Formula 1: Mercedes trying to sabotage Max Verstappen?

Mercedes' sudden interest in Max Verstappen as Lewis Hamilton's replacement from the 2025 Formula 1 season still carries with it more questions than answers.
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Formula 1
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Formula 1 / Kym Illman/GettyImages

The rumors continue to swirl about three-time reigning Formula 1 world champion Max Verstappen's future in the sport, even though he remains under contract with Red Bull through 2028. Only Ferrari's Charles Leclerc is said to have a longer deal currently in place.

Reports of lead engineer Adrian Newey leaving Red Bull emerged last week amid suspicions of an ongoing power struggle within the Milton Keynes-based team following offseason accusations against team principal Christian Horner, and his departure has since been confirmed.

It is believed that the 26-year-old Dutchman could have an opt-out clause in his Red Bull contract should certain key personnel depart.

One of those key personnel is reportedly Red Bull advisor Helmut Marko, to whom Verstappen remains extremely loyal.

The major open seat in this year's driver market is the Mercedes seat set to be vacated by seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton as he makes the move to Ferrari to join Leclerc next year, and the Brackley-based team are reportedly doing absolutely everything in their power to make sure it's Verstappen who joins George Russell next year.

The move would mean that the car's three most recent full-time drivers are Michael Schumacher, Lewis Hamilton, and Max Verstappen, the three winningest drivers in Formula 1 history.

Mercedes know they effectively have junior driver Kimi Antonelli, who is believed to be on his way to debuting with Williams in a few weeks, in their back pocket, so they are in no rush to make any confirmations.

Mercedes pursuing Max Verstappen?

Mercedes were said to be heading to the Miami Grand Prix this coming weekend in anticipation of presenting Verstappen with a contract offer to join the team from 2025. Whether or not that rumor is based on anything legitimate remains to be seen.

The deal is said to be worth roughly $150 million annually, plus a Mercedes ambassador role and the ability to bring Marko and pretty much whoever else he is able to bring from his current team.

The prospect of signing Newey is also said to be a part of these negotiations, though nobody truly knows what his plans are after nearly two decades at Red Bull.

Verstappen is currently Formula 1's highest paid driver at around $55 million annually. Suddenly Mercedes can offer him almost triple that?

The term gets used lightly these days across various forms of sport, but Verstappen is truly a generational talent whom any team would want to have as their lead driver. As the new rules and regulations of 2026 loom, teams know that acting now to secure the lineup they want is a must.

But Mercedes aren't just "any team".

This is a team that celebrated as Verstappen was being evaluated in hospital after their driver punted his Red Bull on the opening lap of the British Grand Prix during a contentious 2021 title battle, leading to a 51G impact. And it wasn't just Verstappen who expressed his displeasure with their complete disregard for sportsmanship afterward.

We're talking about a team principal in Toto Wolff who continues to bad-mouth Michael Masi, the former FIA race director whose decision in the controversial 2021 season finale in Abu Dhabi gave Verstappen the chance, a chance on which he ultimately capitalized, to pass Hamilton on the final lap to win the world championship.

Mercedes dropped their plans to appeal but basically said that they would have won it had they pursued it.

Yet an offseason rules change that year was a subtle -- yet important -- indication that, while Formula 1 did not want to have that scenario unfold again, there was technically room in the rulebook for it to be argued as a legal decision, due to the ambiguity surrounding the existing terminology. Gray area, yes -- but illegal, absolutely not.

Wolff has also held nothing back when it comes to his attempts to minimize the significance of Verstappen's current run of record-breaking with Red Bull, most notably referencing his 10-race win streak as a "Wikipedia" record.

While he later walked back those comments, it doesn't change the fact that his decision to pass up the chance to sign Verstappen in 2014 is one he regrets, and that's hardly a big secret, whether he wants to admit it publicly or not. That has been clear on more than one occasion when he has discussed the now 58-time Grand Prix winner.

Could Mercedes sabotage Max Verstappen?

It's one thing to let bygones to be bygones. It's another to be completely two-faced. Now everybody is suddenly friendly again?

Aside from Wolff's rivalry with Horner and his desire to do everything in his power to one-up his sporting enemy -- and luring Verstappen would surely qualify as more than a one-up -- is this really a team that want Verstappen as their driver?

