Max Verstappen

The F1 mid-term report

Who has starred, who has slumped and who needs to step up at the halfway stage of the F1 season?

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

The verdict on Formula One so far in 2017? Pretty positive. There’s genuine competition between teams for race wins and the drivers’ championship, which there hasn’t been in some time, and the new-for-2017 regulations have delivered monstrously fast and mean-looking cars that look spectacular on track (but struggle to overtake one another, as the Hungarian GP made very evident). Add to that the craziest race in recent times in Azerbaijan when Daniel Ricciardo saluted, and there’s a lot to like.

What’s more, the look and feel of an F1 weekend in the post-Ecclestone era has been a breath of fresh air. Ladies and gentlemen, social media! Actual vision from inside a drivers’ briefing! Something extra for the fans at a race weekend! It’s been quite the eye-opener.

Before we launch into our mid-season report, and before you ask, we haven’t failed maths – yes, Hungary was race 11 of the 20-race F1 season, but coming as it did before the one-month hiatus and the next race in Belgium at the end of August, it was worth waiting until school was out properly until making some mid-year grades. On that very subject …

Dux of the class

We’ve been waiting a long time for a proper championship battle between Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton – since 2007 in fact, when both made their Formula One debuts in the same season (Vettel became a full-timer on the grid a year later). And at the halfway stage of the season, it’s Vettel who has shone brightest. But only just.

Both drivers have four wins, but the German has led the title chase since taking the opening round in Australia, and has been his consistent self since – 11 races, 11 finishes, eight podiums, and a worst finish of seventh at the British Grand Prix, when he suffered a puncture in sight of the flag. It’s hard to see how he could have done much more.

The intrigue in this battle is how both protagonists go about achieving the same goal in different ways – Vettel’s metronomic approach contrasts sharply with Hamilton’s peaks and troughs. When the Mercedes W08 isn’t in the set-up sweet spot, Hamilton has been outshone by new teammate Valtteri Bottas, who seems better equipped to cope with a car that’s not quite there. But when the Mercedes is dialled in, Hamilton has been brilliant in qualifying (he has six poles in 11 races), and occasionally utterly dominant in races – his Silverstone weekend was as emphatic as it gets.

Both drivers have their emotional frailties – again, which manifest themselves in different ways – which makes the second half of the season and their likely first head-to-head battle for the title so mouth-watering in prospect. You can’t help but wonder if the three points Hamilton relinquished in Hungary after pulling over to let Bottas finish third to honour an in-race agreement will come back to bite him later in the season, though. The in-house tension at the Silver Arrows since the apolitical Bottas replaced the cunning Nico Rosberg has dissipated almost completely, but what if that new-found harmony comes at the cost of a title?

Encouragement award

We’re not going with the ‘every child wins a prize’ philosophy here, but this one could be split four ways.

Bottas, firstly: after coming across to Mercedes in the wake of Rosberg’s shock decision to walk after winning the 2016 crown, the Finn has made every post a winner in what is essentially a make-good contract; nail 2017, and his future should be rosy. He’s won twice (Russia and Austria), matched Vettel for the most podiums in 11 races (eight) and proven to be the consummate team player. Mercedes would be mad not to keep him in 2018 – he’s clearly fast enough and apolitical enough.

Ricciardo deserves a mention here too. Whenever an opportunity presents itself, he’s always there, pressing on relentlessly like a honey badger attacking a hive of bees. His Azerbaijan win – when all looked lost early in the race when an unscheduled pit stop had him at the back of the field – was almost unsurprising in that he made the best of what was on offer on a crazy day, and that ‘best’ was good enough for a fifth career win. Is there a driver better or cleaner in wheel-to-wheel combat?

As a team, Force India deserve a pat on the back here. Fourth in last year’s constructors’ championship, the Indian-owned British-run team has consolidated that in 2017, with Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon both finishing in the points nine times in 11 races. The pink-liveried team has clearly established itself as the best squad outside F1’s ‘big three’; now, all it needs is for its drivers to stop tripping over one another in races …

Finally, a nod to Nico Hulkenberg, who is now an uncomfortable two races away from equalling compatriot Adrian Sutil’s unwanted record of most F1 starts without a top-three finish (128). You can’t do much more in a Renault than Hulkenberg has this year, the German scoring points in five races and qualifying in the top 10 six times.

Could do better

Reasons Ferrari shouldn’t retain Kimi Raikkonen next year: in 70 races since he re-joined Ferrari for the 2014 season, he’s been beaten by teammates Fernando Alonso (2014) and Vettel (since) 49-21 in qualifying, 7-0 in race wins (he hasn’t won a race since Australia 2013 for Lotus, 86 Grands Prix ago), 30-11 in podium finishes, and has scored 37 per cent of his team’s points in that time, explaining why the team with this year’s drivers’ championship leader trails Mercedes by 39 points in the constructors’ race.

Reason Ferrari will keep Kimi Raikkonen next year. Hungary.

