Why the F1 driver market is about to get busy again

The silly season went through a spell where it didn’t feel particularly silly anymore. After L Hamilton’s move to Ferrari was announced – certainly in the silly bracket, as nobody saw that coming – it set the tone for a huge amount of potential movement up and down the grid.

Most of those moves weren’t likely to come as a surprise as so many drivers were clearly out of contract. But the ‘silly’ part isn’t dead just yet, because there remains a genuine chance that Max Verstappen is on the move in 2025.

It’s impossible to guess at a percentage chance of it actually happening, but the upcoming outcome of the appeal into the decision to dismiss a grievance against Christian Horner’s behavior is likely to put the Red Bull situation back in the limelight, and with it could potentially come movement that opens a door for Verstappen’s departure.


Mercedes is the only destination that comes up in conversation in the paddock, amid growing confidence that it is the most likely power unit manufacturer to hit the ground running in 2026. While it’s always a risk to claim to know where each engine stacks up compared to rival designs, Mercedes can obviously have its own feelings of how well things are going and communicate that to Verstappen – who will have visibility of the Red Bull Powertrains project – if it wants.

It’s still very hard to shake the hugely important point of Red Bull’s success and the fact Verstappen is so likely to win a fourth straight title this year with the team that brought him into the sport in the first place. But those gaps are closing, and while he remains the early favorite for next year too, a 2025 title becomes less of a certainty with each little step from McLaren and Ferrari.

And if the Verstappen camp has enough confidence in what Mercedes is doing for 2026 onwards in terms of power unit, it could become a case of weighing up one likely drivers’ title against the potential for multiple more past that point.

None of the above is to say Verstappen is definitely going to leave Red Bull, but it explains just why there is a realistic decision to be made if the door opens for him to get out of his contract. The presence or otherwise of Helmut Marko appears to be one such avenue that could open up.

What all of that does mean, however, is that while Mercedes believes there is a chance of getting Verstappen, other aspects of the driver market are less likely to move. Carlos Sainz is understandably waiting for that situation to play out, because he would be an excellent option for Red Bull should Verstappen move on, even if it looks increasingly likely that Sergio Perez will be retained.

If Verstappen stays where he is then Mercedes has clearly been preparing Andrea Kimi Antonelli for a drive, but it’s not a guarantee that he’d be rushed through so quickly and that also leaves an outside chance that Sainz could still get the more solid two-year contract he’s looking for from Toto Wolff.

Sainz is watching how things play out so as to position himself for the best ride possible – but waiting to commit to a new home carries risks of its own. Andy Hone/Motorsport Images

Sainz likes Audi’s offer but wants to know what all of the firm options are before making a decision, and at this stage there are still too many hypothetical outcomes at Red Bull and Mercedes for him to be sure. Should he hold his nerve, then Audi is understood to be showing interest in multiple experienced drivers and could move on before Sainz has signed anywhere.

In that case, Williams can’t be ruled out as an outside option for the Spaniard to end up at, in part based on the aforementioned confidence in the Mercedes power unit. There’s no space at McLaren, so Williams is the only other customer team available ahead of 2026, and is an iconic name that would benefit from Sainz’s experience, while the driver has been impressed by team principal James Vowles’ ambition.

Logan Sargeant’s days appear numbered even if Vowles is a man of his word and insists the door isn’t closed. Unless Sargeant can show a significant step forward in performance in the coming races, a more experienced option could be called upon, with Valtteri Bottas – someone Vowles knows extremely well – open to a return to his former team.

Antonelli could also be an option depending on movement at Mercedes but that would put Williams in the position of developing another rookie, and the associated risks of crashes and the impact on the cost cap that brings.

As well as Bottas, the Alpine pair are believed to be on many shortlists given their race-winning pedigree and the struggles at Enstone. Pierre Gasly and Esteban Ocon are understood to be open to moves, although a works team is still an attractive proposition where they currently sit.

Perhaps a surprising team for both to be linked with is Haas, as it benefits from a far more competitive start to 2024 that has seen points scored in multiple races and Nico Hulkenberg regularly reaching Q3. Ollie Bearman remains a clear option for one of the two seats there, and team principal Ayao Komatsu told me on air on Sunday night that Kevin Magnussen is fighting for his future, but remains an option.

Yuki Tsunoda is also interested in Haas as he looks at a future away from the Red Bull program, with the senior team showing no firm interest in promoting him despite consistent strong performances. Movement with the Japanese driver would open the door for Liam Lawson – who was praised for his simulator work for RB over the Imola weekend – to finally step up full-time.

The urgency some drivers are working with is evident if Tsunoda does manage to secure a seat elsewhere, because if Verstappen stays put then there’s a chance Lawson, Bearman and Antonelli would then all join the grid, leaving three to lose their spots.

Sargeant and Zhou Guanyu are two in extremely precarious positions, with a third experienced name – from a long list of those above – then fearing being the one left standing when the music stops.

Story originally appeared on Racer