Villeneuve: Wolff just baiting Red Bull with Verstappen talk

Max Verstappen (NLD) Red Bull Racing on the grid. 24.03.2024. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 3, Australian Grand Prix, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia, Race Day. -, EMail: © Copyright: Batchelor / XPB Images
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Former Formula 1 world champion Jacques Villeneuve believes that Toto Wolff's recent comments about being interested in signing Max Verstappen are simply a case of the Mercedes boss getting under the skin of their Red Bull rivals.

Since the beginning of the season, reports about internal divisions at Red Bull have provoked speculation that Verstappen might be seeking an early exit from the world championship-winning team.

And Wolff has picked up on such talk, telling the media that he would certainly be interested in signing Verstappen as a replacement for Lewis Hamilton when he departs Mercedes for a new challenge at Ferrari in 2025.

Villeneuve doesn't believe this for a minute and feels that Wolff has no interest in signing Verstappen, and is simply trying to stir things up behind the scenes at Red Bull and annoy its team principal Christian Horner.

"I can't imagine Toto Wolff wanting Max," Villeneuve said this week, in quotes carried by the Daily Express newspaper. "The only way he would entertain the idea would just be to annoy Red Bull.

"I can't see him at Mercedes," Villeneuve continued, explaining that the squad was still smarting at the say Verstappen won his first title in controversial circumstances in the 2021 season finale. "They lost the championship to Red Bull and Max.

"It would definitely not be because [Wolff] really wanted Max, it would be more to do with wanting to get at Red Bull," Villeneuve insisted.

The speculation went up a notch after the Australian Grand Prix, which saw Verstappen fail to finish a race for the first time in 46 outings after a brake fire forced him to retire after just two laps.

Max Verstappen (NLD) Red Bull Racing RB20 with a smoking rear brake that led to his retirement. 24.03.2024. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 3, Australian Grand Prix, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia, Race Day. -, EMail: © Copyright: Bearne / XPB Images

A frustrated Verstappen took his anger out on the car in the garage, leaving many to wonder whether he might not be as much in love with the team as he once was. The departure of his trusted right-hand man, chief mechanic Lee Stevenson, is another unsettling development.

Verstappen won last year's title with a record 19 wins, but his lead in this year's championship took a knock in Melbourne when his retirement was quickly followed by a famous 1-2 win for Ferrari's Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc.

As a result, Red Bull's lead in the constructors championship has been slashed to just four points after three rounds, while Leclerc is the same gap behind Verstappen in the drivers standings.

That's a lot closer than anyone had been expecting after a perfect start to the current campaign in Bahrain and Jeddah. But he's still hot favourite to take a fourth consecutive championship at the end of the year.

Jacques Villeneuve (CDN) with Williams Racing. 18.11.2023. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 22, Las Vegas Grand Prix, Las Vegas, Nevada, USA, Race Day. -, EMail: © Copyright: Bearne / XPB Images

Even if Verstappen were to decide to leave, Villeneuve thinks that Red Bull would be able to able to fill the gap and find a worthy replacement, with veteran driver Fernando Alonso top of his own list of candidates.

"Would the team be as good without Horner? That is a difficult one. Would the team win without Verstappen? Probably," the Canadian commented.

"Max is winning because he has an amazing car, and Red Bull are winning because they have an amazing driver. But he is not the only amazing driver that exists: put Alonso in that car and he would be winning as well.

"I am sure Max believes he could win at Mercedes and at Ferrari as well, and that he would make a difference. He has to believe that, that he might be able to make that much of a difference.

"Right now he is beating [team mate Sergio] Perez, and that makes him look amazing," Villeneuve continued. "But we don't know how good Perez really is, we just know he's not as good as Verstappen."

Rather than focusing on Verstappen, Villeneuve was more concerned about the situation at Red Bull in the way of allegations of inappropriate behaviour against Horner, and talk of a vicious power struggle among top management.

"There are a lot of personal vendettas in there right now, both inside and outside of Red Bull," he said. "The whole thing is a mess."

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