Driving past Casino Square having finished ninth in the Monaco Grand Prix, a disappointed Max Verstappen was under no illusions on what the next stage of his season would present.
Ravaged by arguments with the media off the track and mistakes on it, the 21-year-old had just 35 points to his name in the drivers standings – less than half the amount of teammate Daniel Ricciardo and only three more than Fernando Alonso – and low on confidence and optimism.
The Dutchman also crashed with Lewis Hamilton in Bahrain and Sebastian Vettel in China, and suffered an embarrassing collision with Ricciardo in Baku.
But, talented athletes always find a way, and Verstappen turned a corner after Monaco. He has been in stunning form since, with two wins in Austria and Mexico and 11 podiums in total.
His displays in the second half of the season, in particular, have proven why he is considered the most exciting driver on the grid and the man who could potentially challenge Hamilton and Vettel in 2019.
In fact, only Hamilton scored more points than him after the turn of the summer break – a fine achievement considering Red Bull are the third-fastest car on the grid.
Verstappen promises there is much more to come.
“The start of the season wasn’t easy but we managed to turn it around in a positive way. Two victories and a few podiums. I definitely can’t complain with that,” says Verstappen speaking at the Red Bull Racing garage at Yas Marina Circuit on Sunday.
“I was positively surprised with the car so that’s always good. The car seems to be working really well again, better than expected just like we experienced in Brazil.
“You can improve as a driver, nothing is perfect, so I’ll try to become a better driver (for next year).”
At just 21, Verstappen is mature beyond his years and his aggression, confidence and superb race craft shows he has all the right tools to be a superstar in the sport.
Last October, any hopes of Mercedes or Ferrari signing this exhilarating talent were dashed when he penned a three-year deal until 2020, worth a reported $10 million a season.
Never afraid to speak his mind, Verstappen has clocked up some interesting rants since his debut for Toro Rosso back in 2015 aged just 17.
From his x-rated rants in Hungary and Italy to threatening to headbutt a journalist in Canada and forcibly shoving Esteban Ocon for costing him victory in Brazil, a sometimes ruthless Verstappen is not afraid to hide his emotions and vocalise what he thinks.
“I think that’s how I am, even at Toro Rosso. They maybe don’t broadcast it as much because you’re not fighting for podiums and victories. I’ve always been like that in my life,” he said.
“From my side, there was no reason to change that even if the team doesn’t like that. I think it’s brought me to where I am now.
“But we can’t say anything we’d like because it’s written down in 40 different ways and you have to be careful. Everyone has an opinion on social media, so sometimes we don’t want to say everything we think in case someone is annoyed. It doesn’t control my life.”
While Verstappen is someone who isn’t afraid to voice his emotions, he’s also equally adept at blocking out the noise of his potential achievements in the sport.
“I don’t listen to (the hype) so much. It’s great people are so positive. What’s so important is that I always have to work on myself and the team, and they are the people that know you and could make a difference in achieving that goal,” he said.
Personal glory is of course the name of the game from a driver’s point of view, and there is no doubt the Limburg man will scale new heights as the years progress.
Red Bull may not be genuine championship contenders right now, but in Verstappen, they possess one of the most popular and talented drivers on the grid.
Third in the constructors’ championship, Verstappen can only be as good as his car, and if he wants to follow in Vettel’s footsteps and lift a first title for Red Bull since the German last won in 2013, they need to match his ability over the off-season.
The four wins Red Bull have claimed this year show their potential, but nine retirements in total has led to an engine switch with Honda replacing Renault next season, a move which should propel them back into the title picture.
“In F1 it all depends on the package you have. Hopefully we have it next year. As a team we want to go back to the winning ways and win championships. With Honda coming in, they have that target and hopefully we can achieve it soon,” he said.
“Even if we have a winning package, for sure there will be weekends where maybe you make a mistake, or it can be a better weekend overall. Hopefully first we’ll have that package.
“We haven’t built the new car yet and we haven’t driven the Honda engine. It’s positive but at first we have to build a good car. Up until testing in Barcelona, it’s guessing and that’s for everyone.”
F1 takes a back seat for now before roaring back into life in Melbourne next March. As it stands, 2019 will be the third time the calendar has been its longest, with a total of 21 races.
The sport’s owners Liberty Media, in fact, want to expand further and there has even been plans for a race at Zandvoort in Holland in the future, on top of the recent announcement of a race in Vietnam in 2020.
However, Verstappen expressed concerns over the expansion of the F1 calendar and does not find the prospect of a longer season attractive.
