RACE DEBRIEF

    A huge piece of the 2021 driver market puzzle was slotted into place on day seven of 2020, with Red Bull announcing they had convinced Max Verstappen to sign a contract extension – and a long one at that. But why has he put pen to paper so early?

    The 2021 driver merry-go-around looked set to be the most exciting in living memory, with almost all of the grid – including the key protagonists – out of contract at the end of the current campaign. And driver-move chatter looked set to dominate the news agenda.

    But Red Bull chief Christian Horner said last year he wouldn’t be surprised if everybody ended up in the same seats. And it’s a prediction that is showing signs of coming true.

    READ MORE: Verstappen commits to Red Bull until the end of 2023

    First Ferrari announced what many had predicted – a contract extension for Charles Leclerc at the end of last year, keeping the Monegasque at the Scuderia until at least 2024. And now Red Bull have got in early by tying up another of 2019’s race winners in Verstappen (whose deal was set to expire at the end of this year) for another three years, until the end of 2023.

    You can see why Red Bull were keen to get things done and dusted quickly. They need Verstappen more than he needs them. Should he have left, Red Bull would have been without an experienced top line driver. Alex Albon isn’t ready to take over the lead driver mantle, while Alpha Tauri’s Daniil Kvyat and Pierre Gasly are unlikely to the be the ones Red Bull turn to either.

    Below them, the junior pool is looking pretty light, which means bringing through a driver of Verstappen’s ilk to the senior team in the next few years is unlikely. Tying him to a long-term deal – he'll be there for at least the next four seasons (making it eight in total) – gives them crucial stability during a new era for F1, when new sporting, technical and financial rules will come into play.

    READ MORE: 10 ways the 2021 rules will improve F1

    F1 Grand Prix of Abu Dhabi

    Speaking to Horner in Abu Dhabi last year, he told me: "[Max] is arguably the most in-form driver currently in Formula 1. Becoming the clear team leader in experience and pace, he took on that responsibility [in 2019]. And I think that he's very much a rounded package now. If we give him the right tools next year, then I've got every confidence that he can take the fight to Lewis and Mercedes and Ferrari.”

    Verstappen had the leverage in negotiations, which accelerated over the winter break, given he knew his value to Red Bull – the brand that brought him into F1, of course.

    READ MORE: 2020 will be 'much tougher' for Mercedes – Wolff

    So key to Red Bull keeping the Dutchman was their success in getting Honda to stay in F1 until at least the end of 2021. Verstappen admires Honda’s work ethic and their attention to detail. The Japanese manufacturer have appreciated his feedback and desire to work together and they consider him a very important part of the project.

    They share the same passion for Formula 1. There’s a raw emotion that fuses them together to build a relationship that is not easy to find in racing. Verstappen pushed Red Bull to get Honda to stick around – he knew the value of a committed engine manufacturer who delivers on their progress, having suffered so much misery with Renault.

    Honda knew that if they were to succeed in F1, keeping Verstappen would be crucial

    READ MORE: Five bold predictions for the 2020 F1 season

    Red Bull pushed Honda hard last year to commit. Red Bull Motorsport Advisor Helmut Marko had several meetings with Honda chief Masashi Yamamoto to discuss a new contract and the need for more performance. He wanted to impress on them that progress on both were crucial to keep Verstappen for next year. Honda, too, knew that if they were to succeed in F1, keeping Verstappen would be crucial.

    The Japanese manufacturer were wavering, unsure whether to commit to F1. But the on-track success – led by Verstappen, who scored three wins and a career-best third in the drivers’ championship – plus the continued gains in performance and an increasingly tight relationship with Red Bull, led Honda to stay until at least the end of 2021. Verstappen will know that if he keeps on winning, it’ll make it harder for Honda to leave. Make them stay and together with Red Bull, the trio can become a formidable force, much like Michael Schumacher and Ferrari.

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    Verstappen has looked very happy at Red Bull since joining the senior team in 2016, and despite the frustration of not yet having a car capable of challenging for the title, he knew they still offered him one of the best – if not the best – chance of achieving his ultimate goal.

    In theory, Verstappen had a plethora of options for 2021. World champions Mercedes and their closest challengers in 2019 Ferrari both had at least one seat available for 2021. But the reality was different. It’s no secret Mercedes had been interested in signing Verstappen early in his career – and he will be of interest to them going forward.

    But it has become increasingly likely six-time world champion Lewis Hamilton – linked with Ferrari in Abu Dhabi before the prospect cooled in the weeks after – will nails his colours to the Silver Arrows’ mast for the next few years. And while he’s in town, it’s unlikely Mercedes will want to risk rocking the boat by putting Verstappen alongside him, even if he offers a better long-term prospect.

    READ MORE: What F1 in 2019 can tell us about 2020

    Ferrari were not keen to pair Leclerc with Verstappen, a driver with whom he has had a tumultuous relationship so far

    The Dutchman is only 22 and will be just 26 – nine years younger than Hamilton is now – when his latest Red Bull extension ends, meaning there’s plenty of time for him to form an alliance with Mercedes should the two parties wish to do so.

    Similarly at Ferrari, by committing to Leclerc until the end of 2024, the Prancing Horse were not keen to pair the Monegasque with Verstappen – a driver with whom he has had a tumultuous relationship so far.

    With all this in mind, and Red Bull very keen, Verstappen realised sticking with Red Bull, a team that wants to continue to build around him, was the way to go – and there was no point delaying it.

    A three-year deal is quite a commitment from both sides. Both will have made promises to each other on what they feel can be achieved. Now they have to deliver on them. It’s going to be fun watching them try.