The pandemic put the world on hold. For those who left and for those who still hope to resume life and adapt to a new sort of normality, it has been almost a lost year with plenty of unfinished business left. And even Formula 1, although the championship finally kicked off in July, had to freeze for a whole year. Moreover, its technical revolution has been postponed to 2022 but there are things that cannot be frozen. One of them, the most obvious: the passing of time.
Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen are the two most representative drivers amongst those who, between the end of 2019 and the Coronavirus outbreak, renewed their contracts on multi-year deals. Charles until 2024. Max until 2023. The former on Christmas Eve. The latter, as a gift from the three kings. But they both have a completely different situation before them.
While the Monegasque started his third season in Formula 1 in 2020, and his second season at Ferrari, the Dutchman already has six years on his tally, and five of them in the Red Bull team. Those are numbers that should not be neglected, as he was an F1 star from the start and has always been among those drivers who have been designated since their early debut as a future multi-world champion. However, being stuck in a team that cannot provide him with the tools he needs to achieve at least his first championship, it begins to look like an eternal quarantine, too long for Verstappen’s hunger for titles.
The Dutchman has been inaccurately compared with Ayrton Senna. Helmut Marko himself said it in 2016. Masashi Yamamoto, the head of Honda's F1 program, repeated it this year.
Ayrton Senna came to Formula 1 in 1984, he competed with Toleman during his debut season, progressed with Lotus in the following three years, perfectly aligned with Verstappen’s stint at Toro Rosso and Red Bull. However, Senna jumped on the McLaren team to win the first of his three championships in 1988, despite what he had accomplished with Lotus had made by him. Thus, Senna had to wait for his fifth year in Formula 1 to be crowned. Verstappen has started his sixth season in F1, and with the current rules, it is difficult to dream of a consecration in 2021. Hence it appears likely that he will need to wait for the seventh year, without achieving the long-awaited crown that he deserves. And nothing, absolutely nothing, assures him that in 2022 he will be endowed with the coveted competitive car to aspire to be crowned Champion with Red Bull.
But that is only if we compare Verstappen with Senna, which many do not agree on. Let's go through some other icons, great champions, adhering to that club to which Max should belong sooner rather than later.
Another one who could perfectly be mentioned as a tardy champion is Alain Prost. The Frenchman made his debut with McLaren in 1980, and after moving on to Renault and losing the 1982 and 1983 championships, he switched back to McLaren again, sharing the garage with Niki Lauda, with whom he also lost the first year, 1984. Prost was only able to capture the championship in his sixth year in Formula 1. Perhaps he is the multi-champion who took the longest time to be crowned. But Max already broke that record...
Precisely Niki Lauda, may well be another reference. The Austrian became Formula 1 Champion in his fourth year, and his second at Ferrari.
But if it seems to us that those times cannot be compared with the current era, let's come closer in time.
And let's look at other mega-stars. Michael Schumacher, the current king of championships. He debuted early in 1991, but only ran six races with two different teams. His first full year of F1 was 1992, and in 1994, his third season, he was world champion.
Fernando Alonso, who returns to race next year and will share track with Verstappen, debuted in 2001, did not race in 2002, and returned in 2003, to consecrate himself in 2005, that is to say in his fourth year of F1.
Sebastian Vettel. Another example, even closer, because he did it in the decade that is currently ending, and with Red Bull, just like Verstappen. The German debuted in 2007 with BMW Sauber and then moved up to Toro Rosso, but only ran eight GPs, somewhat similar to what happened with Schumi. But since 2008, in Toro Rosso in a stable way, and even winning at a very young age as Max did, he had to wait for 2010 to become World Champion, in his second year at Red Bull, in his third year in Formula 1.
Finally, the reigning king. Lewis Hamilton. He made his F1 debut at McLaren in 2007, and could well have been champion that same year, but had to wait for the second season to be crowned for the first time.
Of course there were other champions who had to wait long to reign.
Mika Hakkinen and Kimi Raikkonen had to wait seven years. For Jenson Button it took ten seasons, for Nico Rosberg 11, and for Nigel Mansell 12 seasons. But is Verstappen that kind of driver for Formula 1?
His 'quarantine' is already very long. But does Max have more options? Mercedes would have the chance to consecrate "The Great Senna", but Hamilton feels very comfortable there, and although there are ongoing negotiations between him and Toto Wolff, nothing suggests that this seat will be free before 2022. But what would happen if Hamilton wins this and the next championship and is it going? Although George Russell is in Wolff's quarry, wouldn't Verstappen be much more attractive to continue the crushing Mercedes era? Both will be 24 years old in 2022, but Max will hold 8 Formula 1 seasons, and Russell just three.
Does Ferrari look like yet another option for Verstappen? It sounds less possible, but it is not so far-fetched. It is true that in Maranello they have decided to completely rely on Charles Leclerc, who until now has shown that he deserves this privileged status. But Ferrari consumed Alain Prost, Nigel Mansell, Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel himself without achieving any championships. In fact, there was a talented young man, surprise, idol, who came to Ferrari and did nothing either: Jean Alesi. He debuted in F1 in mid-1989 and entered Maranello in 1991, but was barely able to claim a victory until 1995. At that time, Alesi, with a Tyrrell, fought races against Senna's mighty McLaren-Honda and looked like a star with the same brightness that is currently expected from Leclerc.
Could it be a good plan B for Ferrari to have Verstappen in Maranello, as Schumacher in 1996, as part of a general reform plan?
No matter how many years Verstappen has covered with his contract, Red Bull's exit clauses are already known, and were even laundered when at a certain time of the year, if Max did not have a certain number of points, he was automatically released for the following year. And it is logical that this is. Is there a Plan B at Red Bull?
His seedbed has not given other diamonds like Verstappen to have a successor. In fact, they have turned to Alex Albon, who had been left out of the Junior program, and have recruited Daniil Kvyat again when they had banned him from Formula 1. If Verstappen decided to go in 2022, they will have no replacement.
That's where the figure of Sebastian Vettel comes in. Dear, well acknowledged, endearing. He was the only Red Bull World Champion, he is outside Ferrari, with his pride wounded, and his thirst for sports revenge evident. Red Bull, if he wants to be champion again, has to attack two fronts. The driver today is Verstappen, without a doubt, but he has only two cars against at least 4 Mercedes, which could be 6 in 2021. Alpha Tauri is already powered by Honda, it is a matter of giving it more technical directions in order to make further progress. And given the evidence in the Mercedes-Racing Point case, Helmut Marko himself has said that they may be going down a similar path with their Italy-based junior team.
If the Racing Point seat looks attractive to Vettel, why wouldn't Alpha Tauri's also be attractive if they “copy” the RB16 for 2022 with the same engines as the current designed main team car by Adrian Newey?
Author: Diego Zorrero