Formula 1: Toto Wolff's Max Verstappen praise starting to make sense

Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff heaped unusually fulsome praise on the Red Bull star after the Formula 1 season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix.
Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff
Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff / Clive Rose/GettyImages

One of the stranger moments from the Bahrain Grand Prix is now starting to make sense, with Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff's praise of Max Verstappen potentially hinting at a huge shake-up at the front of the Formula 1 grid.

After Verstappen cruised to a 22-second victory in Formua 1's 2024 season opener in Sakhir, Wolff told Sky Sports F1 that "Max was in different galaxy".

For someone whose team has been locked in a heated battle with Verstappen's Red Bull team for the past few years, it was an unusual display of praise for a rival driver.

But the continued fallout surrounding the investigation into Red Bull team principal Christian Horner revealed that a potential bombshell could be dropped on Red Bull Racing in the near future – and might just explain the motive behind the Mercedes man's noticeably generous remark.

Could Max Verstappen make a shock exit?

Verstappen's often-outspoken father, former Formula 1 racer Jos Verstappen, weighed in on the situation at Red Bull in explosive interviews with newspapers in the Netherlands and the UK.

"There is tension here while [Horner] remains in position," he told the Daily Mail in an interview published after the race.

"The team is in danger of being torn apart. It can't go on the way it is. It will explode. He is playing the victim, when he is the one causing the problems."

Verstappen Sr.'s incendiary comments alone would be tricky enough for the Red Bull PR machine to manage. But things could potentially go from bad to worse for Red Bull, with reports suggesting that Verstappen has a clause in his contract that allows him to cut ties with the team before the end of his contract, if the head of Red Bull's driver development program, 80-year-old Helmut Marko, leaves the team.

Marko has long been an advocate of Verstappen and is closely aligned with the driver and his father within the organization. If he were to leave in protest at the team's handling of the Horner situation, the door could then be left wide open for Verstappen to follow.

Mercedes ready to swoop?

The situation could play perfectly into Wolff's hands. His star driver, seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton, is on his way to Ferrari at the end of the season, leaving a spare seat at Mercedes alongside rising star George Russell.

The likes of Williams' Alex Albon, departing Ferrari driver Carlos Sainz, and academy ace Andrea Kimi Antonelli have all been suggested as potential candidates for the vacant seat.

But given Wolff's recent comments – and the fact that Mercedes lost out in their attempts to secure Verstappen for their driver development program a decade ago – it's possible that Wolff is laying the groundwork for a possible bid to bring the Dutchman to Mercedes.

Throw in the fact that Wolff was spotted publicly chatting to Jos Verstappen in Bahrain, and the rumor mill has already started to go into overdrive.

A few months ago, the suggestion of Verstappen moving to Mercedes would have been laughable. Now, with a civil war seemingly being waged inside Red Bull, it could become a serious possibility.

Formula 1 set for rare appearance, third time in last 39 years. Formula 1 set for rare appearance, third time in last 39 years. dark. Next

Depending on how Red Bull deal with the continued fallout within their ranks, things could start to look very different by the end of 2024.