SEPANG, Malaysia (AP) The days of Max Verstappen being a teen sensation are officially over, as Formula One’s rising star celebrated his 20th birthday Saturday.
Verstappen was 18 when he became the youngest driver to win an F1 race and to qualify on the front row of the grid, earmarking him as a future great. But what the Dutchman wishes for most now is a competitive car after a hugely frustrating season so far.
Since finishing third at the Chinese Grand Prix in the second race, the Red Bull driver has been hit by engine problems and failed to finish in seven races.
“It’s not my year,” Verstappen said at this weekend’s Malaysian Grand Prix. “But in general you have to try to stay positive.”
He has made it clear to Red Bull that he wants significant improvement in 2018.
“I want to be able to fight for the championship,” said Verstappen, who qualified third for Sunday’s race. “Hopefully we are next year.”
The outspoken Verstappen has already clashed with senior drivers, including his own teammate Daniel Ricciardo.
Ricciardo publicly criticized Verstappen at the Hungarian GP just before the summer break after Verstappen swerved into him trying to overtake and knocked Ricciardo out of the race. Unusually for him, Verstappen subsequently apologized.
After being on the receiving end of reckless driving at the Singapore GP two weeks ago, Vertappen was quick to blame Sebastian Vettel after the German driver caused a first-turn crash that put both of them out.
But it was Verstappen’s aggressive, fearless – and perhaps even dangerous – approach that thrust him into the spotlight last season, almost as much as his superb driving. His father, Jos Verstappen, showed similar aggression in his F1 career, but not the same skill.
Verstappen won the Spanish GP on his Red Bull debut after being promoted from feeder team Toro Rosso and qualified second in Monaco. Then, at the Brazilian GP, shortly after turning 19, he produced a stunning performance.
Way down the field in 14th place, he carved his way through the field in driving rain to finish third in a jaw-dropping masterclass in overtaking. There was fist-pumping galore in the garage and team principal Christian Horner was in awe.
“They don’t get much better than that,” Horner said afterward. “I think what we witnessed today was something very special.”
Some compliment, seeing as Horner worked with Vettel on all four of his F1 titles.
Even Toto Wolff, the head of motorsport from Mercedes, spoke of Verstappen in glowing terms.
It was by far the best drive by anyone last year, and one of the finest in recent times, drawing comparisons with the late Ayrton Senna and seven-time F1 champion Michael Schumacher for its breathtaking audacity in the face of bad odds and even worse weather at Interlagos.
Some of his sweeping overtakes that day were breathtaking. Taking huge risks he made audacious passes on Valtteri Bottas – then with Williams – and Ricciardo, and took Vettel on the inside.
Observers were quick to talk about him as a multiple world champion in the making. It was incredible driving, and a throwback to his days in karting when he excelled in the rain by taking risks that others could only dream about.
Surprisingly, he does not consider Spain, Monaco or Brazil as his favorite career moment.
“My best memory is still from go-karting, when I won the world championship. I worked really hard with my dad because he was my engine tuner, my mechanic,” Verstappen said. “We have traveled the world together since I was four years old. I was 15 at the time in the highest category in go-karting.”
There has often been a downside to his audacity, however.
Veteran Kimi Raikkonen criticized him sternly on two occasions and Vettel delivered a barrage of expletives about his driving in Mexico.
But behind the steely veneer, there is a warmer side to Verstappen – who can be quick away from the wheel as well. When asked Saturday if he wanted an increase from the current 20-race calendar to an even more congested 24, he replied in deadpan style: “I think it’s better to get a divorce straight away … Not only for the drivers but also the mechanics.”
He also quipped that it was unwise to eat his birthday cake in Malaysia.
“Who wants to eat cake on such a warm day?” he said.
When Vettel said he did, Verstappen retorted “I’ll bring it to the garage.”