Helmut Marko has recently taken a stroll down memory lane, reminding Toto Wolff of the time he made a pivotal decision to sign Esteban Ocon instead of Max Verstappen, declaring the latter’s talent as “not recognisable.” This anecdote sheds light on a significant moment in Formula 1 history when Verstappen was still a budding talent, far from the three-time World Champion he is today, boasting 49 wins, 93 podiums, and numerous records to his name.
A decade ago, Max Verstappen was a karting sensation yearning to break into single-seater racing. His promising year in the European Formula 3 marked the beginning of a meteoric rise. Red Bull seized the opportunity, signing him in late 2014 and placing him in Toro Rosso the following year. However, for Toto Wolff, this period was one of missed opportunities. He disclosed that he had the chance to sign Max Verstappen for Mercedes but passed on it, stating, “Do I regret missing out on Max? Certainly. But it wasn’t an option back in the day. We had two drivers that I was extremely happy with, in Nico and Lewis, and when Nico left [at the end of 2016], Valtteri [Bottas] was then the option, and Max wasn’t even available.”
Helmut Marko, on the other hand, has a different perspective on this chapter of Formula 1 history. Marko suggested that Wolff simply did not recognize Verstappen’s exceptional talent, which led him to sign Ocon to Mercedes’ junior program and become the Frenchman’s manager. He shared his thoughts with OE24 about Gerhard Berger’s recent change of heart regarding Verstappen’s potential, with Berger now rating the 25-year-old driver on par with Ayrton Senna and predicting that Verstappen “will develop into the best driver” ever. Marko expressed his satisfaction that his compatriot had a change of heart, stating, “At first, he didn’t share my euphoria about Max. When I first came up with this comparison [Verstappen being like Senna], he said: ‘Now it’s over!'”
Gerhard Berger was not the only one doubting Verstappen’s class, as Marko pointed out. He added that Mr. Wolff also expressed reservations about Verstappen’s talent during that time and chose to sign Ocon, even taking on the role of Ocon’s manager.
Looking back a year ago, as Max Verstappen was on the verge of securing his second successive World title, Marko recalled the early days of Verstappen’s single-seater career when he compared him to the legendary Ayrton Senna. Interestingly, Berger was not impressed with Marko’s comments, prompting him to write a complaint. Marko revealed the content of the letter he received from Berger: “He [Verstappen] has fantastic control of the car – especially on the limits. That’s why I compared him to Ayrton Senna in his early years. I didn’t necessarily make friends with that. My good friend Gerhard Berger wrote to me at the time that the comparison was far too far-fetched.”