You can understand Ferrari’s logic here; while Raikkonen is a long, long way from his 2007 world championship-winning heyday, he doesn’t play politics, has a wealth of experience, gets on with Vettel and doesn’t rock the boat. When Ferrari orchestrated races in Monaco (unofficially) and Hungary (officially) to ensure the Finn stayed behind a race-leading Vettel, he expressed his disappointment, sighed and moved on. It would have been so easy for Raikkonen to push an ailing Vettel hard in Hungary to stand on the top step of the podium for the first time in an age, but, out of contract and with (arguably) no other team likely to offer him one, that wouldn’t have been the brightest idea.

Expect Raikkonen to be renewed at or before the Italian Grand Prix next month – and expect plenty of F1 fans to wonder just what another driver could do in a car that Vettel has proven is a genuine race-winner. Raikkonen is clearly worthy of being in F1 for his name and pedigree alone, but with a top team?

Needs a strong second semester

Both Toro Rosso drivers could use a good end to 2017, but for entirely different reasons.

Carlos Sainz must wonder what he needs to do to get a break; the Spaniard has scored 35 of his team’s 39 points this year alongside Daniil Kvyat, and amassed 77 points to the Russian’s eight since the pair became teammates at last year’s Spanish Grand Prix, when Max Verstappen took Kvyat’s place in Red Bull’s ‘A’ team. Sainz is good enough to drive further up the grid, but won’t be going anywhere as Red Bull’s insurance policy in case Verstappen or Ricciardo bolt one day.

As for Kvyat? Considering he has more penalty points on his FIA super licence (10) than he’s scored points (eight) in the past 28 races, the end for the driver derisively referred to as ‘the torpedo’ must surely be nigh, with 2016 GP2 champion Pierre Gasly waiting impatiently in the (Red) Bull pen.

Extra detention

One driver and one team get the unwanted nomination here. Jolyon Palmer hasn’t made much of a case to be retained by Renault, being out-scored 26-0 and out-qualified in all 11 races by Hulkenberg this season. He couldn’t have come much closer to a top-10 finish – Palmer was 11th in Monaco, Canada and Austria – but with Renault in a tight fight for places 5-8 in the constructors’ championship, it needs more than one car to make a contribution.

As for McLaren – or more pertinently, McLaren-Honda – the less said the better. Sixth for Alonso and 10th for Stoffel Vandoorne in Hungary gave the team that has won 182 Grands Prix and 12 drivers’ championships nine points in one race – compared to the combined two points from the opening 10 races this year …

Can the team extract itself from the Honda engine deal to go elsewhere (Mercedes?) while covering the financial shortfall an early divorce with the Japanese manufacturer would create? That’s uncertain, but what we do know if that while Vandoorne has time and talent on his side, it’s a crying shame to see a 36-year-old Alonso struggling like this. F1 is undoubtedly in a better place when the Spaniard is mixing it up the front of the field.

First race in first place

On the anniversary of Max Verstappen’s maiden F1 win in Spain, we look back at the last five drivers who discovered there’s nothing quite like your first time.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

This time a year ago, Max Verstappen stunned the Formula One establishment when he took his maiden victory on his first weekend for Red Bull Racing at the Spanish Grand Prix. Verstappen’s win meant he was F1’s latest first-time victor … until last time out in Russia, where Valtteri Bottas’ triumph for Mercedes saw the Finn become the 107th driver to win an F1 race.

As we get set to hear plenty about Verstappen’s 2016 heroics ahead of this weekend’s race in Barcelona, who are the five most recent F1 winners, and at what races did they make their names?

Valtteri Bottas

First race win: Russia 2017 for Mercedes
Wins since: N/A
Races before first F1 win: 81
How it happened: For a driver who had only taken his first pole at the previous GP in Bahrain, Bottas was as cool as ice on the streets that surround the Winter Olympics venues from Sochi 2014. From third on the grid, he zapped the Ferrari duo of Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen before the second corner, and rarely put a foot wrong despite Vettel closing late in the race, winning by six-tenths of a second.
He said: “I always knew I could get good results if everything goes right and I always trust in my ability, but it’s nice to get confirmation that the results are possible.”
Stat fact: Only eight Finns have raced in F1, and Bottas became the fifth of them to win a race (along with Keke Rosberg, Mika Hakkinen, Raikkonen and Heikki Kovalainen).

Max Verstappen

First race win: Spain 2016 for Red Bull Racing
Wins since: None
Races before first F1 win: 24
How it happened: On his first weekend for Red Bull after being switched from Toro Rosso in place of Daniil Kvyat, Verstappen made the most of the Mercedes pair of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg taking one another out on lap one to get to the front after the final pit stops had shaken out – and stayed there despite Raikkonen’s Ferrari breathing down his neck in the closing laps.
He said: “I have no words for it. It was very good company on the podium, I mean Kimi even raced against my dad, so it’s very funny! I was celebrating a lot on the in-lap and I got a bit of cramp, but that’s part of it.”
Stat fact: As well as being the first Dutch driver to win a race, Verstappen became the youngest-ever F1 winner at 18 years and 226 days.

