The title battle between Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton may have been front and centre all year – particularly heading into this final race weekend in Abu Dhabi – but ask anyone who has been the real revelation in Formula One in 2016 and the unanimous response will be: Max Verstappen.
The Dutch teenager has been dropping jaws, raising eyebrows, and rewriting the history books in what is essentially just his third year racing cars.
An 18-year-old Verstappen joined Red Bull Racing from Toro Rosso last May then stunned the world by topping the podium on his debut race with the Austrian marque, triumphing at the Spanish Grand Prix to become the youngest-ever driver in F1 history to win a race.
Since then, he has made six more podiums and has a shot at finishing the season fourth in the driver standings.
His breathtaking drive in the wet in Brazil two weeks ago, that saw him coolly recover from a half-spin, and later weave past one car after the other to charge from P16 to P3 following a late pit stop saw him fall behind, and finally end up on the podium, is a masterpiece that will be remembered for a very long time.
“We were witnessing a little bit of history there,” is how Red Bull team principal Christian Horner reflects on that drive at Interlagos.
“He was in a league of his own in those conditions, his bravery, his skill, his tenacity, his determination all shone through on a very dark, wet and miserable day in Brazil.
“It was great to see. Of course his drive in Barcelona was a fantastic performance under huge pressure, but the level of skill and bravery that he demonstrated in Brazil was at a different level.”
Less than two years ago, there was much scepticism over the fact that a teenager was going to be on the grid in F1. Today, at 19, Verstappen has already won the world over with his meteoric rise.
“It’s happening all very quick for sure, but it has been like that my whole life so it’s not something new for me to be honest,” a nonchalant Verstappen told reporters in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday ahead of this weekend’s action at Yas Marina Circuit.
Out in the Abu Dhabi desert, the Red Bull clan, including Verstappen and his team-mate Daniel Ricciardo, swapped four wheels for two to take on some daunting sand dunes on dirt bikes.
Ricciardo, who has secured third in the championship on the track, calls the desert his “happy place” and gets on a dirt bike any chance he gets while Verstappen was experiencing the dunes for the first time.
The fiercely competitive teenager allowed himself to kick back and have fun for a few hours but it will be business as usual starting today at Yas, where he hopes to finish the season on a high.
With everything he has managed to achieve in the past six months, has it all sunk in yet?
“It has been a great season and I’m of course very happy with that. I think it’s pretty okay to just think about the results I’ve had, it’s important to, of course, enjoy the moment but also focus ahead again. I think many of the results I’ve enjoyed but that’s gone now,” replies Verstappen.
He said he watched videos of his drive in Brazil but only to learn something that can help him in the next one.
“I didn’t expect at all to come back from 16 all the way to third. It was very surprising for me as well,” he says of the race in Brazil.
“I knew I had the pace to be on the podium anyway. I think with a different strategy of course we could have easily finished second but at the end of the day it was better to finish third like this, because it gave me much more fun and I think not only for me.”
This is a guy who is exceptionally good and he knows it. He’s also aware that he’s bringing something special to the table, his uber-aggressive style of driving – that has earned him as much criticism as it has praise – has breathed some fresh air into a sport that has been shedding TV viewers by the millions over the past decade.
“I like having Max, it’s a good challenge,” says his team-mate Ricciardo. “He brings a lot of youth to the team and some different things, Seb (Vettel, Ricciardo’s ex-team-mate) brought the experience, Max brings the youth, and I can learn obviously from those two guys.”
And what does he bring to the team? “The full package… and good looks,” Ricciardo adds with a laugh.
Verstappen replaced Danill Kvyat at Red Bull after the first four races of the season and Ricciardo admits the Dutchman has pushed him harder as the months went by.
“I think when Max came in, obviously there was a lot of attention and that but I felt like we both lived up to it,” said the Aussie.
“And obviously he lived up to it, the first race we all know how that went in Barcelona,” he added with a chuckle. “But I feel like we both went from strength to strength and pushed each other and the team got better, it seems like we all sort of grew together. At first some people questioned the change, and no disrespect to Daniil but I think we had a very strong season since then so I think it worked out well.”
Ricciardo and Verstappen pulled off a memorable one-two for Red Bull in Malaysia, that witnessed a thrilling tug-of-war between the pair before the former claimed the win.
Does Verstappen think back much to those corners where he was bested by Ricciardo?
“To be honest not so much because we’re not fighting for a world championship yet so for me, yes of course in many occasions it could have been different – the same in Brazil, if we didn’t do the pit stop maybe I could have won the race after the restart so it’s always if you know? At the end of the day you always have to look in a positive way and it was a very strong race, the pace was good. Of course that race I finished second but for the team it was a great result and I still have many years in front of me so that single victory that I maybe lost is not a big deal,” said Verstappen.
Things haven’t all gone rosy for Verstappen this year. While his results have been astonishing, he has also had incidents with other drivers on the track, particularly Sebastian Vettel, who lashed out at the Dutchman’s tactics during the Mexican Grand Prix.
“He phoned me after Mexico, we had a good talk, everything was cleared very quickly. We’re racing drivers at the end of the day so it’s not something big to clear, I think,” Verstappen said calmly of Vettel.
F1 legend and Mercedes chairman Niki Lauda also described him as “arrogant” with “stupid actions”.
How does Verstappen find the balance between listening to such criticism from high-regarded figures in the sport, and sticking to his guns?
“By just being very neutral. For example on Twitter I’m not following anything from Formula One. I think it’s very important not to be too much on social media because you have a lot of positive comments but also negative ones. At the end of the day that shouldn’t affect you but I think it’s much more important to just not read it, so then you don’t know (what’s being said),” he replied.
Horner admits that Verstappen has exceeded expectation. He is aware of the criticism the youngster has drawn but is also amazed by his response to it.
“I think he handles it very well,” said Horner. “When anybody comes along and sort of upsets the establishment a bit of course then they get a bit of heat put on them and I think that’s exactly what Max has done, he’s come along and he’s rattled the establishment a bit.
“But I think what I admire about him is that he doesn’t let it influence him in any way or get him down. He just gets on with his job, he loves racing, he loves what he does, he’s fiercely competitive and he’s doing a super, super job…
“Of course he’s learning all the time. He’s still inexperienced in F1 and motor racing. He’s done a lot of kart racing but he’s only in his third year of car racing in its entirety. So of course he’s learning, but he’s learning in a very public arena. Most people do their learning in GP3 or GP2, he’s doing his very publicly in F1 and I think what he’s demonstrated is that he’s a very fast-learner.”