The 2017 Formula One challenge may be drawing to a close but the climax already heralds the beginnings of the 2018 championship chase, with frantic action and pre-planning for the upcoming season already under way at team headquarters and behind the scenes.
While the focus revolves around engineering developments and vitally sought-after improvements devised by the deep-thinking boffins boldly risking millions of dollars of outlay to achieve split-second advantages that dictate the difference between winning and losing, the drivers, the men who must convert the effort into success, will be already readying themselves for the next challenge.
The certainty of which brings me to pinpoint the towering talent of Max Verstappen, to my mind and that of many others closer than I am to the action, the absolutely sure-fire guarantee that the two main front-runners — Lewis Hamilton, the current champion, and Sebastian Vettel, each with four world crowns — will find themselves the target of a Verstappen aiming for yet another “youngest” achievement to add to his already glowing record.
After watching him race with such a massive level of ability, it is easy to overlook and forget that he is just 20. He is a virtual learner in a madcap melee of superb drivers, winners and champions, with much more experience, but a real threat to them all.
Here is a reminder of his comparative inexperience belied by his occasional demonstration of brilliance. Max Emilian Verstappen, Dutch-Belgian. The youngest ever Formula One driver on his Torro Rosso opener in the 2015 Australian at the age of 17 years and 166 days when he was not old enough to have road driving licence.
And from then onwards he piled up the youngest-ever accolades: the youngest to score points, to lead an F1 lap, to stand on the podium and to win in Spain on his debut for Red Bull in 2016 when he was just 18. The ever-alert Toto Wolff, the Mercedes talent spotter, wanted to recruit Verstappen for the German outfit’s Driver Development Scheme — but, instead, to everybody’s surprise he opted for a link with Torro Rosso for the 2015 season.
Now, in car No. 33 in the Abu Dhabi Sunday showcase, he faces his 60th GP. He has a total of three victories, 11 podiums and two fastest laps with his latest victory brilliantly earned in Mexico, two races ago. In typical bold style he has outpaced and overtaken star turns Hamilton of Mercedes and Ferrari’s Vettel as a distinct reminder there is even more to come from him whatever the reputation of the superstar he is about to overtake.
On the minus front he has fallen victim of his eagerness and wild ambition to get by his rivals in a manner frowned upon and resulting in a warning or two from officialdom and heavy criticism from those forced into his slipstream in the most risky and unprecedented overtaking swoops. That is evidenced by three clumsy first-lap collisions in Spain, Austria and Singapore.
All told he has suffered seven retirements — but on the plus side, climbing steadily up the F1 ladder, he gained a third in China, second in Japan with added fourth and fifth places in the follow-up GPs, and he clinched a truly superb and astutely thought-out second F1 win in Malaysia, the day after his 20th birthday in Japan.
His third place in the United States, when he tricked the vastly experienced tough guy Kimi Raikkonen by surprise with a spectacular overtake of the Ferrari on the final lap, was cancelled out because he had ventured fractionally over the line on the inside of the corner and he was demoted to fourth place, having started 16th. He was back to his winning ways again Mexico when he totally overshadowed Vettel on lap one and fronted a perfect charge to the flag.
All of Verstappen’s exploits, extravagantly wild or bursting with flair and expertise, have provoked all levels of emotion and doubt or admiration with Niki Lauda, the former multi-champion and now Mercedes mastermind who would, like all the top teams, have taken him aboard had he not re-signed for Red Bull until 2020, extolling: ”Max is the greatest young driver I have ever seen in all my years in Formula One.
“He is without a shadow of doubt the most fantastic young driver I have ever had the sheer pleasure to watch … even when he was beating us. He is fast, aggressive and gifted beyond measure and there is a whole deal more success sure to come from him.
“I would only tell him to keep his feet firmly on the ground because he has a tendency to lose control of himself in certain tight situations when a bit of patience would be the benefit. But if he masters those impulses he can be one of the greatest and most successful Formula One drivers that we have ever seen.
Hamilton and Vettel, expected to reverse this season’s misfortunes with a vastly improved and more reliable Ferrari, are virtually one voice in their confident anticipation that Verstappen will be a solid threat to be guarded against in the new season — far more than any other driver on the grid and despite his comparative newness on the F1 front.
So what is his reaction to the mounting acclaim? “I can’t wait for the new season to start,” he says. ”I am so happy to be staying with Red Bull and I know they will set me up in a car only too ready to take on Lewis and Sebastian. I am well aware that a whole lot of trust has been placed in my ability and my prospects to be a winner and a champion. And I can promise all those people who support the team and follow me so loyally that I will be giving it my all, my very best shot. I owe it to them and to the guys backstage who work so hard to make the team a winner.”
The fulsome promise of a close, nail-biter three-way tussle between Hamilton, Vettel and outsider Verstappen for the 2018 world title has excited F1’s new chief Chase Carey to rave: “The Formula One world is in for a treat to remember. And that’s a promise.”