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Tough start to 2017 made Verstappen ‘a stronger driver’

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The run of DNFs that peppered his 2017 Formula 1 season through Singapore could have left Max Verstappen deflated, but the 20-year-old Dutchman has instead used the agony to fuel his incredible run of form the last four races since.

Verstappen’s meteoric rise in the Formula 1 world occurred over his first two seasons, with his frequent giant-killing acts turned at either 17 or 18 years old with Scuderia Toro Rosso as a rookie in 2015, then Daniil Kvyat’s equally precipitous fall from grace at Red Bull providing the opportunity for him to move up to the senior team five races into 2016.

For the first time in his career, Verstappen faced adversity as he opened this season with the spate of mechanical woes and Renault (badged as TAG Heuer) power unit issues that ground him to a halt. But it didn’t defeat him.

“Until this year, every year in my career in this sport has been on the up, and this year in the beginning was a big struggle,” Verstappen told NBC Sports, speaking from the SEMA automotive show with Red Bull Racing official lubricant partner ExxonMobil.

“A lot of things were out of my hands! That was hard to accept, but at the end of the day it makes you a stronger driver.”

Since the Singapore smash that saw Verstappen collected and sandwiched in-between Ferrari teammates Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen, he’s gone on a tear over the month of October.

Two wins in Malaysia and Mexico opened and closed the month nicely, adding a close second in Japan and his almost-podium in Austin before getting a five-second time penalty that docked him to fourth place. Verstappen has scored 80 of his 148 points this season just in the last four races, and that amount is the most in the field over this period.

Verstappen’s race craft has also improved. Often in the wrong place at the wrong time last year and drawing ire from some of his competitors, he’s been a cleaner package this year and often quicker than teammate Daniel Ricciardo, particularly in qualifying. He holds a 12-6 advantage over his teammate on Saturdays this year.

“Yeah the beginning of the season was a bit difficult for me. But basically from Malaysia onwards we’ve had great results,” he said. “Also, the car really came alive. The performance upgrades I mentioned with the (Mobil) fuel and oil samples, we’ve made a big step forwards. We’re improving and learning for next year. Yeah, I’m trying to finish it off in a positive way for the last few races.

“Yeah in general I haven’t made big mistakes this year. As a driver you also improve and you learn from the difficulties as well in the sport.”

Verstappen’s first full year with Red Bull has come with positive elements as well. He had the offseason to further develop and grow with the Milton Keynes-based team, and he and Ricciardo have pushed each other all year.

“I jumped into a new team last year with Red Bull. I definitely think Daniel and I raised our game to each other and also pushed the team forward, so that was definitely positive,” he said.

“But of course I try to raise my game every single time I’m out and every single year I’m driving in F1. It’s a continuous process at the moment.”

Verstappen heads to Brazil this weekend looking to emulate or perhaps go better than his famous drive in the rain to third place here last year. He said altered weather will help Red Bull’s prospects.

“It’s always a great track to come back to. It’s a lot of fun to drive there. The fans are great; they’re very passionate about Formula 1. There’s a lot of history at that track as well. I’m always happy to go back,” he said.

“Hopefully the weather plays a part again because last year in the wet it was a very strong race for us. Hopefully we can do something similar to that.”

On the whole of course, the future looks promising for Verstappen, having re-upped with Red Bull for a further three years although the team’s engine selection beyond 2018 remains a major question mark.

F1 is his primary focus though with no formal plans to sample any other major races, yet, as Fernando Alonso has done with his 2017 Indianapolis 500 and 2018 Rolex 24 at Daytona races.

“To be honest I’m still so young and I want to succeed in Formula 1. Maybe in the future,” he said of other races. “You never know what is going to happen.

“I think it’s very difficult to comment on (the future). I believe in the team and the whole package together. But it’s a bit difficult to say if it’s the right move. You never really know. I have a good feeling about it.

“Yeah so far my career has been all a bit unexpected and very quick, but I’m very happy with the way it’s going.”

F1 Preview – 2018 French Grand Prix

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It’s hard to believe that the French Grand Prix, the oldest grand prix event on the planet, as it dates back to June of 1906, was ever removed from the Formula 1 calendar.

Alas, not since 2008 at Magny-Cours has Formula 1 held a race on French soil. Yet, that all changes this weekend, as Formula 1 visits the Circuit Paul Ricard for its first French race in a decade.

Formula 1 teams are not strangers to Paul Ricard. It has been a popular testing facility for years, as evidenced by the below photo from 2016, featuring Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari in a wet tire test.

LE CASTELLET, FRANCE – JANUARY 26: Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Scuderia Ferrari drives during wet weather tire testing at Circuit Paul Ricard on January 26, 2016 in Le Castellet, France. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

However, in terms of racing, Paul Ricard has also been absent from the calendar for quite a long time – the last time Formula 1 race at Paul Ricard was in 1990. Alain Prost won for Ferrari that day.