Is it remotely possible that a mid-pack Mercedes team want to do everything in their power to make sure that Hamilton's records of 103 wins and seven world titles never fall after what they still clearly believe was an injustice in Abu Dhabi three years ago -- even though, as much as they want to ignore it, the right late-race pit strategy would have closed the door on that possibility?

At the current pace, and with the knowledge that the regulations overhaul isn't slated until 2026, Verstappen should pass Michael Schumacher for second place on the all-time wins list (91) by the end of next season, and he should do so as a five-time world champion.

That is, if he stays with Red Bull. As talented as he is, it's hard to see him reeling off consistent nine and 10-race winning streaks with a team currently as far behind as Mercedes appear to be before any significant changes are made.

The "sabotage" theory is admittedly probably a bit of a stretch. You don't sign a driver of Verstappen's caliber for almost four times what you're paying your current driver -- the statistical GOAT -- just to preserve the record books of yesteryear.

But in the ever-political realm of Formula 1, can you rule anything out? Simply preventing Verstappen from beating you in another team's colors, as he has now done for four years in a row, is also included in that scenario, which is another reason to consider going all-in.

Let's look at the facts. Mercedes are the fifth best team in the sport right now with top three upside at best. On raw pace, they are the third fastest team behind their customers in Aston Martin and McLaren.

Jokes about the Silver Arrows being a "customer Aston Martin" team have even made the rounds on social media since the latter's resurgence early last year.

We heard on almost a weekly basis throughout 2022, from the checkered flag of the first qualifying session in Bahrain, that Mercedes were going to be "back". Just wait until next week. Just wait until X Grand Prix. Just wait until these upgrades. Just wait until they figure out porpoising.

Just wait.

It took two years for many to discover that this was nothing more than a Sky Sports pipe dream than it was a reality. Even a second place finish in last year's constructor standings was more of a "best of the rest" title than anything. A doubled point total would have kept them in the runner-up spot.

Hamilton remains winless since 2021, and Russell has just one career victory in Brazil in late 2022. Verstappen, meanwhile, scored more wins across 2022 and 2023 than any other driver has in a three-year span in Formula 1 history.

It is said that the Verstappens, both Max and his father Jos, believe that with a few changes to the car, Max will be able to challenge for wins in a Mercedes next year. That's cool, but does a driver who is dominating every race as it is really want to simply "challenge for wins" if his goal is to continue to win world championships?

Red Bull facing uncertain future?

Aside from Newey's now confirmed departure, which is perhaps most important in that it could trigger the departures of other key Red Bull personnel from the team, the only thing that makes sense about the prospects surrounding this situation is the ongoing uncertainty surrounding how Ford will respond to whatever happens at the energy drinks company, given their planned power unit partnership from 2026.

Verstappen, of course, wouldn't have signed through 2028 without knowing of the regulations overhaul after 2025, but there are never any guarantees that a certain team will remain on top, especially as uncertainty looms over the Ford deal.

Verstappen recently claimed that the so-called "drama" within Red Bull is being overblown by the media. That's not even remotely hard to believe, quite frankly, even though it contradicts what his own father continues to claim. But if he does have the chance to jump ship before it starts to sink, should he take it?

We saw what happened when the turbo hybrid era began in 2014, with Mercedes going on to win eight straight world constructor championships. This isn't a team without a proven track record of success.

Without sounding too much like the "Mercedes are back" broken record crowd, the early indications are that their 2026 powertrain could give them an advantage, and with a driver of Verstappen's caliber behind the wheel, it's a prospect that could excite the Orange Army.

Maybe if the two sides are truly willing to let bygones be bygones, something good could come out of it for everybody. Maybe this really is about more than Wolff's ego; it's not just him involved in the rumored negotiations, after all.

But given Verstappen's current form, a dominance the likes of which the sport has never quite seen at this level, a post-2024 move to Mercedes would be a gamble that makes Hamilton's Ferrari move look more like just another offseason driver change than the blockbuster transfer it is.

Next. Formula 1 team not named RB could make an early driver change. Formula 1 team not named RB could make an early driver change. dark

Then again, who could have predicted that Hamilton's Mercedes move from McLaren would have resulted in something as special as it did? Nobody not named Niki Lauda.