“I think 21 is enough. It’s not for the drivers but for mechanics too. They are travelling even more for us. If you start going to 24 and 25, then you may have as well file for a divorce straight away because they are not home as much,” he said.
“It’s seems like they are not looking into that. We’ll find out. But they need to speak up and say it’s too much, or reduce something.”
When Lewis Hamilton crossed the finish line at Yas Marina Circuit on Sunday to seal his 11th win of the season, fireworks shot out from above the stands to draw the curtain on another F1 season.
It was another remarkable campaign for the Briton as he sealed a fifth drivers’ title in Mexico last month, finishing in front of Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel by a comfortable 88 points.
It was not the competitive season we were all hoping for, but Ferrari did put up somewhat of a fight to challenge Mercedes, and Vettel walked away with five race wins.
The two Red Bulls — Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen — combined for four grand prix triumphs.
Here, we look back at the year that was with driver of the year, team of the year and rookie of the year awards up for grabs.
DRIVER OF THE SEASON
The Brit won 11 races – more than any other driver this season – en route to sealing a fifth world title and drawing level with Argentine legend Juan Manuel Fangio in the process.
He looked virtually untouchable during the second half of the year with six wins in eight races – and capitalised effectively on Vettel’s poor form in Baku, Germany, Japan and Texas during the campaign.
With a record 408 points in the drivers championship, Hamilton produced his best season to date and has shown no signs of slowing down after 12 years in the sport.
The 33-year-old was a different class and it will be difficult to see him being beaten in 2019, as he eyes Michael Schumacher’s haul of seven world titles.
TEAM OF THE SEASON
No surprise to see the Silver Arrow secure a fifth successive constructors’ championship with Hamilton and team-mate Valtteri Bottas on the podium 17 and eight times respectively.
Ferrari did make improvements and looked a frontrunner for this award until the German Grand Prix, when they buckled under the pressure of Hamilton’s brilliance.
Needing some steady developments in the off-season, will it be enough to close the gap in the championship?
Maurizio Arrivabene has plenty of questions to answer but with the addition of Charles Leclerc, the Italian marque have a rising star who could really get the best out of Vettel and score some valuable points himself throughout the 2019 season.
Hamilton will be primed to add to his five titles and Bottas needs to step up if he wants a seat at Mercedes beyond next season.
Expect it to be a thrilling battle.
There is no doubt the German is a class act, but his reputation has decreased after a litany of mistakes inspired Hamilton’s scintillating form.
The 31-year-old led the championship after 10 races, but threw away victory when in control in Germany, crashing out and allowing the Briton to seize the championship lead.
The four-time world champion needs to come out firing when the new season kicks off next March in order to boost his confidence and gain an early foothold in the title race.
Hamilton will be determined to match Schumacher’s seven titles. It’s over to you to stop that, Sebastian.
RACE OF THE SEASON
AZERBAIJAN GRAND PRIX
Hamilton’s stunning win from 14th on the grid at the German Grand Prix has to be considered as it was the race that effectively changed the course of the title race.
But for pure enjoyment of racing, the Azerbaijan Grand Prix in April could not be matched.
The Red Bull pair of Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo crashed out, Vettel’s failed attempt to overtake cost him a podium place, and Bottas suffered a cruel puncture on the second last lap, allowing Hamilton to clinch victory.
COMEBACK OF THE YEAR
One of the sports greatest comeback stories was completed last week when Robert Kubica was announced as a Williams driver for 2019, seven years after nearly losing his right hand in a rally crash in Andorra.
The 33-year-old’s promotion from reserve driver will be at the expense of Russia’s Sergey Sirotkin, the driver who pipped him for a seat for the 2018 season.
Englishman George Russell will partner the Polish native next season as Williams bid to improve on their 10th place finish in the Constructors’ Championship.
ROOKIE OF THE SEASON
Few rookies have enjoyed such a consistent start to their F1 careers.
The 21-year-old shone in the modest Sauber machinery to clinch ten top-10s and finish 13th in the driver standings, ahead of the likes of Red Bull-bound Pierre Gasly and the experienced Romain Grosjean.
The Monegasque native came into Formula One having dominated the field in the Formula 2 Championship in 2017.
As a rookie, he has helped Sauber to an eighth place finish in the Constructors’ Championship, finishing just four points behind sixth placed McLaren in the standings.
His glowing performances earned him a promotion to Ferrari where he is expected to challenge Vettel next term.
DRIVER TO WATCH IN 2019
The flying Dutchman endured a mixed start to the season, crashing with Hamilton and Vettel, and suffering an embarrassing collision with team-mate Ricciardo in Baku.
