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Inside Mercedes' complex driver market poker game

This is not the first time Mercedes has been left with more candidates than it actually has seats to give away. While it can be seen as a luxury problem, it can also cause quite the headache.

Verstappen Russell Bahrain
To news overview © Michael Potts/RN365

Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff is currently in a difficult position. The Austrian is seeking a replacement for Lewis Hamilton, and on paper, the number of candidates can only just be counted on one hand.

But tying that knot is not that easy and the situation has everything to do with Max Verstappen and the 'new Max Verstappen'.

That 'new Max Verstappen' is, of course, Kimi Antonelli, who has regularly been called a prodigy during his rise to Formula 1.

He has been part of the Mercedes junior academy for several years and there seems little doubt that he could one day find himself in the Mercedes F1 car, provided he continues to mirror the performances that have generated his current reputation.

Antonelli, however, is only 17 years of age and still has a long future ahead of him in F1. Should he make his debut in two or three years, he will still only be 19 or 20 years old.

The issue at Mercedes, however, is more critical than that - it needs a new driver as early as 2025.

Wolff can't help but bet full steam ahead on Max Verstappen in this regard; with the eight constructors' and seven drivers' titles in the still-reasonably-recent past, Mercedes owes it to itself to bet on the maximum possible result.

Of course, Verstappen has a Red Bull contract through 2028, but there are clauses in that contract that should allow for a departure.

One of those clauses is reportedly related to Helmut Marko. If he should leave, Verstappen will go too, which he hinted at during the intra-team power struggle saga that plagued the start of the season.

Another clause may surround the performance of Red Bull Powertrains' first homebuilt engine, an area where concerns have been raised in the rumour mill.

Bluff poker

And so, Wolff sees an opportunity. He doesn't have the crowbar in hand to further pry open the cracks in the Red Bull marriage and will largely have to play the waiting game.

But with waiting, time passes, and how much time does he have? Or is the better question, 'how much time is he willing to let pass?' If he waits too long, other options may be lost to other teams, such as Carlos Sainz.

If you assume Verstappen is the first choice, what is Sainz? The second choice? Talks are ongoing, RacingNews365 understands, and it is suggested that Sainz has had a one-year contract with an option for a second year under his nose.

So is that option to evaluate Sainz's performance, or to assess the availability of both Verstappen and Antonelli?

That question may be on Sainz's mind as well, making the offer less attractive. He will surely have no desire to just keep the seat warm for someone else. That is, of course, unless he already knows he is leaving for Audi in 2026 anyway.

Sainz also has to watch his step, of course. While he is hot property, therein also lurks the danger that he will become complacent and, while waiting for the best opportunities, end up without a seat at all.

The whole driver discussion towards 2026 is always about just one Mercedes seat, but doesn't this overlook too easily the fact that George Russell's contract also expires at the end of 2025? Is it too easily assumed that the Briton will remain there? It casts a whole new light on the driver situation at Mercedes.

Will it Verstappen and Antonelli at Mercedes in 2026? Verstappen and Sainz? Sainz and Antonelli? It all possible, just as a combination of Russell with any of the aforementioned drivers is possible.

Wolff is playing a spirited poker game, with Verstappen being the grand prize and Sainz and Antonelli as the stakes.

Bluff too long and you lose them. Fold too early and you never know how good your hand really could have been.

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