Austin: Young ‘Mad Max’ Verstappen had plenty to be angry about for the first half of the Formula One season. After his breakout season in 2016, this year had been little more than a rash of retirements, crashes and clashes with other drivers.
But a late burst over the last two races delivered his second career victory and a second place. Those results have Red Bull rising and looking more like the fast and muscular team they were expected to be.
Verstappen and teammate Daniel Ricciardo now look primed to keep pushing for the front over the final four races of 2017, starting this week at the US Grand Prix. Do that and the prospects for a 2018 title fight grow brighter.
“We’re definitely going the way we need to be going,” Ricciardo said. “If we start on the front foot, I genuinely believe we can fight for the title if we start closer. That’s what we’re aiming for.”
Verstappen’s win in Malaysia demonstrated a perfect marriage of the young Dutchman’s driving skill and his improving car when he beat Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton with a head-to-head pass early. He was on the podium again a week later in Japan. The celebrations at both races were sunny yet sober reminders that Red Bull wanted — and expected — so much more this season.
While Ricciardo has been a workhorse with nine podiums and one victory, Verstappen’s season was crippled by reliability issues with his car or crashes.
“There were so many races this year when he was in a fantastic position to achieve big results,” team principal Christian Horner said this week. “Credit to him that at such a young age he hasn’t let frustration boil over ... when it comes right for him, it’s going to come right in a big way. And that’s exactly what happened in Malaysia. He drove a great race there, with no issues.”
Some of the “issues” created internal tension.
The first lap of the Hungarian Grand Prix was a disaster for Red Bull. Verstappen tried to overtake Ricciardo and hit him, knocking Ricciardo out of the race while Verstappen finished fifth. Ricciardo lashed out at Verstappen as “immature” and criticised the “amateur” manoeuvre.
Verstappen said he can’t think about what happened early in the season.
“That frustration I put behind me,” Verstappen said. “It happened. You can’t change it any more. You’re just happy that it’s going well again and we had some good results.”
Ricciardo has carried Red Bull to the podium time and again but his broad smile hasn’t beamed from the top spot since Azerbaijan in June. Despite his run of strong finishes, he’s stuck at fourth in the driver’s standings and needs a boost to overtake Mercedes’ Valtierri Bottas for third.
The Circuit of the Americas has been good for both Red Bull drivers in the past. Ricciardo finished third here in 2014 and 2016. Verstappen had an attention-getting drive in 2015 when he finished fourth in his Toro Rosso after sloshing his way through the field on a wet track.
Verstappen had a wild race in 2016 when he challenged for the lead early, came in for a pit stop when the crew wasn’t ready and yelled to his garage “I’m not here to finish fourth!” He didn’t finish at all when his car was knocked out with a gear box problem on lap 32.
Verstappen was 17 when he joined the F1 grid as the youngest driver in series history and he still jokes about his age. Austin is known for its live music and nightlife, but he’s limited as to how much he can party away from the track.
“I’m only 20. I can’t drink,” Verstappen said. “If I’m on the podium [Sunday] I won’t care.”
Meanwhile, Spanish Formula One driver Fernando Alonso, world champion in 2005 and 2006 with Renault, said he would continue with McLaren for one more season.
The 36-year-old Alonso, who has 32 victories in F1, is set to enter his 17th season in racing with McLaren.