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How Verstappen is keeping the F1 driver market hostage

Power struggles at Red Bull may be opening the door for a shock departure of its prized asset Max Verstappen, which would have been unthinkable just weeks ago.
Needless to say the touted possibility of Verstappen activating certain exit clauses to move before the end of his 2028 deal has put rival teams on high alert.
Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff openly stated the triple world champion would be his number one target to replace outbound Lewis Hamilton, who is trading the Silver Arrows for Ferrari.
Aston Martin also appears to be sniffing around Verstappen and according to Autosport's sister site Italy, an offer to Red Bull's star designer Adrian Newey combined with Honda works engines for 2026 could be seen as an attempt to recreate the right environment to entice him.
Since Hamilton's departure announcement, numerous drivers and their managers have thrown their hats in the ring and contacted Wolff about his vacant seat, but until Verstappen either pledges his loyalty to Red Bull or announces a shock exit of his own, Mercedes won't be in a hurry to decide.
"As much as we were taken aback by Lewis’ decision so quickly, now I really want to take my time," Wolff told Fox Sports Australia in Melbourne.
Toto Wolff, Team Principal and CEO, Mercedes-AMG F1 Team (Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images)
"We have a slot free, the only one in the top teams – unless [he] decides he goes, then the slot is not going to be free with us anymore.
"There are a few options that are really interesting for us – from the very young super talent to some of the other ones, who are very experienced.
"That’s not going to happen in the next few weeks or months. I want to continue to monitor the market. It depends on what Max does."
While it remains to seen if Mercedes protege Andrea Kimi Antonelli, the "very young super talent" Wolff mentions, will even be ready for an early promotion after a single season of F2, Verstappen's impasse is also having a snowball effect on current drivers eyeing the seat. The likes of Fernando Alonso, Carlos Sainz, Esteban Ocon and Alex Albon have all been touted as possible replacements.
Sainz's case is the most pressing, as unlike his aforementioned colleagues he doesn't have the option of staying where he is. Sainz was collateral damage in Ferrari's audacious push for Hamilton and is now actively looking for a job.
The Spaniard's stock has risen in recent years thanks to his tenacious performances alongside Charles Leclerc, emphasised by impressive wins in Singapore last year and most recently in Melbourne, the only non-Red Bull driver to win grands prix over the past 500 days.
Carlos Sainz, Scuderia Ferrari, Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes-AMG (Photo by: Simon Galloway / Motorsport Images)
Initially, Verstappen seems to dictate which top seat remains open for Sainz to slot into.
If Verstappen remains where he is and Mercedes goes for a different option, then Sainz is in a tricky position. The much-reported interest from Sauber, which will become Audi in two years, would then be his best bet, although it would inevitably present a risky downgrade in the short term.
But Sainz has now also emerged as an option for Red Bull's second seat of Sergio Perez. Intriguingly it was team boss Christian Horner - of all people - who brought up his name unprompted in Melbourne.
When asked about RB driver Yuki Tsunoda's prospects of being promoted to the main team, Horner replied: "Look, Yuki's a very quick driver, we know that. But I think we want to field the best pairing that we can in Red Bull Racing. And sometimes you've got to look outside the pool as well.
"You've had a very fast, unemployed driver win today’s race, so the market is reasonably fluid with certain drivers. Based on a performance like that [from Sainz] you couldn't rule any possibility out."
Regardless of whether Red Bull will have one or two seats to fill, incumbent Perez has so far done what he needed to do to strengthen his case. Add the apparent lack of momentum behind Tsunoda and Daniel Ricciardo's tough start to 2024, and Perez's odds appear to have improved.
"Obviously Checo was compromised [in the Australian GP], commented Horner. "He's had a great start to the season too, so we're not in any desperate rush."
Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing, is interviewed after Qualifying (Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images)
Alonso similarly seems affected by Verstappen's fate, with the options ranging from staying with Aston Martin, targeting Mercedes or Red Bull, or retiring from F1 altogether.
But that's not how the 42-year-old sees it, as he will not let others "dictate my destiny".
"I've been always that way. Sometimes it did help me, sometimes it did hurt me to be the owner of my destiny," Alonso said. "I chose when to go from a team, when to join a team, I chose when to stop Formula 1 and I chose when to come back.
"And now I will choose what I do next year. I will not follow what others do and they dictate my destiny. I will do it on my own. For good or for bad, this is the way I am."
The dominoes of Verstappen, Sainz and Alonso are just the first of a long line as behind them, other drivers and teams are mulling over their next steps, from veterans like Valtteri Bottas to Alpine duo Ocon and Pierre Gasly and up and coming talents like Liam Lawson and Oliver Bearman.
It will be fascinating to see which of the numerous possible scenarios will play out over the coming weeks and months. Who is going to end the game of musical chairs in the plum seats, and who is going to miss out when the music stops?
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