Max Verstappen has already hinted at stance on swapping Red Bull for Mercedes for 2022

F1: Red Bull's Verstappen gets in shape for new season

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Max Verstappen has been mentioned as a target for Mercedes for the 2022 Formula One season amid uncertainty over the futures of Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas at the Brackley-based outfit. Hamilton signed a new contract this week but his deal is only one year in length meaning both he and Bottas stand to be free agents at the end of the year.

Should Hamilton depart, it has been claimed that Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff is eyeing Verstappen as his replacement.

Wolff is certainly a fan, having previously admitted that Mercedes tried to sign him at 16 before Toro Rosso promised Verstappen a seat for 2015.

“We had several meetings with Jos and Max,” Wolff said. “He is certainly a great talent, but we would not and could not guarantee him a seat with us in Formula One. So I advised them to accept the offer from Red Bull.”

The Dutchman, winner of 10 F1 races, is widely viewed as the second-best driver on the grid after seven-time world champion Hamilton.

Although Valtteri Bottas pipped Verstappen to second in the Drivers’ Championship last year, the 23-year-old suffered five DNFs.

In 11 of the 12 races he completed, the Red Bull driver managed to finish on the podium despite his machinery being inferior to the Mercedes.

Verstappen is expected to win multiple titles in the future given the pace and racecraft he has shown until this point.

A switch to the Silver Arrows for 2022 would surely be attractive, although Red Bull’s Christian Horner has sought to shut down reports of a break clause in Verstappen’s contract.

He is tied down with the Austrian drinks company until 2023 and Horner added last year of his No 1 driver: “The contracts between the driver and the team are private, but there is definitely no engine-related clause in Max’s contract.

“He is competitive. He feels very comfortable in the team and believes strongly in the Honda program. I think he also sees that Honda has brought forward the engine from 2022 to 2021. That is encouraging, of course.

“So we will take another step forward next year. He’s excited about this, and he still has a long way to go until 2022.”

And even if Mercedes look to try and prise Verstappen from the Milton Keynes-based team, there are no guarantees that he would leave.

Speaking back in September, when he trailed leader Hamilton by 80 points in the standings, Verstappen admitted the title race was over but looked ahead to the coming years.

“I hope that we will be closer to Mercedes next year but I don’t think we will beat them,” Verstappen admitted of 2021.

“With the coronavirus [delaying the new regulations] you can’t change that much about the car. But I hope that there will be a new direction for us in 2022 with the new regulations.

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“You can never say that [when you will win the title] in Formula One. But of course I hope it won’t take so long.”

And in already looking ahead to 2022, when significant changes could change the picture entirely, Verstappen appears to already be planning for the long term.

Mercedes, if they want to steal Verstappen, may have some persuading to do. Would Red Bull allow him to leave to their main rivals? If there is no clause in his contract allowing an easy move, then it would surely become a protracted and perhaps toxic saga.

And so if Horner is telling the truth, and Verstappen cannot be stolen from them ahead of the 2022 season, it appears it won’t be until the end of the 2023 season that Mercedes can line up a move.

That would be great news for the likes of Bottas and George Russell. Though if Mercedes are truly strongly interested in Verstappen’s talents, then it may be a case of when, rather than if, we see him racing for the German marque.

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