Montmels: Max Verstappen returns to the scene of his stunning teenage maiden Formula One triumph at the Spanish Grand Prix this weekend as a battle-hardened world champion in pursuit of his second title.
After his tumultuous title victory in Abu Dhabi last year, the 24-year-old Dutchman has become one of the world’s highest-paid sports stars and a leading figure in F1’s new generation of drivers.
But this Sunday, as always, he will shut out all distractions as he bids to complete his second hat-trick of consecutive wins for Red Bull on a Montmelo circuit where 2021 title rival Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes has reigned supreme.
Six years on from his debut victory with Red Bull in Spain, when he became the youngest driver to claim an F1 win, Verstappen is seeking to trim 2022 series leader Charles Leclerc’s early-season advantage and to take the initiative in the title race.
“I have a lot of good memories at this track from my first win, when I was 18,” he recalled of the first of his 23 F1 wins.
“Hopefully, we can keep the momentum we have built up in the last few races and have a clean start to the weekend. We had an incredible week in Miami. I’ve had some time to rest with my family since then and now I’m looking forward to driving again.”
Like Verstappen, Red Bull team-mate Sergio Perez has also been home, but not for a rest.
He returned to Mexico, for the arrival of baby son Emilio - a reason, he said, to register a memorable personal result on Sunday.
After a faltering start to the season, when Red Bull were hit by reliability issues, the team has recovered and, following successive wins in Imola and Miami, the Dutchman has cut Leclerc’s lead to 19 points after five of this year’s 22 races.
He has only once before delivered three straight wins - at last year’s French, Austrian and Styrian Grands Prix, a run that gave him title-winning momentum, albeit that the latter two races were both held at the team’s home Red Bull Ring circuit.
The 2016 Spanish race was notable also for the opening lap collision between Mercedes’ title rivals Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton that effectively gifted Verstappen his maiden win.
If not for that crash, Mercedes may well have won, as they have at every other race held at the Circuit de Catalunya since 2014, seven-time champion Hamilton reeling off the last four to total five in seven visits.
This year, however, it is expected to be very different as Ferrari, hoping to recover their early dominance, aim to wreck Red Bull’s hopes and revive Leclerc’s title challenge.
Both teams, like the rest, will arrive in Catalunya with a major raft of upgrades to reduce weight, improve performance and help overcome the ‘porpoising’ that has hampered many drivers’ efforts.
Ferrari have reportedly made significant changes to the floor of their F1-75 while Red Bull have lost a reported seven kilos.
Mercedes, most afflicted by the bouncing sensation, may be set to revise their ‘no sidepods’ car design in a bid to revitalise Hamilton and maintain George Russell’s promising progress.
Team boss Toto Wolff has stressed the team will remain faithful to the radical W13 design concept this weekend. After Barcelona, he said, “we’ve got to look in the mirror and say ‘did we get it wrong?’”
Hamilton may also hit trouble again if he insists on challenging the ‘bling’ ban that distracted many in Miami where he was forced to remove most of his jewellery when racing.
The president of the ruling body, the International Motoring Federation (FIA), Mohammed Ben Sulayem has made clear he wants the 37-year-old Briton to obey the rules.
“There has to be one rule, for everyone, and that is it,” he said. “And I want Lewis to be a role model, an ambassador, to send the right message to all young drivers.”