But he turned a corner after Azerbaijan and has been in stunning form since, with two wins in Austria and Mexico and ten podiums in total.
His displays in the second half of the season, in particular, have proven why he is considered the most exciting talent on the grid and the man who could potentially challenge Hamilton and Vettel in 2019.
Only the world champion has scored more points than him in the nine races since the summer break.
TEAM TO WATCH IN 2019
With Gasly set to join up with Verstappen next season, expect Red Bull to close the gap between Mercedes and Ferrari.
Verstappen is the undisputed number one driver, but the ferocious Gasly will not give in to his team-mate’s preferential treatment and will want to challenge for podiums at each opportunity.
In fact, the 22-year-old showed his vast talents in a below-par Toro Rosso this year, recording five top-10 finishes, including a sizzling fourth place in Bahrain back in April.
A prolific winner on the GP2 stage, Gasly is certain to push Verstappen to the maximum.
As Max Verstappen surged down the home stretch to clinch his second win of the season at the Mexican Grand Prix last month, you couldn’t help but wonder what was going through his teammate Daniel Ricciardo’s head.
The Australian had just suffered his eighth retirement of the season – more than any driver – and had not finished on the podium since securing victory at the Monaco Grand Prix back in May.
At that early point of the season, Mercedes and Ferrari were circling for his signature, but instead he raised eyebrows by opting to sign for Renault in August.
Apart from the opportunity to challenge for a race win, there was no real upside for Ricciardo remaining at Red Bull, racing alongside the team’s undisputed number one driver, in Verstappen.
Although the 21-year-old has had more success than Ricciardo in his four seasons in F1, he has only really started to show a run of consistency in the championship in the second half of this season – after retiring twice in the first four races.
The Dutchman has out-qualified Ricciardo in 14 of the 21 races this year and holds a 79-point lead over his teammate in the drivers standings (Verstappen is fifth, one place above the Australian). Both drivers have enjoyed two wins each in 2018, but Verstappen has been on the podium eight more times.
Red Bull may not be genuine championship contenders now, but in Verstappen, they possess one of the most popular and talented drivers on the grid, a man looming behind Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton as a future world champion.
The 21-year-old is already being paid more than Ricciardo, reportedly $10 million against the Australian’s $6m – despite racing in 69 less Grand Prix than a teammate eight years his senior.
Ricciardo, who turns 30 next July, wanted a big payday and got it, with a reported $70m deal over two years from Renault.
Whether escaping the shadows of the emerging Verstappen is a promising move for his ambitions of being a future world champion, it is unlikely he will taste much success at the French outfit, a team who have not secured a podium since the Malaysian Grand Prix in 2011.
There is no guarantee either that Ricciardo will slot straight into the Renault and be able to challenge the big three, especially with his new teammate Nico Hulkenberg producing some solid performances this season and still unable to threaten a top-three finish in a mediocre car.
Without a podium since May, adding to his litany of retirements due to an unreliable car, Abu Dhabi is the last chance for Ricciardo to walk on top of the steps and celebrate a top-three finish in his 100th and final Red Bull race.
You rarely see the Perth man make a driving error, which is down to his experience behind the wheel, but a middling car like the Renault can only do so much to help his chances of challenging the Mercedes, Ferraris and, from next season, the Red Bulls.
Verstappen, meanwhile, has two more years remaining on his contract at Red Bull, by which time he should be at a stage to genuinely challenge for the championship. And if the Red Bull is struggling, he is sure to have the option to join a potential winning team in Mercedes or Ferrari.
His five race wins and 22 podiums at the age of 21 speak volumes for a driver who is brimming with confidence and has aspirations of reaching the pinnacle of the sport.
He has aggression, confidence, superb race craft and a ruthless attitude needed to secure podiums on any given day. His talent is peerless but, at times, can be pushed into the spotlight for the wrong reasons. He clashed with Hamilton in Bahrain, hit Vettel in Shanghai and then forcibly shoved Esteban Ocon in Brazil two weeks ago.
Mistakes are bound to happen along any journey and the only way for the young driver to improve is through racing. Verstappen is his own man and practice will help his steady improvement on and off the track. He loves to speak his mind and doesn’t ever hide his emotions after a race, traits that are admirable in an era of media-trained sports stars and are sure to stand him in good stead for a future title tilt.
When Verstappen and Ricciardo leave Abu Dhabi for their base in Monaco on Monday, they will no doubt reflect on this long season and what lies ahead for them in 2019.
Verstappen is young, fearless and improving each season, but for Ricciardo, the opportunity to challenge for glory looks to have passed with his move to Renault.