Our snapshot of Red Bull’s teenage prodigy, and what’s on his to-do list for the 2017 F1 season.
THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM
Max Verstappen’s biggest problem? Perhaps that he’s already set the bar so high in just two Formula One seasons. In 40 races, he’s become the youngest driver to start a race, finish on the podium and win a Grand Prix, and six months before he leaves his teenage years behind, the Dutchman comes into the 2017 season talked about as a man who could win world championships – plural – before too long. How on earth can you live up to, let alone exceed, those expectations? That we don’t know; what (we think) we have a better grasp of is how the Red Bull racer’s 2017 pans out.
You can easily get buried in the numbers for Verstappen, so we’ll stick to two. His debut in Australia 2015 at 17 years and 166 days old made him the youngest driver to start an F1 race; thanks to a rule reset since, that’s a record he’s set to keep. And his maiden win in Spain last year (at 18 years and 228 days) saw him depose another Red Bull prodigy in Sebastian Vettel, who was 21 years and 73 days old when he won the 2008 Italian Grand Prix for Toro Rosso. At the time, Vettel’s achievement was unfathomable; how many races might Verstappen win before he hits the age when Vettel won his first? In case you were wondering, that’s December 12, 2018 – two full seasons away.
What he did last year
Few saw Verstappen’s ascension to a seat at Red Bull as anything other than inevitable, but for it to happen after just four races last season caught most by surprise, even after Daniil Kvyat’s calamitous home GP in Sochi as Daniel Ricciardo’s teammate at the ‘A’ team. For Verstappen to win on his Red Bull debut next time out in Barcelona – aided, it should be noted, to some degree by the Mercedes duo of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg taking one another out on the first lap of the race – was remarkable, but he may have exceeded that achievement by what he did later in the season in Brazil, conquering horrendous conditions to charge from 14th place to the podium in the final 17 laps. Forget last year; what Verstappen did that day was produce a drive equal to the very best in F1 history.
What changes in 2017?
Will Verstappen win races again in 2017? Yes. Will he again be one of the biggest drawcards as the F1 circus winds its way through 20 stops the world over? Yes. So, on the surface, not a lot changes for Verstappen this year; what he’ll want to change is the deficit to Ricciardo in qualifying and races over the course of the year compared to last season, and to mount a legitimate championship charge if Red Bull’s RB13 is up to the task.
Number to know
0 – as in the number of points and race finishes Verstappen has had at Monaco after crashing out in each of the past two years. It’s the only Grand Prix he’s yet to finish in two seasons; reversing that record will be an undoubted focus in 2017.
Verstappen’s relationship with Ricciardo, at least for Australian F1 enthusiasts, will be one that’s watched closely this season. This isn’t a Vettel-Mark Webber Red Bull partnership, where Webber, edging towards the end of his career as Vettel came into the fold in 2009, famously said his pace was “inconvenient” for the team as the German began his run to four straight titles. Both have grown up and been groomed in the Red Bull stable, and while team principal Christian Horner’s comment last December that Ricciardo had been like “an older brother” to Verstappen caused cynics to raise their eyebrows, there’s no doubt that this is a relationship that, for now, has little public tension. That will undoubtedly change if they’re fighting for a title, but for now, Verstappen’s stock can rise even higher if he’s able to beat Ricciardo across their first full campaign as teammates.
Early wins. Based on pre-season testing, it appears Mercedes and perhaps Ferrari have the legs on Red Bull, but should an opportunity arise for Verstappen, history suggests he’ll take it – or at the very least, go for it. Quite how some of his rivals react to that – particularly those who were outspoken more than once over Verstappen’s robust driving style last year – will make for entertaining viewing.
‘Nightmare’ might be a bit strong when your future is as bright as Verstappen’s, but there’ll be disappointment for him and his rapidly-expanding legion of fans the world over if he’s not able to take the next step into the championship’s top three by the end of the season.
As we’ve already ascertained, Verstappen isn’t one to bide his time, so it’ll be interesting to see how he fares if Ferrari’s pre-season promise is real, given the significant margin Red Bull had over the Prancing Horse for most of last year. Can he match and beat Vettel if the Ferrari is a better car? Where does new Mercedes signing Valtteri Bottas fit into the mix? And can he demote Ricciardo in the Red Bull pecking order? Fifth, where he finished last year, might be where he finishes again, even with a better season. A top-three finish would surprise nobody, though.