If Max Verstappen carries on where he left off, this season’s Formula One title race could be a thrilling three-way tussle.
Whether the Dutchman is competitive against Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes or Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari depends less on Verstappen’s undoubted ability and more on his Red Bull vehicle’s questionable reliability.
Problems with the Renault engine powering Red Bull’s car cost Verstappen and his former teammate Daniel Ricciardo multiple retirements from races in the past two years. Red Bull ditched Renault and trusted the future to Honda, despite the Japanese engine provider’s much-publicized problems with McLaren in recent years.
Give Verstappen a car that lasts the distance and you could get a Formula Champion this year. Pre-season testing left him feeling optimistic.
“Our performance seems pretty promising and we hope to be competitive from the beginning of the year,” he said. “Overall, I think we have a pretty good package, but we won’t know where we are until we get into the race weekend and see if we have closed the gap to Mercedes and Ferrari.”
Verstappen will find that out next Sunday, when the season kicks off at the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne. He will line up on the grid alongside a new and ambitious teammate in 23-year-old Frenchman Pierre Gasly, a rival from their junior karting days. Gasly has a steely streak that could test Verstappen, after some awkward moments with Ricciardo led to Verstappen alluding to head-butting media .
Temper has always been an issue with Verstappen.
But in terms of pure ability, only five-time champion Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso _ now retired _ have been better than the 21-year-old Dutchman since he burst onto the scene in 2015. But in the latter stages of last year’s F1 campaign, Verstappen was so good he even outclassed Hamilton on occasion.
Verstappen had four podium finishes in the last four races of last season and scored 76 points to Hamilton’s 77. It would have been 83-70 to Verstappen if not for a moment of brazen and unjustifiable one-upmanship by French driver Esteban Ocon during the Brazilian GP.
Despite having already been lapped, Ocon refused to let race leader Verstappen go past him _ something he never would have done with Hamilton behind him. Instead they tangled and bumped, sending Verstappen’s car spinning back to second place and pushing Hamilton up to first.
Verstappen found Ocon after the race shoved him three times before angrily pointing a finger at him as he walked away. He was typically unrepentant over his altercation , even suggesting the French driver got away lightly.
“I thought it was quite a calm response,” he said. “What do you expect me to do? Shake his hand and say, `Thanks very much.”’
Don’t expect anything different from Verstappen, who simply does not deal in diplomacy. For while he has curtailed some of his the overly risky driving that drew criticism from Vettel and even the unflappable Kimi Raikkonen , the only currency Verstappen deals in is victory.
Verstappen was 18 when he became the youngest driver to win an F1 race and to qualify on the front row of the grid.
He says he’s now more mature, calmed by the two days of community service he was ordered to do by F1’s governing body following the Ocon incident. It was hardly exerting, he had only to attend a Formula E race in Morocco as an observer.
But it had a surprisingly illuminating effect on the hot-blooded Verstappen, who understood how difficult things are for stewards on race day in the slower Formula E format _ let alone the full-throttle world of F1.
With his speed intact and his temper in check, Verstappen appears ready to challenge Hamilton and Vettel.
Whether his car allows remains a key question.