Max Verstappen has barely left his teens, but has already started to realise his tremendous potential – and Red Bull team principal Christian Horner is adamant the flying young Dutchman can become one of the greatest drivers of this generation.
The 21-year-old was aged only 17 years and 166 days when he became the youngest driver to compete in Formula 1 at the 2015 Australian Grand Prix.
Four years on and he has assumed the lead driver role for Red Bull in 2019 following the departure of Daniel Ricciardo. He will line up on the grid at Melbourne Park on Sunday already the veteran of 81 grands prix and with five victories to his name.
Verstappen has finished inside the top 10 57 times and claimed 22 podium finishes overall. So good was his 2015 debut season and his performances in the first four races of 2016, Red Bull decided to scoop him up from Toro Rosso and put him in the second Red Bull seat, switching places with Russian Daniil Kvyat.
Seventeen top 10 finishes helped Verstappen enjoy his best season ever last term – he retired three times and finished outside the top 10 just once.
And even though Horner believes it’s “impossible” to predict what the future holds for his prized asset, he is sure Verstappen is destined for the very top.
“I think he’s got all the hallmarks of being one of the greats of this generation,” Horner told Sport360.
“You can see it, at such a young age. He’s only 21, what he’s achieved so far is remarkable. We see he’s got a huge amount of potential for the future and he’s already starting to realise it.”
Red Bull took third and fourth in the second free practice in Melbourne on Friday, ahead of the opening race of the 2019 season, with Verstappen (third) and team-mate Pierre Gasly separated by 0.042 seconds. The Dutchman was 0.800 behind Valtteri Bottas, with Mercedes team-mate and world champion Lewis Hamilton first.
Belgium-born speedster Verstappen, son of ex-Formula One driver Jos, may have a baby face but has already proved he has a fiercely competitive and combustible side.
Last season in-particular his fearless and stunning driving ability often clashed with a sometimes reckless style and explosive demeanour. It reached a crescendo in Brazil when, having being cost victory at Interlagos after Force India driver Esteban Ocon collided with him, he physically assaulted the Frenchman in the aftermath of the race.
Verstappen was ordered to undertake community service by the sport’s governing body, the FIA. But Horner is loathe to try and remove that fighting spirit from his No1 driver.
“I think that’s certainly a Red Bull philosophy, we allow our drivers to vent frustration or show emotion,” added the 45-year-old, in charge at Red Bull since 2005.
“That’s what sport, in our mind, is all about. Sporting moments for us are where emotion is involved. Max is a driver who drives with his heart on his sleeve and that’s what makes him so popular.
“Any competitive individual couldn’t be blamed for reacting the way he did after the race in Brazil. You see it in so many sports, it’s just one of those things. It’s so unusually seen in Formula One.
“I fully support him (on that). I don’t condone violence in any way but that wasn’t violence, it was emotion boiling over having been cost a Formula One victory.
“What we don’t know of course is what was said between them that antagonised it. I think he was expecting an apology he didn’t get.”
Loveable Aussie Ricciardo has left for Renault and been replaced by 23-year-old Frenchman Gasly.
And Horner was impressed by his full debut season last year, having earned five top 10s for Red Bull’s sister team Toro Rosso, with the Briton revealing Gasly was the No1 pick to partner Verstappen.
He said: “I think Pierre’s come through the same route as Daniel. He was a Formula Two champion (2016), he served his apprenticeship in Toro Rosso.
“It’s probably a little earlier than we would have liked but he’s shown all the same attributes. His performances in Bahrain, Monaco, Singapore, he’s driven some great races (last) year and we’re confident in (him), having been our test and reserve driver previously, that he’s the right guy to graduate into the car for (this) year.”
The way most people are reacting, you’d think Daniel Ricciardo was retiring from Formula One this weekend, as opposed to “moving next door” as he puts it.
The affable Australian will bring the curtain down on nearly a decade with Red Bull in Abu Dhabi on Sunday – with whom he has scored 944 of his 974 F1 points, and even the other 30 were notched with Red Bull affiliate Toro Rosso.
He has won seven races since making the step up to the senior Red Bull side five years ago, finishing third in the championship twice (2014 and 2016) and earning 29 podium placings.
But the 29-year-old has been shunted aside by flying young Dutchman Max Verstappen this year after Ricciardo had won two of the first six races. And although there is just one place separating the Red Bull team-mates in fifth and sixth respectively, the 76-point gap to Verstappen is gargantuan.
That must have been at least part of the reason why Ricciardo decided in August to sever ties with the Austrian-owned team – and he will join Renault on a two-year deal from 2019.
Ricciardo admits he will be emotional on Sunday as he starts his final race with Red Bull – his 100th with the team and 150th grand prix overall – from fifth on the grid at Yas Marina Circuit.