Daniel Ricciardo

First race win: Canada 2014 for Red Bull Racing
Wins since: 3
Races before first F1 win: 57
How it happened: Mercedes had won the opening six races of 2014 before F1 came to Montreal, and when Hamilton retired with brake failure after 45 laps, teammate Rosberg looked imperious until his own brakes started to fade, and a charging Ricciardo took the lead of an F1 race for the first time with two laps to go. The race – and his first win – finished at walking pace after a massive shunt between Sergio Perez (Force India) and Felipe Massa (Williams) at the first corner of the last lap brought out the safety car. Before 2014? Ricciardo had never scored a single point in Canada.
He said: “I think it still seems a bit surreal to be honest, just because it all happened so quickly at the end. Finishing under the safety car made it a bit weird, but I wanted to make sure the two drivers who were in the accident were OK before I started celebrating.”
Stat fact: Ricciardo became the third driver to win their maiden Grand Prix in Montreal in seven years (Hamilton in 2007, Robert Kubica in 2008).

Pastor Maldonado

First race win: Spain 2012 for Williams
Wins since: 0
Races before first F1 win: 24
How it happened: Seven different winners in the first seven races of 2012 as the sport tried and failed to get a grip on Pirelli’s tyres was one thing, but this was downright nutty – Maldonado scored just one point in his debut season in 2011, and had never finished better than eighth in a race before his first win. He inherited pole after Hamilton was sent to the back after a technical breach, but resisted huge pressure from none other than two-time world champion Fernando Alonso in a Ferrari at his home track to win by three seconds. Maldonado never made a podium again, became infamous for his accident-prone approach, and lost his seat in the sport at the end of 2015.
He said: “There was some moments that he (Alonso) was so close, especially at the end of the race. But I was managing the gap and controlling everything.”
Stat fact: Maldonado scored 25 points for this race win; in the other 94 Grands Prix he contested, he scored 51 points and never finished better than seventh.

Nico Rosberg

First race win: China 2012 for Mercedes
Wins since: 22, and the 2016 F1 world championship
Races before first F1 win: 110
How it happened: The other first-time winner in that crazy 2012 season start? Rosberg, back in the days when Mercedes winning races was a novelty. The team didn’t finish on the podium once in 2011, but Rosberg was imperious in the third race of the following season, starting from pole in Shanghai and winning by 20 seconds. It was Mercedes’ sole success of 2012, and the first victory for a works Mercedes works team since 1955.
He said: “Unbelievable feeling, very cool, very happy, very excited. It’s been a long time coming for me and the team also. I didn’t expect to be that fast.”
Stat fact: In winning for the first time on his 111th start, Rosberg slotted into fifth on the list of those who have waited longest for their maiden victory behind Mark Webber (130 starts), Rubens Barrichello (123), Jarno Trulli (123) and Jenson Button (113).

6 things we know about F1 2017

Three races into a new era of F1, can we paint a picture of the season to come? Yes, and no.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

Formula One comes ‘home’ to Europe this weekend, with the Russian Grand Prix bringing the sport back closer to its heartland after the opening trio of races in far-flung Australia, China and Bahrain to kick off the 2017 campaign.

Next month’s Spanish Grand Prix usually ramps up the development race behind the scenes, as teams bring major upgrades to their cars that have largely competed in pre-season spec during the logistical challenge of lugging parts and personnel around the world for the first three races. Some teams will make big gains (and some would want to, we’ll get to them), but we have a fairly clear picture of the shape of the season to come already. And it’s a picture that, for neutral fans, looks pretty. A genuine fight up front, a mixed-up midfield and the fastest cars we’ve ever seen means there’s much to look forward to.

What do we know, what have we learned, and what will happen from here?

Merc must make a call

One of the by-products of winning 51 out of 59 races since the advent of the V6 turbo hybrid era since 2014 as Mercedes did heading into this season was that the opposition were little more than an afterthought. The so-called ‘rules of engagement’ between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg were an internal policy of how the drivers would race one another en route to another inevitable Silver Arrows win; one of those rules would have been “don’t hit one another on track”, which they managed for the most part if we discount Belgium 2014 and Spain last year …

Ferrari’s resurgence this season means Merc has a red-coloured riddle to solve, and with Sebastian Vettel mounting a solo challenge to Mercedes’ dominance, perhaps the time has come for the champion team of the last three years to prioritise one driver over another. Twice in the most recent race in Bahrain, Valtteri Bottas was asked/told/coerced into moving over for the faster Hamilton; by the end of the race, Vettel was grinning after his second win of 2017, and opened up a seven-point lead in the title chase.

Bottas is already 30 points – more than one race win – behind Vettel after three Grands Prix, which means Mercedes can’t have him taking points off Hamilton in the fight with Vettel that will surely rage until the finale in Abu Dhabi. Expect much hand-wringing on the Mercedes pit wall as it has to deal with a problem that has been a non-factor for three years.

