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.”
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