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Max Verstappen looking to cement place at F1's top table in 2018

It is the sign of a truly great Formula 1 driver when new rules are written specifically because of what they have achieved.

It happened to Michael Schumacher. The German and his Ferrari team were so relentlessly successful in the early 2000s that qualifying was changed and the points system tweaked in an attempt to curb their dominance.

But in this respect not even Schumacher can match Max Verstappen, who had prompted a rule change before even making his grand prix debut.

It is now three years since Max arrived at the top level of the sport with Toro Rosso. Aged just 17, he became the youngest driver ever to start a grand prix when he debuted in Australia.

Australian F1 Grand Prix - Previews

It’s a record that will never be broken. In reaction to Max’s rapid rise the FIA placed a new age restriction on incoming drivers, with 18 now the minimum number of birthdays that must be celebrated before racing a grand prix car.

What’s more, a new driver needs to have spent at least two years “running in minor formulas” before being able to attain the superlicence required to race in F1. This “experience criteria” was also a reaction to Verstappen, who had completed a solitary year in Formula 3 between leaving karting and arriving in F1.

Though the extent of Verstappen’s phenomenal talent is becoming clear, that statement still sounds remarkable. To transition from karts to F1 in just over a year is a leap without parallel anywhere else in sport.

For Verstappen the shift was pretty seamless. If he was ever nervous or suffering from self-doubt, it didn’t show.

Now, with three full seasons and as many grand prix victories under his belt, the Dutchman appears ready to take the final step towards maturity: challenging for a world title.

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A UNIQUE TALENT

When Verstappen was preparing for his debut there were mutterings that he should simply not be allowed to compete in F1 at such a young age.

What has followed makes it seem as though Max’s detractors were campaigning on behalf of the flat earth society, though their uncertainty did have some legitimacy back then. In most cases, a 17-year-old with one season in F3 would categorically not be ready for F1.

But, with 10 wins in his maiden year of single-seater racing, Verstappen had already shown signs of being the exception to a lot of rules.

He was plainly there on merit. Red Bull had snapped Max up and placed him with their junior team Toro Rosso. They had spotted something very special in the youngster, enough to convince them that he didn’t require a conventional education.

They were quickly proven correct. Verstappen scored points in just his second race (becoming the youngest driver ever to do so) and finished 12th in the world championship, well clear of his very capable teammate Carlos Sainz Jr.

2016 began in a similar fashion but took a dramatic twist when Red Bull decided to ditch the semi-underperforming Daniil Kvyat and promote Max to the senior team.

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This decision was questioned, too. Some felt that Red Bull has been hasty in showing Kvyat the exit, that they had simply traded one talented but inexperienced driver for another.

Then Verstappen won his first race with Red Bull. The questions stopped.

There was further evidence of Max’s ability in his phenomenal wet-weather drive in Brazil later that year, followed by two more victories to make a tough 2017 seem very positive.

His victory in Malaysia was particularly impressive, won on pace against the Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton. Max reeled the champion-elect in, passed him coolly, then simply pulled away.

Lewis is among those to recognise the sport’s next big star. After clinching the 2017 title at the Mexican Grand Prix, a race won by Verstappen, Hamilton called his young rival “a potential world champion”.

That might seem like muted praise, but Lewis is not prone to dishing out superlatives about his rivals. The only other drivers whose abilities he deems worthy of acknowledgement are named Vettel and Alonso, so this was praise indeed.

Perhaps Lewis was in a charitable mood having just put the finishing touches on his fourth world title. But it’s likely that he was being sincere about a driver who can succeed him as a generation-defining star.

Australian F1 Grand Prix - Previews

THE RACING THOROUGHBRED

Verstappen is a driver of unique natural ability. He already had all the speed needed when he arrived in F1 and what has followed since has been about adding experience and smoothing some rough edges. But what makes him great today was there from the first race.

Off-track he is an interesting character, if a little hard to get a clear read on. He grew up in the most racing-focussed family possible, his father Jos Verstappen being a veteran of more than 100 grands prix and briefly teammate to Michael Schumacher.