Vettel is like a dog with a bone

This year’s version of Vettel reminds us of the 2010-13 iteration at Red Bull where he was massively motivated to capitalise on a great car, and not the 2014 model who appeared to check out mentally to some degree as Ferrari loomed large in his future. In a car that’s clearly a massive step forwards from its predecessor, if Vettel gets the slightest sliver of daylight to slip into, he’s taking it. When he gets to the front, his pace is metronomic and mistakes are rarer than rare. Provided Ferrari can stay as sharp on the strategy front as they have in the first three races, Vettel might be the championship favourite.

It’s a big two, not a big three

Pre-season predictions had Mercedes and Ferrari up front with Red Bull lurking closely behind, but that’s not what has happened. Just one podium – from Max Verstappen in China – from the nine available so far isn’t much to write home about, and both Mercedes and Ferrari have doubled Red Bull’s constructors’ championship tally of 47 points in just three races. In Australia, the fastest Red Bull in qualifying (Verstappen) was 1.2secs off pole, and the lead Red Bull in the race (again Verstappen) finished more than 28 seconds behind race-winner Vettel. In China, the margins were 1.3 seconds off pole in qualifying (Daniel Ricciardo) and 45 seconds in the race (Verstappen in third), while in Bahrain, Ricciardo’s sensational qualifying lap was still nearly eight-tenths of a second slower than Bottas’ pole, and he finished fifth and 39 seconds from the win after Verstappen retired with brake failure. The team plans to introduce a significant chassis upgrade for the Spanish Grand Prix next month, but for now, Red Bull remains in an anonymous class of one, well behind the top two teams, but streets ahead of the rest.

It’s time for Raikkonen to go

The one driver we haven’t yet mentioned from the top two teams? That’d be Kimi Raikkonen, who is yet to outqualify Vettel in the sister Ferrari (the average deficit is four-tenths of a second) and has been beaten by the German by an average of 29 seconds in three races. The Finn turns 38 in October, and while age isn’t necessarily a deterrent to success in the premier class of a global motorsport championship (look at the MotoGP championship leader, 38-year-old Valentino Rossi), it’s surely time to bring in someone younger, hungrier and capable of mixing it at the front when Raikkonen’s contract runs out at the end of the season. The 2007 world champion remains one of the most popular drivers amongst fans for his approach to anything that doesn’t involve driving, but the stats don’t lie; he’s not won a race in four years, had a pole position since the French Grand Prix of 2008, and scored less than 60 per cent of the points managed by teammates Fernando Alonso and Vettel since returning to Ferrari in 2014. Can the Prancing Horse really fight Mercedes when one of its drivers can’t get out of a trot?

Hands up who wants fourth?

Behind Tier A (Mercedes and Ferrari) and Tier A-minus (Red Bull) lies a fascinating midfield fight, if the first three races are any indication. Williams has Felipe Massa ploughing a lone furrow, as teenage teammate Lance Stroll is yet to finish a race and has completed just 52 of the combined 170 laps. Force India, with Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon, have scored points with both drivers in all three races; only Mercedes and Ferrari have done likewise. Toro Rosso has pace with Carlos Sainz and Daniil Kvyat, and a team boss in Franz Tost who expects “that we will make it to Q3 with both cars (in Russia) and that we will score points with both cars … and that this will be the standard for all the races to come.” And while Haas has just eight points in three races, Romain Grosjean has two top-10 qualifying results, and the team has use of the potent 2017 Ferrari engine. This will be a fun fight to watch.

Alonso is still a megastar

He’s yet to score a point, finish a race, and lead anything other than the unofficial scorecard for radio rants this season, with Raikkonen’s moaning a close second. But proof that McLaren-Honda’s woes haven’t dimmed the star of Alonso was plainly obvious when he made the shock announcement before Bahrain that he’d be skipping the Monaco Grand Prix next month for a McLaren-endorsed tilt at the Indianapolis 500. Yes, Nico Hulkenberg’s Le Mans win two years ago garnered plenty of positive press, but nothing like this. McLaren’s decision to allow its star driver to play for a weekend in IndyCar and miss a Monaco layout that won’t show up its woeful lack of engine performance is surely just one way to keep a star employee happy while distracting attention away from just how dire its F1 season has been. Whatever the motivation, you can bet the Indy 500 will be watched more closely than ever by plenty of F1 people next month.

Five reasons we’ll be watching the Chinese Grand Prix

Are Red Bull back in the game, will Mercedes muscle in, or can Ferrari spring another Shanghai surprise?

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

The new-for-2017 Formula One opened in Australia last month to mixed reviews – for all of the positive press about wider cars that look and are faster, the lack of overtaking at Albert Park caused some consternation as to what sort of a season the quickest cars in F1 history can produce over 20 races.

Racing in Melbourne has always come with an asterisk, as the high-speed street circuit has never been one where passing is easy, and rarely produced a race that has stolen the headlines save for a massive first-lap pile-up or a local hero making good. China, and the Shanghai International Circuit, should give us more of an insight into the true picture painted by the new cars – and it remains to be seen if that picture will have a red hue once more after Sebastian Vettel opened the season with a win for Ferrari at Albert Park.

