Max Verstappen’s part of Formula 1’s best silly season story, and the season hasn’t even started properly yet.
But his role in this story is a reluctant one.
Verstappen’s not shy in F1 circles, but he has never been one for hyperbole or rumour. So, there are two things you can probably bank on for the next few weeks.
First, Verstappen will not publicly make any grand predictions for himself or Red Bull for 2021. But we’re not really here to discuss that, especially with testing yet to begin and only an invisible RBR16B shakedown banked by the team.
Second, disappointingly for fans of F1 driver market shenanigans, he’s not going to be an active participant in speculation about whether he could replace Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes in 2022.
That second point is relevant because Hamilton’s new one-year deal makes Verstappen-to-Mercedes the most entertaining prospect of F1’s current driver market.
It’s an early start for such chatter, but Hamilton’s short-term commitment – off the back of a drawn-out contract negotiation – is the spark for that. Verstappen’s Red Bull team boss Christian Horner has even admitted Mercedes likely has Verstappen top of its shopping list should Hamilton decide to stop at the end of this year.
For now, Verstappen will go nowhere near this topic. When pressed, he will not engage more than he feels he must. We had the first taste of that on Thursday, in Verstappen’s first appearance in front of written media this year.
“At the end of the day I don’t know what Lewis is going to do,” he says when asked if he has an eye on a Mercedes seat for 2022.
“I just focus on myself, and I’m very focused on this year and trying to make it a success.
“It’s still early in the season, with only a basically a shakedown [complete], that those kind of things I’m not really thinking about at this stage.”
Verstappen’s sidestepped the flames but, probably more by accident, he’s not exactly extinguished them.
If Red Bull has yet another slow start, if Mercedes looks unbeatable, if Hamilton looks like he genuinely might walk away, Verstappen might not bite his tongue
He has a long-term contract with Red Bull that, unless the team comes up short and his performance clause can be activated, ties him to his current employer beyond 2022.
That’s an easy thing for him to hide behind: ‘There’s no point discussing this, because I have a contract for next year already.’
Verstappen didn’t say that. Having been reluctantly brought into the conversation, he has at least left the door open. Not thinking about something at this stage does not preclude Verstappen thinking about it in the future.
His response smacked more of ambivalence towards the subject matter than of leaving the option on the table. He’s not the kind of person to get swept up in hypotheticals and has never looked at all interested in speculating beyond the here and now, let alone playing ‘what ifs’ around his own future.
But Verstappen’s tone may change in the coming months. He has produced plenty of soundbites over the years, it just needs the right topic, timing, and interest on his part for him to properly engage. If Red Bull has yet another slow start, if Mercedes looks unbeatable, if Hamilton looks or sounds like he genuinely might walk away at the end of 2021, Verstappen might not bite his tongue.
It would also be unsurprising if Verstappen’s private view of his shot at a Mercedes seat in 2022 is different to his public disinterest.
His Red Bull deal is a long-term one but Mercedes is probably still the best medium-term prospect. If a seat is available, even potentially available, and Red Bull doesn’t meet the necessary performance clauses to keep Verstappen absolutely locked down, he will seek to manoeuvre himself into the best possible position. It would be foolish not to at least try.
Verstappen admitted last year there’s only so much a driver can do to be successful in F1 if things don’t fall into place, but title-winning cars don’t just land in a driver’s lap.
Similarly, Mercedes likes Verstappen (having gone after him back in 2014 when he was in Formula 3) and he is arguably the best driver besides Hamilton. Even though Mercedes has its own options like George Russell, the team would be foolish not to sound out Verstappen, a proven race winner and title-challenger-in-waiting.
Unless 2021 goes terribly for Red Bull, though, this all depends on the Hamilton/Mercedes factor. Verstappen might have his head turned by an alluring alternative, but he’s not exactly scrambling for a Red Bull exit strategy.
He’s always seemed happy in the Red Bull environment, he’s the clear top dog there, and the company’s commitment to F1 is total following the recent deal to take over Honda’s engines and set up a new powertrains company to manage that project.
Verstappen made a long-term commitment to Red Bull because he buys into the project and while he’s not exactly doing backflips over Honda’s withdrawal or Red Bull having to go it alone on the engine front, he’s buoyed by this variable no longer being an unknown beyond 2021.
“It doesn’t change anything for me,” he says. “It’s exciting but at the same time I’m also not too focused on it at the moment.
“We are living in the moment, trying to have a good season, and the smart people in the background will handle those kinds of things with the engine.
“It’s of course very important that it happened, and it was signed off, but that’s it.
“I’m very relaxed, very calm. I just want to focus on this year. That’s for me more important. But it’s nice, of course, to have in the background that it’s sorted.”
That familiar short-term concentration will shoot down most attempts to get Verstappen to talk about any aspects of the future.
It’s not unreasonable for him to dismiss such notions, because there are so many unknowns for 2021 and beyond.
He could be on the brink of his first ever F1 title challenge, or another year of missed targets.
Red Bull might finally prove itself capable of toppling Mercedes, or it might trip up yet again with a new rules cycle.
Controlling its own engine destiny could unlock greater potential than ever, or Red Bull may find the transition into a post-Honda world more difficult than anticipated.
All are hypotheticals that Verstappen sees little point in pondering. Which is exactly why F1’s silly season has kicked off with him as one of the central characters, but an unenthusiastic one.
At least for now.