Opinion: Why Mercedes' 2020 driver call is all about Verstappen

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As Formula 1 headed into the summer break, the big story gathering pace surrounded Valtteri Bottas' fate at Mercedes in 2020.

The Finn knew from the start of this season that his future would be subject to speculation after a rough 2018 and the presence of Esteban Ocon as reserve driver.

Initially, Bottas rose to the challenge by securing his most convincing F1 victory to date in Australia, sending a defiant message after failing to win at all in 2018.

However, since then he has only won once more in Baku and currently sits 62 points behind teammate Lewis Hamilton in the championship and only seven clear of Max Verstappen in third.

That is pretty disappointing when you consider Bottas' performances in qualifying, albeit losing the head-to-head 7-5, as well as the dominance of the Mercedes car.

The outlook then seemed to change after Hockenheim when team boss Toto Wolff criticised Valtteri for crashing out and suggested Ocon deserved a chance alongside Hamilton.

Another poor result in Hungary didn't help, and here we are with a situation where a driver who appeared to have turned a corner is now staring at the exit door.

While that covers the performance angle to the decision facing Mercedes, as the title suggests, the main factors go way beyond that and yes, central to it is Verstappen.

Links between the Dutchman and the Brackley-based squad have come up several times during his career.

Mercedes battled Red Bull for his signature before he raced in European F3 and it is the constant threat of a move which led to his promotion to the senior team in 2016 and a lucrative new contract in 2017.

This year, there has also been speculation of behind-the-scenes talks, and if the team does opt to continue with Bottas that may well signal that Max will make the move when his current deal expires at the end of 2020.

If Wolff doesn't see that as a strong possibility, however, then he has very little choice but to insert Ocon at the expense of the Finn.

That's because Mercedes need to look long-term by ensuring they have a driver that can instantly take on a Verstappen-led Red Bull and a Leclerc-led Ferrari, as well as others when Hamilton does eventually retire.

And as good as he is, Esteban will need a year to get back upto speed following a season on the sidelines, plus he'll also need time to settle in at the front of the F1 grid before he can show that potential.

What is pretty clear is Mercedes' future line-up will be George Russell and Max Verstappen or Esteban Ocon.

The current Williams driver is gaining crucial experience and is essentially being prepared to be Hamilton's eventual replacement.

A Verstappen/Ocon partnership is completely out of the question because there is simply too much history and needle between them.

It's a rivalry that extends well past their fracas at last year's Brazilian GP, with the pair going head-to-head in European F3 in 2014 and even back to karting.

It wouldn't be a stretch to suggest Ocon is the driver that could stop Verstappen challenging the F1 record books in the future and so putting them in the same team would be a recipe for disaster.

This is why Mercedes face such a tough and complex decision for 2020...

Do they stick with Bottas in anticipation of signing Verstappen, or do they promote Ocon in the knowledge they need to nullify the Dutchman in the future?

Soon enough we may well know the answer.

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