Flying back from Singapore after being forced to retire for the seventh time in 14 races, Max Verstappen would never have believed what would unfold next in his never-ending season.
Fast forward two months to today in the balmy heat of Abu Dhabi in the season finale and the Dutchman’s name is now pursed on everyone’s lips again as a future world champion after a series of glittering displays since Singapore.
It all began in Malaysia with just his second grand prix triumph followed by second and fourth placings in Japan and the US.
By that time, the title was pretty much done and dusted but the 20-year-old sent out another reminder of his potential by dominating at the front – eventually taking the lead to stand top of the podium in Mexico.
His success, was of course, overshadowed by Lewis Hamilton, who stole the limelight that evening when the Mercedes driver underlined his status of being one of the finest F1 drivers with his fourth world championship.
Coming into Yas Marina Circuit with a fifth place finish in Brazil, the Red Bull driver stands sixth in the drivers’ standings with 158 points. Even if he does win on Sunday, that will not be enough to usurp Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen, who is winless in 2017, for his joint-best fifth position last season.
As he puts it, the last nine months have been very eventful.
“It’s been a little bit of a roller coaster season,” he told Sport360° at a TAG Heuer sponsored event at House of Debonair on Friday night in the UAE capital.
“Lately for sure, we had some great results especially in the last five races and still very happy to get those two victories (Mexico and Malaysia) this season. At the beginning of the season, it was a little bit more difficult with the reliability of the car and we managed to turn it around and I’m happy with that.”
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At just 20, Verstappen is mature beyond his years and his performances in the second half of the season shows he possesses such bravery and hunger which is frightening.
Another solid show in Abu Dhabi will only add more fuel to a discussion that 2018 could be one of the sport’s most competitive yet.
Sebastian Vettel’s continued resurgence with Ferrari and a fully-charged Verstappen could certainly give Hamilton a run for his money in a three-way race.
The Dutchman says his turnaround in the last five races is not just down to himself but it gives him confidence that he can push the likes of Hamilton and Vettel all the way during the entire 21 races rather than in sporadic periods next year.
“I hope so but we still have to find a little bit of horsepower at the end,” Verstappen added. “I think with the car, we can still improve as well but that is something that other teams will do as well. But we’ll just have to wait and see.
“I have to drive like I’m doing now (on what he needs to do to battle for the F1 title) but there’s always room for improvement of course. But that, only time will tell on where I can improve and with experience.”
Verstappen can draw confidence that Red Bull’s rivals Ferrari have enjoyed their most successful campaign with Vettel’s five victories helping them register their highest points total ever of 495 to date.
After years of frustration due to the car not being competitive, the Scuderia appear to have found the right formula although they still fell short of the title as well as dwarfing Mercedes’ 625 points at the top.
Guaranteed to finish third in the constructors’ standings, the Dutchman issued an early warning to his Red Bull team that he can only be good as his car if he wants to follow into Vettel’s footsteps and bring back the Formula One trophy for the first time since German’s triumph in 2013.
“I hope to be in that fight but F1 is like that,” he added. “You just have to hope that next year will be better and you are in that position. You can see like last year when Ferrari were behind us and now they are actually fighting with Mercedes and it can change very quickly.
“I don’t know (if it will be a matter of time). We just have to wait and see. I will always try to do my best.”
Last month, any hopes of Mercedes or Ferrari snapping up the youngest F1 driver in 2019 were dashed when he committed to a three-year deal until 2020 with an option of an extra year.
Verstappen is fully aware that he is F1’s hottest property but gave his strongest hint that his Red Bull stay could well prolong for a couple of more years even if the Silver Arrows and Ferrari came knocking.
“Will have to wait until that contract ends and then we’ll see how our relationship is,” he said.
“We’ll see what happens in the future but at the moment I’m very happy with the team and I think that it’s very important to have a good bond and feel good in the team. I feel like I’m in the right place so we’ll see in the future.”
Hamilton, who sealed his fourth title with two rounds to spare in Mexico last month, led the way from his Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas.
The British driver posted a best lap of one minute and 37.627 seconds at the Yas Marina circuit to finish a third of a second clear of Bottas with the Ferrari duo of Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel, both half-a-second off the pace, in third and fourth respectively.
Hamilton is bidding to end his championship-winning campaign on a high and is the driver to beat in the heat of the desert having topped the time sheets on Friday and now on Saturday. The Mercedes driver needs one more win to take his tally of victories to an impressive 10 for the 20-race season.
For Vettel – the man who led the championship for 12 rounds before his charge imploded in the second half of the year – he needs to finish only eighth on Sunday to ensure he will end as runner-up to Hamilton, with Bottas 22 points adrift of the German.
Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo finished fifth in the order ahead of team-mate Max Verstappen with Fernando Alonso seventh for McLaren. Veteran Brazilian Felipe Massa, who will start his 269th and final grand prix tomorrow ahead of his impending retirement, was 11th.
Finland’s Niko Kari drove a perfect race in Saturday afternoon’s Race 1 at the Yas Marina Circuit for his maiden win in the GP3 Series ahead of 2017 champion George Russell and Arjun Maini.
The victory was made at the start — when the lights went out Arden team-mates Leonardo Pulcini and Kari made great getaways from P2 and P3 respectively, leaving pole-man Russell the choice of which driver to cover.
He chose the Italian and pushed across to the inside line, leaving the outside wide open for Kari to swoop through and into the lead at turn 2, ahead of Russell, Pulcini and Maini, while behind them Nirei Fukuzumi and Raoul Hyman were slow to get away from the grid, delaying most of their rivals.
Japan’s Fukuzumi clattered into Giuliano Alesi at turn 8, forcing both drivers to pit, while ahead of them Pulcini blew past Russell to set up an Arden 1-2 on track, with the top 4 edging away and behind them Dan Ticktum leading Dorian Boccolacci, Anthoine Hubert (who was hoping to insert himself into the fight for the vice-champion position), Alessio Lorandi, Steijn Schothorst and Ryan Tveter.
Kari was looking to build a DRS buffer back to his team-mate when Marcos Siebert stopped at turn 8, prompting a brief VSC period on lap 5.
The Finn easily controlled the restart with Russell almost catching Pulcini napping and being forced to run over the kerbs to avoid the Italian, handing Kari the vital 1s gap he needed to avoid the DRS and allowing him to control the race, and his tyres.
Ticktum and Lorandi were both mugged at the restart but soon regained their positions, with the Briton sailing away into the distance and the Italian soon looking for more. As Hubert suddenly slowed with some sort of gremlin dropping him back through the field, Lorandi got the jump on Boccolacci on the back straight for P6 just before Alesi rolled to a stop at turn 20, bringing out the VSC boards once again.
Russell caught out Pulcini once again at the restart, but this time made it stick for P2 on the final turn, while Lorandi and Boccolacci resumed battle again, swapping position all around the circuit before the Italian finally made it stick on lap 14, with Schothorst inserting himself into the battle and forcing the Frenchman to keep an eye on his mirrors.
There was soon more bad news for Pulcini. His left rear started to deflate, dropping him back down the grid before an inevitable retirement on lap 17, handing Maini a place on the podium. Ahead of him Russell was unable to do anything about the speed of Kari, who punched the air with delight as he was greeted by the flag across the line.
Ticktum rolled home a lonely fourth, ahead of Lorandi and Schothorst, who both broke away from the squabble behind them: Boccolacci just held off a fast charging Hubert, who drove a magnificent recovery effort for P8 and tomorrow’s pole, just ahead of Tveter and Kevin Joerg.