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Max Verstappen

How Horner inadvertenly fueled Verstappen to Mercedes rumours

Christian Horner was clear after the Chinese Grand Prix: Toto Wolff and Mercedes have no chance of attracting Max Verstappen, but there are a couple of reasons why the rumours persist.

Verstappen Horner China
To news overview © Red Bull Content Pool

The dance around Max Verstappen is far from over.

Mercedes boss Toto Wolff once again brought up the Dutchman's long-time future after the race in China, in a continuation of his recent charm offensive to sign the world champion.

Wolff suggested that other factors beyond a performance of a team was important to a driver when deciding his future, or in other words, Wolff was saying that Mercedes' current plight was not the biggest factor on Verstappen's table when deciding his future.

When those comments were put to Horner in his media debrief after the race - he was taken aback.

"I don’t think Toto’s problems are his drivers; I think he’s probably got other elements that he needs to be focusing on rather than focusing on drivers that are unavailable," he told media including RacingNews365.

"I don’t know how many more times he needs to say it. He said it numerous times. I’m not going get drawn into it – I think sometimes it’s just designed to create noise.

“We moved today ahead of the number of races that Mercedes have won in the modern era, so the team [Red Bull] is in form, why on earth would you want to leave this team?

"I can assure you that there is no ambiguity as to where Max Verstappen will be next year."

Verstappen's Red Bull contract expires after the 2028 season, but Horner did not say that 'there is no ambiguity as to where Max Verstappen will be until the end of his contract.'

At the moment, for 2025 when Wolff needs to fill a Lewis Hamilton-sized vacancy at Mercedes, it does not make sense for Verstappen to head down the A422 and trade Milton Keynes for Brackley.

Given the current competitive state of the two teams, he would be leaving a world championship and as many as 24 grand prix wins on the table, for nothing, as Mercedes continues to be stumped by the ground-effect regulations.

But that could change for 2026 - for two major reasons.

The new regulations and Marko

The most important factor in Verstappen's Red Bull future comes with the 2026 power unit regulations.

Red Bull has taken the decision to produce its own in-house units, with help from Ford, for the beefed-up electrical systems and increased synthetic fuels that will come into force, but as Horner pointed out - Red Bull Powertrains is nearly 70 years behind Ferrari.

"We're on a steep learning curve, where we've got about 70 years of disadvantage to Ferrari," he said.

"There are no guarantees, and there is no knowledge of where anybody else is, with these new regulations, it is a clean sheet of paper, and we don't have the benefit of an existing engine to learn from.

"It is very bold what we've done, very brave and it is pretty ballsy, Red Bull wouldn't have won 117 races and done what we've done making bold decisions."

There has been speculation recently that the RBPT engine has not been performing as expected on the test bench, and given how Mercedes aced the 2014 switch to the 1.6l turbo hybrid units, Verstappen could time his departure from Red Bull a la Hamilton did when he jumped ship from McLaren.

Elsewhere, there is the human factor and that concerns Dr Helmut Marko.

Verstappen is a firm Marko loyalist and when the Red Bull power struggle hit the front pages as well as the back ones earlier in the year, he indicated that if Marko was to leave Red Bull, then his own future would need to be considered in doubt.

Faced with that prospect, it's clear Horner and Red Bull wouldn't ship Marko off into retirement but should the veteran Austrian, who turns 81 later this week decide to call time on his career voluntarily, where would that leave Verstappen?

So, will Verstappen leave for Mercedes?

And precisely because of these statements, Mercedes does seem to have a chance of attracting Verstappen in 2026. Red Bull and Wolff himself constantly call out that a driver always goes for the fastest car and there are no reasons to switch if you have the best plans. Verstappen knows full well how Red Bull stands for 2026 and will be scratching his head if there are actually problems. Isn't there a better alternative?

Mercedes does have a chance of luring Verstappen for 2026, given the power unit situation and depending on what Marko elects to do.

Might a then five-time world champion decide that he's done all he can at Red Bull and opt for a new challenge to cement his legacy elsewhere?

It's possible, and a driver as canny as Verstappen will have his eyes across all options for 2025, 2026 and beyond.

As for Wolff, he can drop the carrot of the potential of 2026 and continue to sow doubt around RBPT at the same time, and in the mean-time, he gets to continue meddling in Red Bull's affairs and keep his troops motivated by the potential of trading one all-time great for another.

Anyhow, he must decide soon who will replace Hamilton, whether it be Carlos Sainz, someone else or Mercedes' protege Andrea Kimi Antonelli.

If it does prove to be Antonelli, that might signal the end of the Verstappen chase as why would you put a rookie youngster in for a season, only to drop him again the next year, provided George Russell, long-being groomed to be team leader, stays on.

Verstappen himself has also not given a cast-iron guarantee over his future, and Wolff will continue to turn the screw...

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