By far the biggest story of a Formula 1 Silly Season that could very easily be one of the wildest in several seasons or a rather tame follow-up to a crazy one last season that left just eight of 20 drivers in the same spot from the 2018 season to the 2019 season is the story of the future of Aston Martin Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen.
Verstappen signed a three-year contract extension with the Milton Keynes-based team in October of 2017 to continue driving for them through the 2020 season, but team manager Helmut Marko made a claim earlier this season that sparked rumors about the potential departure from the team by the 21-year-old Dutchman after the 2019 season.
What is particularly significant about this situation is the fact that this is Red Bull Racing’s first season using Honda engines after terminating their 12-year partnership with Renault, so this season is a huge season as far as assessing whether or not their desired improvements are showing up in the form of better reliability and more power. So far, they seem to have improved in both, but they are still nowhere near being as good as Mercedes.
Regardless of what Verstappen ends up being allowed to choose and what he chooses, one thing has become very clear, especially throughout the first nine races of the 21-race 2019 season.
First of all, Verstappen is not going to do what former Red Bull Racing driver Daniel Ricciardo did and leave Red Bull Racing to drive for a lesser team. Ricciardo left the team after last season to drive for Renault, which won last year’s unofficial “best of the rest” championship by finishing behind only Mercedes, Scuderia Ferrari and Red Bull Racing in the constructor standings.
If Verstappen leaves, it would be to join Mercedes or maybe Ferrari, but the slim likelihood of him joining the latter makes it almost seem like a dismissible scenario at this point. Simply put, it’s really Mercedes or Red Bull Racing.
So if he selects Mercedes, where would that leave Red Bull Racing?
Through the first nine races of the season, Gasly has been nothing shy of a major disappointment, and as a result, he has landed himself on the hot seat. He has finished in the expected top six just three times, and he has never beaten another Mercedes, Ferrari or Red Bull Racing driver aside of when Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc was forced to retire from the Monaco Grand Prix.
While Verstappen has recorded nine top five finishes, three podium finishes, one victory, an average finishing position of 3.56 and 126 points so far this season en route to a third place position in the driver standings, Gasly has recorded one season-high fifth place finish, an average finishing position of 8.67 and 43 points so far this season en route to a sixth place position in the standings.
With 43 points, Gasly is almost five times closer to seventh place (30 points, McLaren’s Carlos Sainz Jr.) in the driver standings than he is to fifth (105 points, Leclerc).
If Red Bull Racing lose Verstappen, what does their future look like? Gasly is already on thin ice, so they could potentially be looking for two replacements as opposed to one, and even if they retain him with the hope that he improves, or even for the sole purpose of keeping one driver constant from the 2019 season to the 2020 season, finding a replacement for Verstappen won’t be easy.
Albon has also been released from the Red Bull Racing organization before, and unlike the experienced Kvyat, Albon is a rookie, so promoting him to Red Bull Racing could create a similar undesirable scenario to the one that the team have experienced with Gasly so far this season.
Suddenly Red Bull Racing could become a “best of the rest” contender even with their new and more reliable, powerful Honda engines.
Red Bull Racing would have to hope to land either current Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas or current Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel — or both. If Max Verstappen joins Mercedes, it would likely be to replace Bottas, so Bottas would become available, but he has been rumored to Ferrari if Vettel leaves the team.
Vettel could become available to return to Red Bull Racing, the team for which he won four consecutive championships earlier in the decade, but there have also been rumors that he might retire after the 2019 Formula 1 season reaches its conclusion.
The only way for Red Bull Racing to avoid making this potential scramble, which could very well result in the team landing neither one of these two drivers, necessary in order to remain competitive is by re-signing Verstappen.