PARIS (AP) — Max Verstappen no longer has the element of surprise, and all eyes will be on the Dutch driver when the Formula One season gets underway at the Australian Grand Prix on Sunday.
The Red Bull driver has already made Formula One history as the youngest to win a race and the youngest to qualify on the front row of the grid. He also completed a record 78 overtaking moves during the 21-race season.
He did that last season, which included an astonishing drive to cut through the field during the rain-soaked Brazilian Grand Prix. Verstappen climbed from 15th place to third with just 10 laps remaining.
Red Bull team principal Christian Horner called it “one of the best drives I’ve seen in Formula 1” and it evoked comparison with the great Ayrton Senna for the similar daring he showed during his career. For someone so young, Vertappen’s mesmeric drive that day drew widespread admiration for the skill and courage involved.
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But Verstappen’s no-limits approach is also divisive.
The sport and its fans love him — orange-clad Dutch fans turned up in their thousands at the Belgium GP last August — but some drivers don’t. Verstappen antagonized senior drivers like Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen with his brazen attitude last season.
Worse, in their eyes, he’s not in the habit of apologizing.
Instead, Verstappen chastised Vettel over the radio after an incident during one race and mocked Vettel’s frustration because of his difficult season with Ferrari. Arguing with a four-time F1 champion? No problem.
All this and Verstappen is still only 19.
There is little doubt that Verstappen is the future of F1. With three-time champion Lewis Hamilton into his 30s and Vettel turning 30 in July, F1 will be counting heavily on Verstappen in the years to come. Even more so as it seeks to flourish in a digitally-focused, social media era under its new American ownership.
Verstappen is also massively ambitious.
“Wishing to become world champion is too easy. You also need to fight for it,” he said Sunday on his personal website. “I just want the best car and the rest is up to you.”
Verstappen is not known for his modesty. Others might say he has unshakeable belief that he can win the F1 title already.
Perhaps he can, but Red Bull may not yet have a quick enough car for him.
“It’s hard to say. Personally, I think that we aren’t the best team yet, but we need to wait and see,” Verstappen said. “After qualifying in Australia we will be able to see how it is, based purely on speed. In any case, we are not heading off to Melbourne with the thought of being able to take pole (position).”
Verstappen also has his own teammate to contend with.
Australian Daniel Ricciardo showed glimpses of championship potential last season.
At 27, Ricciardo is entering his prime years and will be confident of adding to his four race wins. In terms of pure speed, he can challenge the best when on form. Ricciardo managed to outpace Mercedes at times last season, securing a brilliant pole position in Monaco.
While the battle between Red Bull and Mercedes promises to be a fascinating one, so does the contest between Verstappen and Ricciardo.
It is likely to bring Horner equal levels of joy and anxiety as he deals with two proud and talented drivers who share a stubborn streak.
Verstappen sometimes displayed a “couldn’t give a damn” attitude toward Ferrari last season, driving even the unflappable Raikkonen to distraction.
Ricciardo was so upset at a botched pit stop during the Monaco GP that he delivered a scathing attack on his team after that race.
Over the past three years, the feuding between Hamilton and Nico Rosberg within Mercedes grabbed many headlines.
Now, it looks like F1 has another strong internal rivalry at Red Bull.
Mercedes never imposed team orders on Hamilton and Rosberg until the season-ending Abu Dhabi GP, which Hamilton ignored anyway as he tried — and failed — to stop Rosberg clinching the title.
Whether Horner sees fit to impose race orders remains to be seen, and it may be counter-productive. He has to keep a close eye on other teams, especially if Valtteri Bottas does not succeed as Rosberg’s replacement at Mercedes, or if Vettel’s uneasy relationship with Ferrari continues.
Losing either driver in the near future would be a serious blow for Red Bull.