There’s a million reasons to keep a close eye on the action from Shanghai this weekend – not least because it’s one of the rare overseas races for Australian fans that doesn’t end in the wee hours of the following day – but we’ll restrict ourselves to these five.

Are we really about to get a Vettel v Hamilton title fight?
The second and fourth-most successful drivers in F1 history have spent a decade sharing the world’s racetracks, but have never really featured in the same title fight. With 53 wins, Lewis Hamilton has found the majority of his success in the past three years as Mercedes dominated the era immediately following the Vettel/Red Bull march for four straight titles from 2010-13, where the German took 34 of his 43 career victories to date.

Most forget the duo made their debuts within six races of one another in 2007 (Hamilton for McLaren at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix, Vettel as an injury replacement for Robert Kubica at BMW at that year’s US Grand Prix at Indianapolis), and while they finished just 16 points apart in the epic 2010 title chase, Vettel had Fernando Alonso and teammate Mark Webber in closer proximity at the end of that season.

The German’s win over Hamilton at Albert Park raised hopes that this might be the year they both have the machinery at their disposal to have a proper head-to-head title fight; having more than one team racing for the drivers’ and constructors’ crowns after the past three years of Mercedes domination can only be good for F1 diehards and casual fans alike.

Is the Prancing Horse a one-trick pony?
Valtteri Bottas’ first weekend for Mercedes in Melbourne went largely under the radar, but the unassuming Finn couldn’t have a done a lot more in his first GP as Hamilton’s teammate. Bottas was third on the Australian grid, two-tenths of a second slower than Hamilton, and finished 1.2 seconds behind him in the race, showing that Mercedes will be able to launch a two-car assault on this year’s titles. Meanwhile, that red speck you saw in the background was Kimi Raikkonen; Bottas’ compatriot was more than half a second behind Ferrari teammate Vettel in qualifying and 22 seconds adrift of him after 57 laps in the race despite the pair starting line astern.

The Finnish veteran showed well against Vettel in qualifying last year, but was that down to his speed or Vettel slightly lifting off the throttle mentally when he didn’t have a race-winning car at his disposal, which seemed the case in 2014 at Red Bull when he was trounced by Daniel Ricciardo despite being the reigning four-time world champion?

When he returned to Ferrari in 2014, Raikkonen was out-scored over the season by then teammate Alonso (by 106 points), and then in 2015 by a motivated Vettel (by 128 points). If the 2017 Ferrari is genuinely a race-winning car, as Vettel suggested it was in Australia, then it’d be nice to have a driver capable of winning races driving it. Put it this way: would you put your money on Raikkonen beating Vettel or Hamilton in a straight fight?

Can Red Bull bounce back?
Red Bull’s Australian Grand Prix was underwhelming in the extreme, with neither Ricciardo nor Max Verstappen able to challenge the Ferrari-Mercedes duopoly at the front, and Ricciardo’s home race snowballing out of control after a qualifying shunt on Saturday preceded a race of technical disasters on Sunday. The team seemed to lurch from one set-up solution to another but never found the RB13’s sweet spot in Melbourne, and with no significant engine upgrade likely until round seven in Canada, the opening trio of flyaway races could prove to be some hard sledding for a team expected to make the most of the relaxed aerodynamic regulations in 2017.

China has been a happy hunting ground for the team in the past; in addition to Vettel’s 2009 win, Ricciardo was second on the grid last year, and Daniil Kvyat was third in the race. While the SIC is a more ‘normal’ circuit than the atypical Albert Park, it remains to be seen if the Bulls can charge into the fight with the top two.

Fernando’s future
Webber and Alonso are good mates, so when the retired Red Bull racer said the Spaniard might not see out the 2017 season at McLaren as its alliance with Honda remains stuck in neutral, the F1 world raised an eyebrow. Webber is as savvy a media performer as exists, and it’s unlikely he’s making a public statement to that effect unless he senses or knows something is up.

F1 is so much better with Alonso in the mix for something meaningful, but the most recent of his two world championships in 2006 must seem like an eternity ago. At the end of 2014, when Alonso left Ferrari to return to McLaren and hopefully reprise his glory days of yore, Vettel had 39 career wins and Hamilton 33 to Alonso’s 32. Since? Hamilton has 20 wins, 35 total podiums and two world championships, Vettel has won four races and taken 21 total podiums, and Alonso hasn’t finished better than fifth in a race. Exasperation doesn’t even begin to describe it.

The Spaniard’s driving at Albert Park was sadly compelling as he muscled and willed a dog-slow car to the back-end of the points through sheer force of will until it broke, leaving him to describe his race as “probably one of the best I’ve had”. What might China reveal about his plans to carry on with the team when he comes out of contract at the end of 2017?

