Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates | AFP |
A teenager who passed his driving test little more than a year ago, Max Verstappen is the extravagantly-talented ‘outsider’ set to create an upset in the final outcome of this year’s Formula One world championship this weekend.
If the 19-year-old Red Bull racer can win Sunday’s keenly-anticipated Abu Dhabi Grand Prix or split Mercedes duo Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton, who are duelling for the title, he may well be cast in the role of ‘king maker’ in F1’s chronicle.
German Nico Rosberg, who has won nine races this year, needs only to finish on the podium to clinch his maiden championship even if Lewis Hamilton claims his 10th win of the season. If not, and Hamilton wins, defending champion will claim his fourth.
“I think Max might become one of my best friends,” this weekend, joked 31-year-old Briton Hamilton. Rosberg, also 31, managed a wry grin.
He knows that if Hamilton is leading the race, it may be quite a battle to keep the young Dutchman and his Red Bull team-mate Australian Daniel Ricciardo behind him.
“I am only interested in winning and nothing else,” said Verstappen. “It is up to the championship contenders to run their own races. I want to beat them and win and whatever happens, the champion will be the one who deserves it in the end.”
Verstappen, the son of a former F1 racer, has proved already that he has the ability to win races, break records and embarrass former champions and senior team-mates without breaking sweat.
In May this year he became the youngest winner of a Grand Prix when he triumphed at the Circuit de Catalunya in Spain at the age of 18 years and 228 days, one of only two races not won by a Mercedes driver — the other went to Verstappen’s Red Bull team-mate Ricciardo in Malaysia.
That achievement meant he displaced four-time champion Sebastian Vettel, who has many times since clashed with the young Dutchman and frequently lost his temper.
If his Spanish win was a victory gifted by a collision between the two dominant Mercedes cars, he has long since shown he needs no special favours to succeed and impress.
In a series of spectacular drives, he has mixed aggression with precision and provocative blocking moves with outstanding skill to establish himself as a champion-in-waiting just six months after switching from perennial midfielders Toro Rosso to former champions Red Bull.
His win in Spain was delivered with astonishing aplomb on his debut with his new team and came after only 23 outings in an F1 car.
Many observers believe that a similar performance or, if needed, a repeat of his stunning wet weather rush to the podium in Brazil could carry him into a position to influence the destination of this year’s drivers’ title.
His performance in Sao Paulo where he recovered from 16th to finish third in torrential rain was praised as one of the greatest wet-weather drives in the history of the sport.
On Friday, he was less spectacular as he struggled slightly with tyre degrading and engine power problems to take fourth place at the end of two free practice sessions.
He was also blocked on one of his best laps, an inconvenience that he said cost him at least two-tenths of a second and left him half a second off Hamilton’s fastest pace.
“I think it will be tight here,” said Verstappen. “Ferrari is looking quite strong here this weekend, but I am sure we can be stronger.”
Verstappen is trying not only to claim a podium finish, or win.
He is also keen to claim fourth place in the drivers’ championship in which, before the race, he is just five points behind Vettel – the man with whom he has had a series of run-ins and rows.
The most notable came in Mexico last month when Vettel erupted into a wild rant littered with swear words after Verstappen had moved to defend his position in the final laps when the Ferrari driver was attempting to pass him.
In the end, both men were demoted from third place after the race and Ricciardo in the second Red Bull was promoted to finish behind the two Mercedes men.
That astonishing episode confirmed Verstappen’s arrival as a true threat to the senior school drivers and ended his ‘honeymoon’ as a boy with high potential.
On Sunday, with his father Jos cheering him on, the easy-natured and easy-going teenage superstar has ever chance of delivering a storyline that will top all that.