Added to this his mother is multiple karting champion Sophie Kumpen, his maternal grandfather was a rallycross champion, and his uncle is a successful racer across a number of disciplines. Young Max was never going to become a dentist.

His first memory of Formula 1 isn’t from watching on TV, but of sitting in his dad’s Arrows car as a four-year-old (Max probably won’t climb into a less competitive seat for as long as he races in F1).

His character has been shaped by these atypical formative years. More than his rivals, he has spent his time at racing circuits since infancy, meeting fellow drivers, engineers, mechanics and truckies from across the globe.

He is, in this sense, racing personified. He talks and acts like a combination of all the people you might meet at a circuit rolled into one. That is why he comes across as older than his 20 years. He races under a Dutch flag and was born in Belgium, but his home – the place he grew up, where his parents worked, where his friends are – is a race circuit.

F1 Grand Prix of Mexico - Practice

And it is perhaps for this reason that he fears no one. He met world champions as a toddler – there is a picture of an infant Max, not long walking, grinning up at Michael Schumacher. He saw that they were ordinary people, drivers just like his own dad. It became the norm.

Seeming to hold no fear is valued in the macho world of F1, but Max is fearless in a different way. He is not intimidated, always confident about holding his own with anyone. Nor is he afraid to have an opinion. Like Senna, Schumacher and Vettel, Verstappen has a confidence that can sometimes be interpreted as arrogance.

For all of other people’s obsession with Max’s age – youngest this, that and the other – he doesn’t seem to care. The proof is in what he does and how he acts, not how many candles there were on his last birthday cake. As David Coulthard put it last year: “At 19 he looked more ready than I was at 30.”

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EXCITEMENT BUILDING FOR 2018

As is always the case, Verstappen is reliant on the equipment to help him get the job done this year.

Red Bull have always built good cars and their RB14 chassis is perhaps the best on the grid this year. But in recent seasons they have been pegged back by their Renault engines, which are neither as competitive or reliable as competitors Mercedes and Ferrari.

They are closing the gap, but it won’t necessarily be enough.

Nevertheless, testing suggested that Red Bull may be ahead of Ferrari and the noises coming from both Max and teammate Daniel Ricciardo have been genuinely positive.

The ultimate goal will be to take on Hamilton, who looks certain to start the year with the most complete package. But Verstappen also faces a very competitive teammate in Ricciardo.

The Australian isn’t quite as quick over a lap as Max, but as a shrewd racer and decisive overtaker he can match him in a grand prix.

A dominant Red Bull would suit Max more – he’d be on pole most weekends and simply pull away – whereas a closer fight would play to Ricciardo’s strengths. We’re far more likely to see the latter in 2018, so it should be close.

Yet there are signs that this fight is swinging towards Verstappen. With a new long-term contract in his pocket and Red Bull’s influential advisor Helmut Marko on his side, comparisons are being drawn between the current line-up and the pairing of a Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber.

Even if it’s subconscious, the team will naturally gravitate towards a driver whose long-term future is bound to them. If Ricciardo delays signing a new deal or elects to leave the team, Max could become de facto number one.

The battle between these two promises to be among the most intriguing of the season.

F1 Grand Prix of Abu Dhabi

STILL CHASING LEWIS

Great drivers tend to have a breakout season where they transition from grand prix winner to unstoppable force of nature. For Senna it was 1988. Schumacher’s was 1994. Could this be the year that Max takes that decisive step?

In truth, we’re more likely to see Lewis Hamilton continue his dominance in 2018. The Mercedes package remains the strongest and Hamilton is operating at his peak. Perhaps we’ve become conditioned to it after four successive titles, but it’s difficult to see them being beaten.

A sustained challenge from Max seems possible. More victories are likely, and he may be able to establish himself as Red Bull’s clear number one. But the championship? It is a big ask for 2018.

It is coming, however. Verstappen has proven time and again that he has something extra, a rare ability to dig out a few extra tenths of a second, or to find grip that others can’t in wet conditions.

There is a sense of inevitability that he will win world titles – perhaps enough to prompt a few more rule changes.

Topics:
Max Verstappen
Formula 1
Max Verstappen

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