Max Verstappen's contract extension with Red Bull until 2028 sets him up with the team for the long haul. To add to this, the contract value of a whopping $55 million per season also comes as a surprise as Red Bull does not have a history of shelling out this kind of money for its drivers.
The ramifications of this deal, however, are more interesting. The deal is going to have a ripple effect across the grid not only because of the duration of the contract but also the contract value.
If looked at closely, the contract extension between the Dutchman and his team does appear to have the potential to leave Mercedes in a peculiar situation. In this piece, we talk about how the deal between Red Bull and Max Verstappen is probably not the best thing to have happened for the eight-time constructors' champions.
It takes Max Verstappen, the best driver on the grid, off the market
If we talk about the best drivers on the grid, then Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen are the names that currently stand out. Sure, there are other drivers like Charles Leclerc and Lando Norris that have put together some great drives themselves. When you talk about the level of consistency that is displayed by the former two, especially with what they did last season, however, it is just on another level.
For now, Mercedes has the services of Lewis Hamilton while Red Bull has Max Verstappen. Last season, when both the teams were relatively close in terms of performance, it was the Briton whose brilliance was responsible for the team winning the constructors' title and almost winning the drivers' title as well. While Mercedes has regularly produced machinery capable of winning the title, they have lacked a competitive edge in some races. Hamilton has more often than not made up for it.
For instance, if it wasn't for Hamilton's skills, Mercedes would have never won the 2020 Turkish Grand Prix. The problem for Mercedes, however, is that the Briton is coming to the end of his career. There is a very high probability that he will go through with his current contract and then retire at the end of the 2023 season. At that stage, the team will lose the safety net of having one of the best drivers on the grid bailing them out whenever they miss the mark.
Toto Wolff has always expressed an interest in Max Verstappen. Lest we forget, it was both Red Bull and Mercedes that battled it out for the Dutchman's services even before he made his debut in F1. Mercedes, at the time, had lost out because they could not offer him an immediate seat on the grid, while Red Bull could.
Even after Verstappen made his debut in F1, Wolff had expressed interest in signing the Dutch driver in the future. The 2021 season might not have helped the relationship between the two parties. It would, however, be foolish to assume that Mercedes, or for that matter, any team would not be tempted to sign Verstappen if the opportunity presented itself.
With Hamilton out of the picture soon, Mercedes might be even more vulnerable if it doesn't have a driver that could rival Verstappen's skills on the track. Consequently, it would surely have kept an eye on Max Verstappen as a future option. With the driver locked up at Red Bull for the long haul, it does appear that the ship has sailed on the possibility of him driving for Mercedes in the future.
Mercedes do not have an assured long term prospect secured in the team
At present, Lando Norris has been secured by McLaren for the long term. Ferrari has done the same with Charles Leclerc while Red Bull just announced a long-term association with Max Verstappen. On the surface, it might appear that Mercedes is trying to achieve the same with George Russell. He is a Mercedes junior driver, through and through, and if early impressions are anything to go by, he is a great talent.
Out of all the prospects on the grid, including Leclerc, Norris, Sainz, and Gasly, Russell is the only one that has the most question marks around him as he has spent most of his career driving a backmarker in Williams.
He is undoubtedly fast. At the moment, it does appear that he can hold his own in wheel-to-wheel racing. The 2020 Sakhir Grand Prix is an example of how adaptive he is as well.
Talking about the intangibles, however, it remains to be seen how he handles the asks of a 23-race championship battle. Can he handle the media pressure that comes with being in the territory of a British F1 driver fighting for the title? Can he handle the occasional mind games that will be thrown his way? More importantly, can he perform under immense pressure that a title challenger like Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen faced throughout the 2021 season? We don't know the answer to any of these questions yet.
Russell could prove the doubters wrong by meeting all the expectations at Mercedes. On the contrary, he could also struggle just like Pierre Gasly did at Red Bull when he had Max Verstappen as his teammate. Only time will tell which situation it will turn out to be.
It is these unknowns that could make Mercedes feel a bit vulnerable. If the Russell experiment fails, who will Mercedes go after? Until Verstappen had not signed an extension with Red Bull, there was a possibility of the Dutch driver moving to Mercedes once Lewis Hamilton retires. The German team would then have replaced one top driver with the other. Right now, if the Briton retires, and if George Russell is no match for the top drivers, Mercedes will be out of options from where they can pick a driver.
In a couple of years, Mercedes could be looking at a driver crisis if the supposed Lewis Hamilton-George Russell succession plan fails.
The contract value sets a new benchmark
Max Verstappen is now amongst the highest-paid athletes on the F1 grid, as well as in the world, leveling with Lewis Hamilton. While it does appear that the new partnership with Oracle played a huge role in him getting this bump in his paycheck, it will surely raise a few eyebrows throughout the grid as well.
Hamilton is a seven-time world champion and a bona fide legend of the sport. The driver, with a global appeal second to none at this stage, was justified to receive such a paycheck.
For Verstappen to command that kind of money, however, surely turns a few heads as it raises the benchmark for other drivers as well. In the future, if teams like McLaren, Ferrari, Alpine, or even Mercedes have to secure the services of a driver then they would have to shell out this kind of money (or something in the vicinity).
The Mercedes-Lewis Hamilton contract saga became a huge talking point last season with the contract valuation being one of the sticking points. The team has been notoriously unwilling to dole out that kind of money for driver salaries. With Verstappen now getting such a lucrative contract, it might, however, be forced to rethink its strategy as it tries to manage two star drivers in Lewis Hamilton and George Russell.
Overall, it does appear that the news of Max Verstappen's mega-contract has cornered Mercedes in ways it might not have expected. The team now finds itself in a situation where, unless George Russell can take over the role played by Lewis Hamilton since 2014, there is no other long-term prospect that would be available for the team to go after.