Jacques Villeneuve: Vettel’s World Championship reign over

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Former F1 World Champion Jacques Villeneuve has declared that four-time reigning champ Sebastian Vettel will not continue his title-winning run into a fifth year.

The always outspoken Canadian, who is set to return to the Indianapolis 500 this May, told a pair of Italian publications that Renault’s problematic preseason testing has already finished off Vettel and Red Bull Racing’s hopes for another crown.

“He’s not going to win this year for sure,” Villeneuve told Autosprint and La Repubblica. “To me, Renault seems completely lost and unable even to finish a Grand Prix. Even if [Red Bull] are making a new car for the European races, it won’t change anything — maybe they’ll do 30 laps instead of 15. It’s not the car but the engine.

“I’m joking, but why bother going to Australia? They can’t do half a Grand Prix and are slower than most.”

Red Bull and Renault’s work in the preseason was repeatedly marred by gremlins on both the new RB10 and Renault V-6 engine. While it’s never wise to count out a defending champion, let alone a four-time defending champion like Vettel, reliability figures to be the top priority for him and the team through the early stages of the season, which begins this weekend in Australia.

For his part, Vettel has conceded that Red Bull is not a favorite to win in Oz but has not given up completely.

“[Red Bull and I] have achieved a lot together and I know everyone is working flat out as normal,” he said last weekend.

Going back to Villeneuve, he believes that Mercedes has to be considered the early favorite for the 2014 title but saw the team’s driving tandem of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg as “without a spark.”

He also told the Italian papers that Ferrari remains in striking distance equipment-wise and that he thinks Kimi Raikkonen’s move back to the Scuderia – where he’ll go head-to-head with fellow ex-World Champion Fernando Alonso – will pay dividends.

“For the first time, I see [Raikkonen] working seriously. Maybe his year without pay was good for him,” he said.

“Alonso is a fighter from the first lap and so he might use too much fuel. It also depends on the attitude that he has…The Alonso of 2012 could win this year, but not the Alonso of 2013.”

The Aussie GP weekend officially begins with Thursday night’s opening practice at 9:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and NBC Sports Live Extra. Coverage starts at 9 p.m. ET on NBCSN with the Countdown to F1 season preview show.

A full weekend schedule can be found here.

F1 2017 driver review: Max Verstappen

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Max Verstappen

Team: Red Bull Racing
Car No.: 33
Races: 20
Wins: 2
Podiums (excluding wins): 2
Pole Positions: 0
Fastest Laps: 1
Points: 168
Laps Led: 133
Championship Position: 6th

Max Verstappen rise as a once-in-a-generation talent continued through the 2017 Formula 1 season, even if reliability issues meant we were made to wait for his best form to arrive.

Verstappen stole the show in a wet-dry Chinese Grand Prix by charging from 16th to seventh in the opening lap before ultimately finishing third for Red Bull, yet he would not grace the podium again until the Malaysian Grand Prix at the start of October.

A combination of power unit problems and on-track clashes saw Verstappen retire from seven of the 12 races in the intermittent period, with incidents in Spain and Austria being avoidable.

Perhaps most embarrassing of all was his stoppage due to a power unit failure in front of a grandstand swathed in orange at the Belgian Grand Prix, a race tens of thousands of Dutch fans had attended to cheer Verstappen on.

But when Verstappen got things right, it was – as he frequently quoted – simply, simply lovely. There was plenty left in the tank, as proven by his sheer domination of the races in Malaysia and Mexico as he took the second and third wins of his career.

Perhaps even more impressive was Verstappen’s victory over Red Bull teammate Daniel Ricciardo in the qualifying head-to-head battle this year, an area the Australian has traditionally been strong in. Verstappen outqualifed his teammate 13-7 – it wasn’t even close…

All in all, Verstappen once again proved that on his day, he is one of the finest talents to grace F1 in recent years. With the right car underneath him next year, a title fight is certainly possible and will be the target – but there is always room for improvement.

And that is the scary part: Verstappen is only going to get better and better.

Season High: Dominating in Malaysia after an early pass on Lewis Hamilton.

Season Low: Crashing out on Lap 1 in Austria.