When Max Verstappen put pen to paper on a Red Bull contract, not a Mercedes one, the history of Formula 1 shifted – creating a timeline that has already made him the sport’s youngest Grand Prix winner.
In some Sliding Doors-style scenario, or parallel universe, what if Verstappen had signed for Mercedes instead, with whom he and his team of advisors had spoken via Toto Wolff and Niki Lauda.
He’d have been put in its queue, and forced to wait for Lewis Hamilton or Nico Rosberg to fall from their prized positions as race drivers of F1’s all-conquering team.
Let’s say Mercedes funded him into GP2 in 2015, and he was dominating in his second year (his rookie season would’ve been a stretch). Where would that put him for 2017?
Sure, perhaps pushing Rosberg hard – maybe Nico’s recent contract extension wouldn’t have been signed so quickly – but what else would he have got? A Force India drive? Williams? Manor? A standing-around reserve driver role?
Suffice to say, his decision was proved correct. Red Bull’s far more fluid attitude towards its drivers suited his shooting star. It allowed itself to be bent to his precocious talent, while Mercedes would likely have stood firm and not taken any big risks.
But the fact remains Mercedes missed out on signing Verstappen – it simply couldn’t match what Red Bull was offering in terms of an F1 seat there and then, and he was in a rush.
So what did they do next?
The might of Mercedes
But Mercedes is no fool when it comes to spotting talent. It has been nurturing gifted drivers for years, and its longstanding F3 engine program has been a cute way of aligning itself with hot prospects.
Its DTM activity has also worked as a holding pen, a good conduit for teaching racecraft on one hand, working with a manufacturer on the other. It exposes its youths to the fans, giving them a grounding of what’s expected of them off the track too.
Enter Pascal Wehrlein and Esteban Ocon. They both had Mercedes motivation, with Mucke and Prema respectively, in F3. Both moved into DTM, where Wehrlein would be crowned champion.
Ocon’s tale is slightly different, as his unprecedented back-to-back F3 and GP3 titles meant he his stock is higher in terms of single-seater pedigree at least – hence his slightly odd Mercedes/Renault share deal of recent times.
Ocon is now managed by Mercedes via Gwen Lagrue, who was with him in his previous stable at Gravity Sport Management. So my reading is this: after missing out on Verstappen, Mercedes is not willing to miss another trick with a potential star driver.
With Renault kindly providing some FP1 running that it couldn’t offer, Mercedes has been instrumental in this Ocon promotion to Manor in F1 so he doesn't get any ideas about being lured away by a rival manufacturer team.
I can’t fault its logic. It will give Ocon his chance to show he’s ready for F1. It also gifts a barometer to compare him with Wehrlein, who has shown flashes of utter genius (not least in Austria) combined with some ‘meh’ qualifying performances against Rio Haryanto.
With Hamilton targeting an F1 retirement in the early 2020s, now is the time to be positioning yourself as his successor – if Mercedes remains the constant force in the sport.
Its ‘chance of a lifetime’ race seats are rare to come by.
Hey, and if things don’t work out, there’s plenty of Merc-powered F1 teams around, plus the fallback of its DTM and GT programs if you don’t make the grade. Mercedes has provided a good number of professional race drivers with a comfortable living.
It’s all about grabbing the opportunity, because if Werhlein and Ocon don’t make the grade, there’s the likes of Lance Stroll or even Lando Norris in the long queue forming behind them.
It’s all about being in the right place at the right time.