But he says he has to remind himself that this is the end of a chapter, rather than the end of the road.
“I’m trying not to get too caught up in it because I’ve still got a job to do and I want to keep that fire rather than emotion in me,” said the Perth native through a trademark grin when asked if he has been able to enjoy his final weekend with Red Bull after qualifying on Saturday.
“I’ve been able to enjoy it. It hasn’t been crazy busy, I’ve certainly had busier weekends this year so it’s been cool. I’m trying to enjoy it but it will certainly hit on the grid tomorrow, but I’ll look forward to that feeling with all the boys.
“We’ll probably have a group photo before I get in the car and I’ll probably say a little something on the radio to try and get them fired up.
“Once it all settles there’ll be a bit of emotion but also I think what’s helping me not think about it too much is I’m not retiring. If I was retiring it’d be a different story. I’m just kind of moving next door.
“It’s certainly made me realise I’m not ready to retire. Because the way some people have talked about it, I’ve been like ‘I get paid to be retired right now’.
“I’m ready to say goodbye eventually but ready to do a good race, finish strong and try and have some fun on the radio, try and chat some funny s*** to try and make them miss me next year.”
With Mercedes duo Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas locking out the front row and Ferrari pair Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen dominating the second, Ricciardo will have his work cut out to end his Red Bull tenure with a win, or even a podium, but he promised he’ll be “relentless” in his chase for a third win of the season.
“I’ll be looking at both Ferraris on the start and try and fight my way to a podium but fifth place is good,” he added.
“We’ll give it a go. My job is to attack the guys in front. I’m always prepared (to take a risk) I guess, but I won’t say I’m prepared to take more risk than I already do because I feel I’m at a good level. But I’ll try.
“Nothing to lose of course but I’ve not had anything to lose all year. For once we’ll try and get a good start and attack, put pressure on and be relentless.”
Ambitious Renault hope to edge closer to the big three in Formula One next season and team head Cyril Abiteboul expects Daniel Ricciardo to “play a key role in that”.
Ricciardo announced in August he would leave Red Bull after almost a decade with the British-based team following a season littered with disappointment.
The popular Australian was all smiles after winning two of the opening six races this campaign as he and team-mate Max Verstappen looked to help the team close the gap to Mercedes and Ferrari.
Ricciardo has not made the podium since triumphing in Monaco in May though and is actually the most-retired driver on the grid this term, with eight retirements.
And Abiteboul is excited about the possibility that improved performances can be built on with Ricciardo reeled in on a two-year deal.
“It’s a bit early to exactly mention or disclose our exact target for next year because first we would like to finish this season in the best possible way,” said Abiteboul ahead of Sunday’s final race of the season at Yas Marina Circuit.
“But obviously we need to keep on progressing: P9, P6, P4 in the championship in two years, in three years so we would like to see that progression continuing.
“We know that obviously the further you go the bigger the steps and the more demanding they will be.
“We would like to see, for instance, bridging the gap closer to the top teams in qualifying, in races, not being lapped, in terms of points scoring, so this is the type of target that we will announce at the start of next season.
“But you need to expect from us that we keep on progressing and completing the construction of the team and we expect Daniel to play a key role in that, just like he played a key role in Red Bull’s drive, in our opinion, on track but also off-track because we also feel that we need someone to embody that charge.
“Nico’s (Hulkenburg, the German is seventh, behind Ricciardo, in the drivers’ standings) doing extremely well as a driver so I also look forward to that line-up to really properly represent the efforts and the ambitions of Renault in that new cycle.”
Ricciardo reverting from Red Bull to Renault is one of a myriad of chair-swapping being done among F1 drivers for next season.
Of the 10 teams confirmed for 2019, only constructors’ champions Mercedes and Haas will maintain the same duo – world champion Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas at Mercedes and Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen at Haas.
Ricciardo removing himself from Red Bull though is one of the biggest eyebrow-raisers – the Aussie has been with the team for nearly 10 years (five with Red Bull and four as a recognised F1 driver or test driver with affiliate Toro Rosso).
As Red Bull team principal Christian Horner puts it, Ricciardo has “grown up with Red Bull”, with the Perth native having won seven times – his career total – with the Austrian-owned team.
“With Daniel, he’s been with us for 100 races, won seven of them,” said Horner.
“All his seven victories, all the points he scored in Formula 1, have come in Red Bull cars.
“He’s grown up with Red Bull. He was an unknown kid from Australia who arrived in Europe when Red Bull first picked him up, taking him through the junior formulas, into Formula 1 through Toro Rosso and into Red Bull Racing.
“It’s been great to see his development, his growth, and he’s been a big part of our team for the past five seasons.
“Hopefully we can give him a good sign-off in his final grand prix this weekend and wish him obviously the very best of luck for the future. But again, as one chapter closes another opens, with Pierre Gasly.”