1990: Alain Prost of France punches the air in celebration after passing the chequered flag in his Scuderia Ferrari to win the French Grand Prix at the Paul Ricard circuit in Le Beausset, France. Mandatory Credit: Pascal Rondeau/Allsport

As such, despite being a known quantity as a testing facility, how a race weekend will shake out is anybody’s guess.

And what’s more, it marks the beginning of three consecutive race weekends – The French Grand Prix, The Austrian Grand Prix, and The British Grand Prix – which F1 teams and drivers are calling “the triple header.”

Talking points ahead of the French Grand Prix are below.

A Journey Into the Unknown?

Like all new venues, or resurrected and refurbished ones in this case, the Circuit Paul Ricard represents somewhat of an unknown, as there’s no available race data to make predictions off of.

And the 3.61-mile, 15-turn track itself represents a range of challenges. It has fast corners, like Turns 1 and 2 (S de la Verrerie), a technical section between Turns 3 and 7 (Virage de l’Hotel through the Mistral Straight Start), and a 1.1-mile straightaway in the Mistral Straight, though it is separated by a chicane (Turns 8 and 9).

Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff discussed the challenge of the circuit, highlighting the lack of data to build off of as well the tough three-race stretch ahead as especially challenging, in a preview on Formula 1’s website.

“France should be an interesting race. We don’t often get to race on a track where we have little to no historical data. It makes preparing for the weekend a bit trickier than usual, but that element of the unknown also adds to the challenge. The French Grand Prix marks the first race of the triple header, which will test all F1 teams to their limits, but also offers the chance to score a lot of points over the course of three weeks – which is precisely what we’re setting out to do,” said Wolff.

That element of the unknown makes Paul Ricard one of the biggest wildcards on the 2018 F1 calendar, and a championship shake up could be in the cards as a result.

Ferrari, Mercedes Continue Their Back and Forth

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – MARCH 25: Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF71H leads Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes WO9 on track during the Australian Formula One Grand Prix at Albert Park on March 25, 2018 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Ferrari and Mercedes have traded jabs throughout the 2018 season, with neither able to pull away from the other so far through seven races.

Sebastian Vettel enters the French Grand Prix with a one-point lead over Lewis Hamilton, and holds a slight edge in victories – three to Hamilton’s two – and comes off a thorough domination of the Canadian Grand Prix.

Vettel led every lap at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on his way to victory, while Valtteri Bottas had to carry the Mercedes flag in finishing second. Hamilton languished in fifth, a surprising and disappointing result given his previous success there.

The aforementioned Toto Wolff described it as a “wake up call,” though Mercedes will roll out a power unit upgrade this weekend – Ferrari and Renault, which also powers Red Bull Racing, rolled out upgrades of their own in Canada.

With four long straightaways present at Paul Ricard, power will certainly be at a premium, so such upgrades will be vital in giving Mercedes a chance to make amends after Canada’s disappointment.

Trio of French Drivers Look to Impress on Home Soil

It comes hardly as a surprise that the three French drivers – Romain Grosjean, Pierre Gasly, and Esteban Ocon – are keen to make an impression at their home race.

And all three could certainly use a boost. Gasly has only one finish inside the points (seventh in the Monaco Grand Prix) since his stellar fourth place effort in the Bahrain Grand Prix. Ocon is coming off back-to-back points finishes (sixth in Monaco, ninth in Canada), but he has only one other finish inside the points this year (tenth, in Bahrain). And Grosjean, despite showing the speed to finish in the points, is yet to score any in 2018.

As such, all three are hoping for big things in their home race this weekend.

“I want to get a good weekend, have some luck, get my first points of the season, and get a lot of support from the fans,” said Grosjean. “I think we should be in a nice place at Paul Ricard. I’m always looking forward to jumping back in the car. I just love driving an F1 car.”

Ocon, who has raced and won at Paul Ricard in the past, expects his prior experience could be a big help.

“I did race at Paul Ricard early in my career – it was actually where I had my first victory in single seaters in 2013 so I have some fantastic memories of the place,” Ocon described. “I hope we can add some more success this weekend. Having been there in the junior categories makes getting used to a new track in a Formula One car much easier. I think I will find my rhythm quite quickly.”

Gasly’s excitement level obviously matches that of his French compatriots, with the added bonus that the return coincides with his rookie F1 effort.

“For me it will be absolutely incredible that my first full season of Formula 1 coincides with the return of a French Grand Prix to the calendar for the first time in 10 years,” said Gasly. “That has to be a reason for me to be very happy and I’m really excited to be racing in my home country. I can tell it will be a special feeling going out on track and actually, I have spoken to Jean Alesi and Alain Prost about it and they both told me that it will feel really special and something that you really have to experience as a Frenchman racing in France.”

Qualifying for The French Grand Prix begins at 9:55 a.m. ET on Saturday, with Sunday’s race at 9:30 a.m. ET.

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