SOCHI, Russia -- Red Bull chief Helmut Marko says he would only consider signing Esteban Ocon to Toro Rosso if Mercedes cut all its existing ties with the Frenchman.
Ocon looks set to be the biggest loser from this year's remarkable developments in the driver market, with several of his best options closing up and Lance Stroll likely to replace him at Force India. Mercedes boss Toto Wolff has blamed Ocon's struggle to find a seat on "hidden agendas" and "lies" from his team's rivals.
Despite several teams being reluctant to sign him while still affiliated with Mercedes, a defiant Wolff has declared he would not release Ocon "in a million years", as he is convinced he will be a future world champion. Red Bull team boss Christian Horner has criticised Wolff for not spending money to secure Ocon's future or promoting him to Mercedes' factory team.
Marko, the man who oversees Red Bull's driver programme, has made it clear what needs to happen for the Austrian company to consider making a move.
"We have a seat. Mercedes doesn't have a seat," Marko told Sky Sports on Saturday. "If he's free from all contracts, we could discuss it. I mean all contracts."
When asked if he would be interested if Ocon was freed from that deal, Marko reiterated again: "Free of all contracts, yeah."
Toro Rosso now has just one seat remaining for next year, following confirmation of Daniil Kvyat's comeback in 2019. The Russian driver -- who has been working as Ferrari's development driver this year-- will replace Pierre Gasly, who is making the move up to Red Bull to fill the void left by Daniel Ricciardo's move to Renault.
Marko used the same interview to say Brendon Hartley will be retained if he beats Gasly in the remaining six races of the season -- adding that the Kiwi driver "knows" the target -- before explaining why the team handed another chance to Kvyat, who was dropped twice in 2017 and cut from the Red Bull programme entirely.
"Daniil changed," he said. "He is a far more mature personality. He was working with a different team, so he saw the whole atmosphere and working programme, and he also found out how difficult it is to get a Formula One seat.
"We stayed in contact all over that time. He was well-informed what Ricciardo was going to do. He knew it before most other people knew it. He did a smart call just before Ricciardo called me. We will give him a third chance because we always believed he's very fast, but his mental problems, I think he has solved. He is a far more mature driver, and I'm sure we will see some very positive races from him.
"He went to Ferrari [as a test driver] and thought maybe there is a chance or was hoping for a [race] seat. When he realised he's not in the frame, he started talking more intensely with us, and I'm sure we will see the real Kvyat again."