What bonkers Chinese GP experience will we get in 2017?
There’ll be something, because there always is in China. In 2005, Juan Pablo Montoya’s McLaren had to retire after it ran clean into a manhole cover that had come loose. In 2011, Jenson Button pulled up in Red Bull’s pit box to take service and new tyres – the only problem being that the Brit was driving for McLaren. Hamilton won the 2014 race that ended prematurely after the chequered flag was erroneously waved a lap too early, while a year later, a spectator ran across the track in the middle of free practice, jumping the pit wall because he wanted to have a go of F1 machinery himself. Last year was relatively incident-free for China, which can only mean we’re due …

What’s in store for Max Verstappen?

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.

The stats
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.

Chief rival
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.

Dream outcome
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 realised
‘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.

Fearless prediction
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.

To the Max

You don’t make the impact on a cut-throat global sport as quickly as Max Verstappen has without ruffling a few feathers along the way.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE APRIL 2017 ISSUE OF INSIDE SPORT MAGAZINE.

Is Max Verstappen really F1’s Messiah, or is he just a very naughty boy? Depends on who you ask. The hordes of travelling fans who turned the hillsides at several European Grands Prix last year into a sea of orange to support their Dutch compatriot? Their view might be different to, say, his on-track rivals, team bosses outside of the Red Bull stable for whom the teenager drives, even former drivers who feel Verstappen’s robust style crosses the boundaries of acceptable sporting behaviour. Whatever your view, Verstappen, at just 19 years of age, has quickly and indisputably become F1’s future. How soon can he become its present? Perhaps as soon as 2017.

To understand where Verstappen might be going, it’s important to hit the rewind button and assess where he’s been. Back in the ‘olden days’ – as in 2014 – the 16-year-old son of moderately-successful former F1 racer Jos Verstappen was a karting prodigy, but had zero experience in single-seater cars. The hyper-competitive European F3 series is a tough introduction for drivers getting their car-racing feet wet, but Verstappen shone to such an extent that he won 10 of the 33 races and finished third in the championship.

F1 teams jostled for positon for his signature, with Mercedes especially keen. And then Red Bull made an audacious play, inking Verstappen to a contract in August that year and – stunningly – promoting him to its second-tier team, Scuderia Toro Rosso, for 2015. Red Bull motorsport consultant Dr Helmut Marko’s assertion that a kid who hadn’t even done 12 months of car racing reminded him of Ayrton Senna needed, for most, to be accompanied by a laugh track.

“Too young,” came the howls of protest from some, and the sport’s governing body, the FIA, concurred. In January 2015, the FIA amended its superlicence regulations for F1 drivers to put in a minimum age limit of 18 from the following season onwards, ensuring that Verstappen will remain the youngest driver in F1 history.

Verstappen didn’t waste any time adding to his ‘youngest-ever’ list; by finishing seventh in Malaysia in just his second F1 race in 2015, he became the youngest point-scorer in history at 17 years, 180 days, two-and-half years younger than the man he replaced at Toro Rosso, Daniil Kvyat. By the next race in China, where Verstappen had stormed through the field by overtaking one rival after another into the tricky hairpin at the Shanghai International Circuit, respected pundit Martin Brundle was convinced. “He is showing all the hallmarks of a Senna, of a (Michael) Schumacher, in my view,” Brundle gushed.

Fast-forward 12 months, and with Kvyat struggling to keep up with Daniel Ricciardo at the senior Red Bull team, Red Bull decided – again – to roll the dice. Four races into the 2016 campaign, Verstappen was in at Red Bull Racing, Kvyat jettisoned back to Toro Rosso. It seemed like a harsh call, but one that was immediately justified when Verstappen stepped out for the senior Bull team for the first time in Barcelona – and promptly won the Spanish Grand Prix. In the closing stages and with the Ferrari of 2007 world champion Kimi Raikkonen breathing down his neck, the Dutch teenager didn’t flinch. From there, he was off, taking six further podiums for the year and finishing fifth in the championship.

Verstappen’s best podium was his last one, a stunning drive in Brazil. In horrendous weather better suited to boats than F1 machinery, Verstappen was called in for a late pit stop, and was 14th with 17 laps remaining. No matter; in a display of improvisational genius, Verstappen made passes on sections of the waterlogged Interlagos circuit his rivals wouldn’t have contemplated, finishing third after the most electrifying 25 minutes of driving the sport has seen for years. “Physics are being redefined,” marvelled Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff, shaking his head.

What makes Verstappen’s car control so special? Peter Windsor, the former Williams and Ferrari team manager who has become one of the sport’s foremost media voices, says Verstappen’s precision is comparable only to three-time world champion Lewis Hamilton of today’s drivers.

“Max perfectly manipulates the car in the braking and corner-entry stage, creating a platform that makes the corner exit almost an after-thought,” Windsor explains.

“Imagine trying to keep a set of billiard balls in the centre of a ‘floating’, constantly-moving table by very delicately changing the weight on each corner. That’s what Max and Lewis do better than any drivers on the F1 grid.”

That’s the good, and it’s undeniably good. But you don’t make as much of an impact on a cut-throat global sport as quickly as Verstappen has without ruffling more than a few feathers along the way. And the Dutch teenager has certainly done that.

