda, it doesn’t answer all of our questions.

“I believe I can become world champion with Red Bull-Honda,” the young Dutchman told RacingNews365. “Clearly we did not start the season well in recent years. If you want to be F1 world champion, then a strong start to the season is very important. However, I do believe that, as a team, we can get to that level.”

“Red Bull has of course already won four consecutive world championships in the past. This year we have entered into a new partnership with Honda and that simply takes time,” Verstappen added. “That’s why we really have to show what we have next year, and we’ll see from there.”

His statements clearly reinforce the idea that 2020 will be the year that tests his relationship with Red Bull; in other words, his inclination to stay will depend on the performance of the car.

Formula 1 will introduce rules aimed at making the sport more competitive in 2021, and Honda is quickly catching up on the engine side, but Verstappen’s father Jos has recently expressed a lack of confidence that the Red Bull camp will ever be able to produce a car deserving of his son’s talents — or at least not any time soon.

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F1 Grand Prix of Japan
Photo: Honda

Moreover, despite the 2021 regulation changes, there’s very little faith around the F1 paddock that these changes will do enough to shake up the running order, meaning that if Verstappen were to leave Red Bull, he would likely seek a seat at either of the only two teams that have shown any chance at winning a championship since 2014: Mercedes or Ferrari.

But would Verstappen really leave? Red Bull team principal Christian Horner says the man does not share the same frustrations as his father. “Max is a very different person to his father,” Horner said. “He sees the big picture. He was in Sakura and has seen what is coming, and the commitment of Honda to the development of the engine, and to F1. In the factory he sees what is going on, so I think racing dads unfortunately can sometimes get a bit excited.”

Even if Verstappen were to try to leave Red Bull, he might not find an open seat at the top rival teams despite many rival driver contracts expiring at the same time as his. Lewis Hamilton is about to win his sixth title at Mercedes; he’s at the top of his game and has shown no signs of wanting to leave, so unless he were to retire — which seems unlikely if he believes he can win even more trophies — that would leave only Valtteri Bottas’s seat for the taking.

But while Bottas is no doubt an inferior driver to Verstappen, he’s good enough —and more importantly, he plays nice with Hamilton, who Mercedes want to keep happy. A Hamilton/Verstappen pairing would likely prove explosive, perhaps even more so than the Hamilton/Rosberg rivalry that Mercedes struggled to keep in check. By keeping Bottas as long as it already has, Mercedes has demonstrated it wants to steer clear of driver drama.

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What’s more, if Mercedes were to replace Bottas, it may prefer to do so with its reserve and former junior driver Esteban Ocon, whose current job at the team is essentially to wait for that seat to open up (though you would be right to point out that Mercedes has already passed on multiple opportunities to promote the young French driver).

If Verstappen were to look to Ferrari, he would find Charles Leclerc’s seat difficult to steal even if the young Monegasque weren’t locked down in a contract. However, there is a chance he could replace Sebastian Vettel, who — after half a decade of dealing with Ferrari politics, bad racing strategy calls and sometimes uncompetitive cars — is thought to have become disillusioned with the team to that point that some expect him to return to Red Bull, perhaps alongside Verstappen. Still, Vettel might not want to part with Ferrari until achieving his dream of emulating Michael Schumacher and winning a championship while dressed in red, if he thinks it’s still possible.

It’s probably relevant that Daniel Ricciardo had already tried to get a seat at Mercedes or Ferrari when he had made his decision to leave Red Bull, but found no way in despite arguably better chances than Verstappen will have at the end of 2020. Instead, Ricciardo moved to Renault, a decision he must now surely regret considering the French team’s backward performance in 2019.

Ultimately, Max Verstappen may want to stay with Red Bull-Honda of his own accord. After all, the team is capable of winning races, and with Honda progressing as it has, it could also be capable of winning championships very soon, if not in 2020. But if Verstappen does want to leave, but not to a team even less competitive than Red Bull, he may find his options rather limited.

Then again, McLaren is showing signs of resurgence…