Hungarian GP: Max Verstappen not going to Mercedes

Max Verstappen

Verstappen is the first Dutch driver to secure a pole position in Formula 1

Max Verstappen is a matter-of-fact sort of guy, and it was in that vein that he treated his first Formula 1 pole position after a superb performance at the Hungarian Grand Prix.

“I knew it was a matter of time,” the Red Bull driver said. “It has been a while but, anyway, to get it today was very nice and one of the best tracks to get it on. Just a great day. I was just very happy when I crossed the line.”

There is no boastfulness in those comments. They are just a reflection of his own awareness about how good he is, his position in Formula 1, and a clear-sighted recognition of what is important. That being, specifically this weekend, the race, and beyond that, at some point in the future, a world championship.

Victory number eight could well follow on Sunday, all things being equal, as long as Verstappen can make a good start.

That’s something that has evaded him in two of the last three races – Verstappen dropped down the field from second on the grid in both Austria and Germany, but went on to win both races anyway.

Were the same thing to happen again, recovering would be much more difficult in Hungary, one of the tracks where it is most difficult to overtake.

His qualifying performance was truly impressive. Verstappen arrived in Hungary playing down claims he could be favourite for this race, after two wins in the previous three races and on a track that seemed to play to the strengths of Red Bull.

Verstappen said Red Bull are “closing in on the front-runners all the time” after securing pole in Hungary

But he has been quick throughout the weekend, wet or dry, and was fastest in first qualifying, just pipped by Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes in the second session, and then quickest on both runs in the top 10 shoot-out.

“It feels good,” he said. “But the whole weekend the car was very competitive.

“It’s always a question how it will work out in qualifying where we know (Mercedes) can turn up a bit more power. But the car was incredible. It was really enjoyable to drive. I didn’t have any comments on the car, I just said: ‘Keep it going’. To get your first pole is always a special one, but what happens on Sunday is what counts.”

Afterwards, Hamilton, beaten to second by team-mate Valtteri Bottas, complained of the car going away from him in final qualifying. He said there was “everything to play for” in the race, but admitted: “If I get a great start we might have a battle to Turn One. If not, it’s all about strategy.”

Mercedes driver choice looming – but it won’t be Verstappen

Verstappen beat Bottas to pole by 0.018 seconds

Bottas knows that team boss Toto Wolff heads into the summer break with a decision to make over who will partner Hamilton at Mercedes next season, so it was perfect timing for the Finn to beat the world champion into third place. A good race wouldn’t go amiss either.

All summer, there have been rumours about Verstappen potentially joining Mercedes. But that is not going to happen.

Verstappen already has a contract with Red Bull for 2020, but it has a performance clause in it that could have made him potentially free for next season.

The clause, BBC Sport has been told, says Verstappen is free to move only if he is not in the top three of the championship after the Hungarian Grand Prix.

Given that Verstappen goes into the race in that position already and 21 points ahead of Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, the only way that could happen is if Vettel wins and Verstappen fails to finish. As the Ferraris are not competitive this weekend, that is an extremely unlikely scenario.

In any case, there will be no bid from Mercedes – Wolff made clear on Saturday that his choice was between Bottas and reserve driver Esteban Ocon.

“He is at Red Bull,” Wolff said. “He has a contract. He is committed to Red Bull. This is where he is racing this year and this is where he is going to race the year after and anything else is very much out in the open.”

As for Bottas and Ocon, Wolff said he would decide over the summer break – and that if only one of them was available, it would be a “no-brainer” to give them the drive. Of the two of them, as things stand, the Finn is probably slight favourite to retain the seat.

Although Wolff has had concerns about fluctuations in Bottas’ form after an impressive start to the season, in which he led the championship after the first four races, it is far from clear that Ocon would be a step up. No one can know for sure.

On top of that, promoting the Frenchman – a more combative character than Bottas – would change the dynamic in the team in ways that create uncertainty Wolff probably does not need. Equally, Ocon is still only 22 and relatively inexperienced – and Wolff may prefer he spends more time developing elsewhere.

There is interest in Ocon elsewhere – notably at Renault, where Nico Hulkenberg is out of contract and looking shaky. But also potentially at Haas and Alfa Romeo.

Russell makes his mark

Russell was 1.293secs quicker than team-mate Kubica

Another driver in the Mercedes stable is George Russell, who has impressed all year at Williams, but never more than at the Hungaroring on Sunday.

An aerodynamic upgrade introduced at the previous race in Germany has transformed the car, and – perhaps most importantly – enabled Williams to make the notoriously difficult tyres work better than at any point so far this season.

The change was remarkable – from fighting a private battle with team-mate Robert Kubica all season, Russell was just over 0.1secs from making it into second qualifying, and qualified 16th, ahead of both Racing Points and Daniel Ricciardo’s Renault, which admittedly hampered itself by getting caught in a traffic queue at the start of the Australian’s final lap.

Russell was also nearly 1.3secs quicker than team-mate Robert Kubica – who said he was struggling for grip – and described his qualifying as “by far the stand-out performance for us”.

“It’s been an incredibly tough year from so many aspects,” Russell said. “Going into the summer break, it is really what we needed as a team. This is not just from my side – we really did this together.”

Overall, it’s hard to judge Russell’s performances this season, because Kubica has been his only yardstick, and the Pole has been out of F1 for eight years, and there are question marks over whether he is the formidable driver he once was.

All the same, there are signs that Russell will be a star of the future and is certainly making a name for himself.

Russell tweeted: “Amazing effort from everyone in the team – the car came alive today!!”

He is committed to Williams at least until the end of next year, and possibly beyond. Wolff ruled out a premature promotion to Mercedes, but made it plain that he holds Russell in high regard.

“You’ve got consider that these guys come into F1 at a very young age,” Wolff said. “There are exceptions to the norm – such as Max Verstappen, who has been given an environment at Toro Rosso and Red Bull with the room to learn and make mistakes.

“I don’t think you are given the possibility to learn in a Mercedes because you are being put in a car that is able to win races and championships in a high-pressure environment and it can go terribly wrong for a young driver that has the talent to become a world champion if he’s thrown in that environment next to the best driver of his generation who has been with us for seven years. And I wouldn’t want to burn George.

“Equally I think he is in a very good place with Williams, to help them to learn and come back and perform, learn and appreciate when a car functions well.

“I spoke to him after qualifying and he was very happy they have more understanding how to tune the car. And it is these moments he needs to learn to appreciate (so that) if one day he is given a car that fights for championships and races he appreciates that situation as well. it would come too early.

“And on top of that, I try to be respectful to all contracts we sign. We knew what we were doing and he is at Williams. This is where he has to learn.”

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