A common complaint among Verstappen’s rivals is his behaviour in the braking zones at the end of straights. Defending against a rival in their slipstream, the unofficial F1 drivers’ etiquette is to make one move, left or right, to defend, and if the trailing car is good enough to switch to the other side of the road to make the pass stick, then hats off to them. Verstappen’s modus operandi has been to cover off one side of the road, wait until the opponent tries for the opposite side, and then make a second blocking move to retain track position, running the risk of being harpooned by a startled rival.

In Belgium last season, when Verstappen moved over on Raikkonen along the 300km/h-plus Kemmel Straight at Spa-Francorchamps, the normally taciturn Finn spoke for many of his colleagues. “There could have been a big accident,” he fumed. “I had to brake from full speed, and I haven’t had that from any other driver.”

By October’s US Grand Prix in Austin, FIA race director Charlie Whiting had seen enough, issuing an amendment to the sport’s rulebook – unofficially termed ‘the Verstappen rule’ – to outlaw moving under braking, adding that penalties would result for those who breached it.

Whiting didn’t have to wait long. At the next race in Mexico, with Verstappen, Sebastian Vettel and Ricciardo squabbling over the final podium place behind the Mercedes duo of Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, Verstappen brazenly cut the first corner when under pressure from Vettel to retain third position with three laps left. An apoplectic Vettel – repeatedly swearing at Whiting to take action over the radio – then came under attack from Ricciardo, and shoved the Australian off the road on the penultimate lap. Verstappen finished third, Vettel right in his wheeltracks as the pair crossed the line, the furious Ferrari driver giving his Dutch rival a one-fingered salute. Whiting later penalised both for their misdemeanours and Ricciardo inherited third place, a result that ensured he’d finish the season in the same position.

Ricciardo was the beneficiary of Verstappen’s actions that day, but what of the future? After all, Australian F1 fans would be wary of the last time the sport’s latest young gun was paired with the only Aussie on the grid at Red Bull. But the Verstappen/Ricciardo relationship hasn’t plumbed the depths of the Vettel/Mark Webber ‘partnership’ when Red Bull emerged as a world championship contender from 2009, and seems destined not to.

If anything, Verstappen’s arrival at Red Bull caused Ricciardo to raise his already-high level to new stratospheres. In their 17 races as teammates, Ricciardo out-qualified (11-6), out-raced (10-7) and out-scored (220 points to 191) the driver who is being earmarked for future championships, plural, before he reaches Ricciardo’s age of 27. It says much for Ricciardo’s 2016 season that he was, for most astute observers, the best driver in F1 last year, a season where Verstappen wowed fans from Austria to Australia and everywhere in between.

Where does that leave the relationship between the two? For now, it’s jokey, amicable and respectful. When Ricciardo and Verstappen locked horns in Malaysia last year – the same circuit where Vettel passed Webber late in the 2013 race against team instruction in the infamous ‘Multi-21’ controversy – the Red Bull pit wall held its breath, but the pair played hard and fair.

“At no point did I think ‘oh no, we’re going to crash here’,” Ricciardo said after taking his fourth Grand Prix victory. “Max gave me room, and was sensible and didn’t run it deep into me. When we came into Turn 5 … I’m sure the team was half-expecting us to spear off. It was nice to be given the chance to race like that and show that we can be sensible in the heat of the moment.”

Can that same common sense prevail if Red Bull is fighting for a bigger prize in 2017? It’s question that’s in play this year after three seasons of Mercedes running roughshod over the rest of the field. A raft of rule changes will mean that outright engine performance isn’t as dominant a factor this season as it has been since the V6 turbo hybrid powerplants first debuted in 2014, and for the first time since 2013, there’s more emphasis on aerodynamic performance than what’s underneath a drivers’ right foot – a regulation tweak that should be right up Red Bull’s alley.

If there was ever a chance for Red Bull stop the Silver Arrows stampede of the past few years, this is it. Which begs several key questions. Could Verstappen really become a world champion mere months after his 20th birthday? Sure. He has the talent. Can he beat his Australian teammate in the sister car? That isn’t so certain. Which is why Max Verstappen in 2017 will be compelling viewing.

What F1 testing told us about 2017

The new season could be a race in three, the midfield battle will be ferocious, and it might pay to be the tortoise rather than the hare in Australia.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

For a sport that criss-crosses the globe for 20 high-profile races over eight months, Formula One’s pre-season – all of eight days of on-track running at the same venue in a two-week window – seems remarkably inadequate.

But that’s how the giants of the world’s most visible motorsport category prepare for the season that’s ahead of them, and after two four-day tests at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, we have a reasonable indication of who’s hot and who isn’t, and who can make the long flight to Australia for the opening race of the season with confidence, and who knows that time is running out to get their 2017 championship campaigns on the right track.

With a little under two weeks to take-off – well, until the lights go out at Albert Park at 4pm on Sunday March 26 to commence the campaign – here’s what testing in Spain has told us to expect for the season to come.

