From one perspective, Honda’s departure from Formula 1 changes everything for Max Verstappen. From another, it changes nothing.
After all, Verstappen always knew that success with Red Bull-Honda wasn’t guaranteed and kept his options open, so while this news will have changed the equation ticking over in his mind dramatically, it has hardly created it from scratch.
While he is under contract to Red Bull until 2023, it was never as simple as that. The precise details of the contract are not known, but it’s understood that there are various performance-related clauses in there. If the various objectives are not fulfilled, Verstappen could soon put himself on the market.
Verstappen has always been a driver in a hurry. When F1 teams first showed a keen interest in him, he parlayed it into an unlikely debut at the age of 17 with Toro Rosso. Since then, his inexorable rise has continued and made him one of the few truly elite drivers in grand prix racing.
While the full impact of Honda forsaking F1 on Verstappen isn’t yet clear, we can be certain of two things. Firstly, Verstappen will remain a man in a hurry and secondly, he will continue to be in demand. He’s having an outstanding season in a package that can’t hold a candle to Mercedes and keeps dragging the most from it, most recently with a qualifying lap to take a front-row spot at Sochi that he rates as one of his best Saturday efforts.
Drivers of his ability are like gold dust, with few seriously doubting he is a world championship-calibre driver. While Lewis Hamilton is the man with the near-record wins tally and is on the brink of a seventh world championship, Verstappen has the key advantage of age and should still be tearing it up in F1 in 10 years, by which time Hamilton will surely have long since retired.
Verstappen’s hoped-for path of winning the world championship with Red Bull-Honda is almost certainly extinguished
When a volatile move like Honda’s withdrawal happens, all bets are off so we can only speculate as to the outcome.
Verstappen will surely continue with Red Bull next year with Honda propulsion, although we can’t entirely discount the fact that Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton have yet to announce they have signed their long-awaited deal. It’s now October and despite assurances from team and driver that it will happen, the delay is justifiably leading to raised eyebrows.
But assuming Verstappen stays where he is next year, what then? The back-to-the-future move with Red Bull powered by Renault would surely not appeal to him. He has already wasted three years thrashing a Red Bull-Renault package around the place for the odd win and that isn’t how he sees his future, doubly so given it would be a customer team.
For Red Bull to keep him in the longer term will surely require a more spectacular engine supply move. Given Honda’s continued participation was always uncertain, there’s no doubt Christian Horner and his cohorts will have been working hard on an alternative option.
Realistically, that means either another manufacturer coming in or doing something that only a few companies could do – perhaps its own in-house project?
Given Red Bull has gradually expanded to take over more and more of the Milton Keynes industrial estate it has inhabited since the Stewart days, there’s plenty of capacity there for an engine programme – especially given the Aston Martin personnel will be moving out.
Doubtless the question will have been asked of Honda of whether it could acquire the existing power unit tech. Perhaps even a big-money move to bankroll a Honda continuation project along the lines of the TAG-Porsche deal McLaren had in the mid-1980s is possible.
Verstappen will then have to base his decision on what Red Bull’s longer-term plan is. And while he’s doing this, other teams will circle like vultures. Both Mercedes and Ferrari have long-term interest in Verstappen, having both been part of the scramble to sign him in the first place.
Mercedes in particular, assuming all things remain as they are there, could have a particular use for him given the fact that Hamilton – for all his brilliance – can’t hold back time indefinitely.
As for Ferrari, it has Charles Leclerc who, the odd mishap aside, has been outstanding this year and also Carlos Sainz under contract for 2021-22. While that might seem to indicate it will remain steady, when a driver like Verstappen pops up on the market mountains can be moved to get them. That’s the impact these rare drivers have.
What’s clear is that Verstappen’s hoped-for path of winning the world championship with Red Bull-Honda is almost certainly extinguished. While Honda talked of a new engine package next year to fight for the title, given the carryover of the cars and the brilliance of the Mercedes team, that has to be considered a long shot. And even if it did happen, that doesn’t change the equation for 2022 and beyond.
All of this will leave Verstappen with a lot of thinking to do. Perhaps his best move right now is just to tread water.
He’s got the breathing space, he at worst has Red Bull with whatever propulsion to fall back on in 2022 and can see how the landscape evolves. After all, who knows if Honda’s decision is an isolated one or if there might be other withdrawals around the corner? Make your move when all the facts are in, not before.
And with F1’s new commercial terms aimed at bringing more teams into contention, there could be many other options that might provide winning machinery in the medium-term. But a driver of his quality is going to end up with the best team, and right now that means Brackley as an eventual destination is more likely than ever.
Verstappen won’t lack for options, drivers at his level never do. But he needs to ensure he makes the right choice. Red Bull will have keeping hold of Verstappen high on its list so he will have a clear sight of his plans. But if they aren’t convincing, he might yet have a seismic impact on the F1 driver market.