Horner: Verstappen Mercedes’ first choice if Hamilton quits F1

Red Bull believes Max Verstappen would be “at the top of the list” for Mercedes if Lewis Hamilton quits after 2021, confirming the Dutchman’s Formula 1 contract includes a performance clause.

Mercedes announced last week that seven-time world champion Hamilton had signed a new one-year contract to remain at the team for 2021, leading to speculation about his future beyond the end of the season.

Should Hamilton decide to step away from F1 at the end of the year, it has been suggested that Verstappen could be an option for Mercedes to replace the Briton.

Although Verstappen’s Red Bull contract runs to the end of the 2023 season, it has been common in the past for drivers to have performance-related clauses in their contract. One example came in 2014 when Sebastian Vettel triggered an exit clause at Red Bull to join Ferrari for 2015.

Red Bull has previously hinted that Verstappen’s contract may include such a clause, but it was confirmed by team principal Christian Horner on Monday during a select media roundtable.

“All drivers have safeguards within performance, and the reality is that as there has always been,” Horner said.

“There is an element of performance related to Max’s contract. I’m not going to go into what that is. It doesn’t relate to the power unit in any way, it’s just a binary performance at a certain measurement in time.

“As with all these things, though, to force a driver that doesn’t want to be there, it’s more about relationships than contracts. You only pull a contract out of a drawer when you’ve got a problem, in my experience.

“The relationship with Max is very strong. He believes in the project, he believes in what we’re doing. He sees the investment that Red Bull is making, very much with the recent commitment on the powertrain, he believes in the people within the team, working within the team.

“I’m confident that we won’t need to refer to any contractual clauses. I think that it will ultimately be down to us to deliver a competitive car. That’s what he wants, that’s what we want. He needs that, we need that.

“So in that respect, we’re both in an identical situation.”

Asked if he was at all worried that Mercedes could make an approach for Verstappen if Hamilton were to leave, Horner said it was logical he would be at the top of its shortlist.

“I’m sure that should Lewis decide to stop then Max would have naturally be the driver at the top of the list,” Horner said.

“But they also have George Russell. They’ve also got other drivers obviously available to them. And I think again, as I say, it’s all down to relationships and us forming a competitive car.

“There’s no guarantees for 2022. It’s a complete clean sheet of paper. If there’s going to be a significant mix up of the order, one would assume it’s going to be with that big regulation change.”

Verstappen signed a new long-term agreement with Red Bull at the start of 2020, committing to the squad for the following four seasons.

After becoming the youngest race winner in F1 history on debut for Red Bull in 2016, Verstappen has scored a further nine wins for the squad, and finished third in the drivers’ championship for each of the past two seasons.

Mercedes has yet to confirm any of its driver plans beyond 2021. Both Hamilton and teammate Valtteri Bottas are out of contract at the end of the season, while junior driver George Russell will also be a free agent once his Williams deal expires.

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