Nobody wants to be the favourite …
This is a Formula One staple. Some teams show pace, then immediately hose down expectations. Some hold something back, and then get nominated by another team (usually the one at the top of the timesheets) as the favourite anyway. Others hint at big developments in the pipeline between the final test and the first race in Australia, intentionally placing a giant asterisk on their pre-season form. And so it goes, year after year.

Were Ferrari, who topped the testing timesheets with Kimi Raikkonen on the final day (with a lap of 1min 18.634secs, 3.366secs faster than Lewis Hamilton’s pole time for Mercedes at last year’s Spanish GP, incidentally), holding something back until the eighth and final day of testing?

Hamilton felt Ferrari were “bluffing” early in the final week in Spain, and Raikkonen himself said he could have gone faster on the final day “if we wanted”. As much as that may be game-playing by the Finn, keep in mind his best lap came on Pirelli’s supersoft compound tyres, not the theoretically faster but less durable ultrasoft most other drivers set their fastest time with.

How much does Mercedes still have in reserve, given the dominance the Silver Arrows has enjoyed over the rest for the past three years? And will Red Bull turn up in Melbourne with an aerodynamic upgrade that could vault it ahead of both of its rivals? Truth is, nobody really knows; all we do know is that teams will do and say anything at this time of year to avoid coming to Australia with a giant target on their backs.

But there’s an early-season pecking order
What order the afore-mentioned teams end up in after Australia – and beyond, which is one question that could have more than one answer – remains to be seen. What we can say with some surety is that it’s these three teams at the front of the field, and then daylight to the rest. Haas team principal Gunther Steiner told reporters in Spain that he felt Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull were 1.5 seconds per lap clear of the chasing pack, a gap he feels “will not get smaller” as the season develops.

Based on that, are we in for a two-tier F1 this season, where, barring incident or accident, it’ll be nigh-on impossible for the rest to break into the top six placings? Initially, it could seem that way. Some variety at the very front – remember, Mercedes has won 51 of the 59 races since F1 ditched normally-aspirated V8 engines for their 1.6-litre V6 turbo cousins three years ago – would be nice, but what might be nicer is a no-holds-barred fight in the midfield between Williams, Steiner’s Haas outfit, Force India and Toro Rosso, with Renault likely just behind that quartet. The battle for the back-end of the points promises to be entertainingly manic, and will surely ebb and flow between the various circuits.

Oranges and lemons
Notice the two teams we didn’t mention above? One is Sauber, which seems likely to trail the field for the time being, its closest rival from last year (Manor) lost to the sport altogether. Which leaves McLaren, and the less said about its testing disaster the better. The Honda-powered team managed just 425 laps across the eight days – bear in mind Mercedes did 1096 between Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas – and when the McLaren managed to stay on track long enough between breakdowns, Stoffel Vandoorne (17th overall) and Fernando Alonso (18th) were nowhere on the timesheets, the car over 25km/h slower than Bottas’ Mercedes benchmark down the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya’s main straight.

“No reliability and no power” was Alonso’s damning summation of Honda’s powerplant, while his inflammatory comment to Spanish media – “the team are all ready to win except Honda” – will only add to the tension as the team heads Down Under. When you consider that neither McLaren driver managed to run more than 11 consecutive laps in testing, the chances of either orange-liveried car circulating past the halfway stage of the Australian GP look to be remote.

Everyone gets along – for now
Ah, the pre-season, where teammates pose for jokey photo shoots, everyone has kind words to say about their rivals … other than Alonso/McLaren (for obvious reasons), there was a lot of love in the air in Spain last week. After three years of tension within Mercedes as Hamilton and Nico Rosberg continued their two-man fight for the world title without having to factor in the rest of the field, Rosberg’s replacement, Bottas, has already made his mark on the three-time world champion.

“I feel we already have a better working relationship than I ever had with any teammate I had before,” Hamilton told formula1.com, adding “what I so far like about working with Valtteri is that it is all to do with the track, what we do on the circuit, and not outside – there are no games, there is complete transparency.” Bottas is certainly less likely to wind Hamilton up as much as the razor-sharp Rosberg did, but the cynic in us suggests that won’t last too long, particularly if Bottas gets the upper hand early on. It’s a working relationship that will be watched with interest

Australia will be a car-breaker
Want to finish with some early-season points? Make sure you finish in Australia. The first race of the year soon weeds out the teams who have sacrificed reliability for speed, and when you factor in that the Albert Park circuit is atypically fast for a street track and has concrete walls at every turn – and that the lap will be faster than ever thanks to the new-for-2017 machinery – and simply lasting all 58 laps in Melbourne could help a lower-order team snatch a hatful of points.

Remember what Sauber did in Australia two years ago, starting the 2015 season with 14 points between Felipe Nasr (fifth) and Marcus Ericsson (eighth) after not scoring a single point the year before? Just 11 cars finished that day, and there’s every chance that could be repeated in a fortnight’s time.

The likes of Sauber, Renault and perhaps Williams rookie Lance Stroll could be well advised to concentrate on keeping the car on the black stuff and reaping the rewards. Simply finishing could be enough to score.