AS the GP season nears, PETER COSTER casts his eye over the gun drivers and the race for the Formula One title:
THE X in Max is the X-factor that will see the 21-year-old win a Formula One world championship sooner rather than later.
The Dutch wunderkind has it all. The only factor that can hold him back is a lack of performance from a Honda engine.
Verstappen will have Honda power behind him for the first time at the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne in March.
Will it be enough to match Mercedes and Ferrari is the question. Honda failed to deliver a race winning pace for McLaren, which dropped the Japanese manufacturer for French-built Renault engines this season.
That didn’t work either for McLaren, whose double world champion, Fernando Alonso, has quit F1 in disgust to go Indy racing.
It also poses a problem for Verstappen’s Australian teammate, Daniel Ricciardo, who will line up at Albert Park next year in a works Renault he hopes will take him to a world title. There is more to this than Ricciardo stepping out of the Red Bull seat because of the Austrian-owned team’s switch to Honda.
Red Bull has been successful with Renault engines. Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel won four world driver’s championships when he was with Red Bull and only went to Ferrari after Ricciardo won three races in his first year compared with Vettel’s dismal doughnut.
Ricciardo has suffered much the same fate with Verstappen joining Red Bull and regularly out-qualifying the former Perth driver.
Further salt in his wounds are the eight retirements he has suffered this season. Frustration saw him punch a hole in the wall of his motor home after the US Grand Prix.
After retiring at the Mexican Grand Prix, he said he felt his car was “cursed.”
The car pulled up with its brakes billowing smoke. Officials, thinking the engine was on fire, squirted clouds of foam up the exhaust pipes.
The foam solidified in the Red Bull’s turbo, which had to be replaced, resulting in a five-place penalty for Ricciardo at the Brazilian Grand Prix.
He sliced his way through the field to finish fourth after starting on the back half of the grid.
So, once again it was all about Max, who won the Mexican GP and was on his way to winning at Brazil when disaster stuck in the person of Force India driver Esteban Ocon.
Ocon and Verstappen are of similar age and have been rage-spitting rivals since their junior days. So, when Ocon, who was a lap down on race leader Verstappen found he had greater speed on fresh tyres, he asked his pit whether he should pass.
His team confirmed he was entitled to un-lap himself, but that is where Verstappen’s race was stolen.
Ocon tried to pass but Verstappen was having none of it and after going side by side with Ocon on one corner edged ahead around the next.
That is where it should have ended but Ocon refused to yield and drove into the side of Verstappen’s Red Bull. Of course, Ocon said Verstappen drove into him.
Ocon’s team principal, Otmar Szafnauer, supported his driver’s interpretation of events.
The stewards did not. Ocon had three points taken from his F1 super licence and was given a 10-second race penalty.
The next step for the stewards was to disqualify him from the race and that is what should have happened.
Two former world champions in Jaques Villeneuve and Damon Hill said Ocon was clearly in the wrong and should have made way for the race leader. Villeneuve said Ocon was “an embarrassment” and what he did was “ridiculous”.
That was mild language from the volatile French Canadian. Hill was polite, but forceful and the expletives were left to Verstappen.
He gave Ocon the finger as he was spun around by the Force India driver and was heard calling Ocon a f…..g idiot on the team radio He also clashed physically with Ocon at the weigh-in after the race.
There was a push and a shove and Villeneuve enthused that this was what people wanted to see.
“We want emotion. We want to see these gladiators. It was good to see that.”
Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said Ocon was lucky to escape without a punch on the nose.
Formula One was a blood sport in the past with drivers being killed or seriously injured every season, but has matured since Scottish world champion Jackie Stewart led a campaign for greater safety.
Had this incident been settled somewhere less public, instead of world television where it was seen by millions of race fans, there might have been blood on the track.