Max Verstappen’s decision suggests F1 title tilt from Red Bull and Honda | Giles Richards

Dutchman would have been in line to replace Hamilton at Mercedes if the champion moves to Ferrari but instead he may be the man who keeps Honda in the sport

Just days into the new year, with many good intentions already falling by the wayside, Max Verstappen has displayed the boldest of resolve. The Dutchman’s decision to re-sign with Red Bull until the end of 2023 is a commitment of confidence in the future of the team that brought him into Formula One. He clearly believes they can deliver a title-challenging car and in a month marked by attempts to be abstemious, Verstappen’s signature is just the stiffener Red Bull and their engine supplier Honda required.

Verstappen will enter his sixth season in F1 when racing begins in Melbourne on 15 March. Only 22, he carries himself like a seasoned old hand on the grid. The past two years have demonstrated how consideration, maturity and judgment have all informed his natural talent. With every race he has been moving towards becoming a more complete driver.

Throughout, Verstappen has remained assuredly confident in his own ability, even when on the receiving end of criticism for mistakes. It is a necessary trait for a driver, as he acknowledged before the opening of last season as he considered whether he could beat Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel in a straight fight. “It would be better to stay home if you don’t believe you can do it,” he said. “Of course it sounds arrogant to think like that but it would be stupid not to.”

Unfortunately when Hamilton’s Mercedes proved all too strong from the off and Red Bull failed to really challenge until mid-season, that three-way battle was denied. Verstappen’s decision to stick with Red Bull mouthwateringly suggests we may yet see it this season or after the regulation changes in 2021.

Red Bull took Verstappen on in their junior program in 2014. He was placed at Toro Rosso in 2015 and was promoted to the senior squad a year later. He has been explicit in his gratitude to the team and in a genuine desire to win the title with them. Last year was almost their most successful of the turbo‑hybrid era. Verstappen was fastest in qualifying three times, took three race wins and finished third – ahead of both Ferrari drivers – in the championship.

Hamilton has said that in 2012, as he considered the move from McLaren to Mercedes, he was persuaded not only by Niki Lauda but by Ross Brawn outlining the plans the team had and the steps they would take. Verstappen has surely been shown a similarly confident road map for Red Bull‑Honda.

Lewis Hamilton leads the way in Abu Dhabi
Lewis Hamilton leads the way in Abu Dhabi in 2019. Photograph: Charles Coates/Getty Images

With stable regulations they expect only to move forward in 2020. Indeed Red Bull’s motor sport adviser Helmut Marko has already been bullish about their chances. “For the first time, we are 14 days ahead of our normal schedule,” he said in December. “We’re going into the new year better than ever and with a great concept. Now we finally have to deliver.”

Verstappen echoed the good vibes. “We hope to be able to compete for the world championship straight from the beginning of the season. I want to win with Red Bull.”

Red Bull in turn know they needed Verstappen. At the sharp end, the drivers’ market is hanging according to whether Hamilton stays with Mercedes or switches to Ferrari for 2021. If he opted for the latter mid-season, Verstappen would have been an obvious target for Mercedes. Instead Red Bull have their No 1 locked down and can focus on the task at hand. Ferrari have done similarly with Charles Leclerc but they and Mercedes are still dependent on which way Hamilton and in turn Vettel jump.

For Honda, too, Verstappen is a major asset. After their travails with McLaren, their first year with Red Bull has been hugely positive. They endured no mechanical failures with Red Bull and increasingly closed the gap to Mercedes and Ferrari. Verstappen claimed their first win in 13 years at the Austrian Grand Prix and notably pointed at the Honda badge on his overalls on the podium.

Honda only recently committed to stay in F1 until the end of 2021. Verstappen may be the driver who keeps them in the sport for the long term. Red Bull’s team principal, Christian Horner, has noted the close level of engagement Verstappen has with Honda and Honda’s F1 managing director, Masashi Yamamoto, and compared their relationship to the one they enjoyed with Ayrton Senna between 1987 and 1992. “We see him as a very important factor with Honda’s project,” he said. “He’s young, but his driving is really impressive. It looks like seeing a young Senna, with his relationship with Honda.”

Verstappen reciprocated, noting Honda’s attention to detail was paying dividends. “This year, we’ve never retired because of a Honda issue,” he said at the end of the season. “If you want to fight for a world championship, that is what you need. I am very, very impressed with the way they are working.”

His decision suggests these are not idle claims or desires. These are the sounds of every element of the team moving collectively in the right direction. Horner believes Red Bull can be challengers and Verstappen has nailed his colours to that mast. He, Red Bull, Honda and hopefully fans of a truly competitive F1 will all reap the benefits.


Giles Richards

The GuardianTramp

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